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Mexico’s will to extradite Rafael Caro Quintero questioned after judge issues definitive suspension

The block of Caro Quintero’s extradition will most likely be taken to the Supreme Court, giving the drug trafficker known as the “Narco of Narcos” more time to orchestrate a return to freedom.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — The definitive suspension of the extradition of notorious drug trafficker Rafael Caro Quintero on Tuesday aroused suspicions that Mexico has no plans to send the “Narco of Narcos” to the United States any time soon.

Wanted by the United States for his role in the 1985 murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, Caro Quintero was arrested on July 15 in the northern state of Sinaloa. Despite the United States’ request for a fast-tracked extradition, a district court judge granted Caro Quintero a temporary suspension a few days after his arrest. 

While Tuesday’s suspension is definitive, it will most likely be appealed and sent to higher courts.

“If the intention is to delay the extradition of Caro Quintero, this could go all the way to the Supreme Court, and that could take months or even a year or more,” said security specialist David Saucedo. “The legal route is very long and Mexican justice is very slow.”

The denial of the drug trafficker’s extradition is due to either corruption, political negotiations or judicial incompetence, Saucedo said.

“But whatever the reason, all three are terrible,” he said, adding that he does not see the political will to extradite Caro Quintero quickly.

Saucedo gave credence to theories that the Mexican government can use Caro Quintero’s extradition as leverage in the ongoing negotiations with the United States over alleged violations of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

The U.S. and Canada levied complaints against Mexico in July, claiming that its energy policies violate the USMCA and requesting dispute settlement consultations.

“In exchange for commercial advantages, the Mexican government would give concessions in the issue of security,” Saucedo said. “That is, exchange narcos for tomatoes, for permits, anything to do with the trade disagreement.”

Other infamous drug traffickers have seen swift extradition in the past. Former Gulf Cartel leader Juan García Ábrego was on his way to the U.S. hours after his arrest in 1996. 

Some past extraditions have also been seen as politically motivated, such as that of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in 2017.

“When the Mexican government has the will [to extradite], it does it,” said Saucedo. “When it doesn’t, it starts using all the tricks in the country’s judicial system. It appears that this government does not have the will to extradite Caro Quintero.”

Others did not rule out the idea of the Mexican government potentially using Caro Quintero to influence trade negotiations.

“There’s always that possibility that he could be used as a pawn,” said Mike Vigil, former DEA chief of international operations. 

Calling President Andrés Manuel López Obrador a “Mexican version of Donald Trump,” Vigil said the current administration “is not above using certain factors as tools to get what it wants.”

Whatever the reason for keeping Caro Quintero in Mexico, the concern for Vigil and others at the DEA is that it gives the former kingpin more opportunities to evade justice.

“It buys him time to bribe or intimidate a judge to release him,” Vigil said. “I guarantee you he’s already plotting to get out of jail and gain his freedom once again.”

Exemplified by the threat “plata o plomo” (“silver or lead”), the tactic of using intimidation where bribery doesn’t get the job done is a surefire way for drug traffickers to escape punishment in Mexico.

Holding onto Caro Quintero for leverage would be risky for the Mexican government. He is being held in the same prison from which Guzmán escaped in 2015, an incident that blighted the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

“López Obrador has to be concerned — unless he’s a complete sociopath — that if Caro Quintero engineers another escape or coerces or manipulates a judge to get out of prison again, there are going to be severe repercussions against Mexico, and probably international condemnation,” Vigil said. 

Caro Quintero was sent to prison in 1985 for his suspected role in the kidnapping, torture and murder of Camareno, but was released in 2013 after a state court discerned there had been “irregularities” in his trial and sentencing.

“The United Sates, especially the DEA, has tremendous skin in the game," Vigil said. "We have hunted this man down, captured him in Costa Rica at great expense and using a great amount of resources, and then we had to do the same capturing him recently. If he escapes a third time, we may never get our hands on him again.”

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