On the evening of January 19, the day before Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, the Mexican government extradited the infamous Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, also called “Shorty,” to the United States to face a 17-count indictment in a Brooklyn courtroom. The extradition was the culmination of lengthy legal proceedings and diplomatic repartee between the two countries, thus, although the timing and abruptness surprised many Mexico watchers, the outcome was not shocking in and of itself. Timing aside, however, it represents an opportunity for the two neighbors to strengthen their security relationship despite a backdrop of increasing tensions.

The head of the Sinaloa Cartel and one of the most wanted men in the world, Guzmán escaped from a maximum security prison in 2001 and spent more than a decade successfully evading the authorities while amassing a fortune that would land him a spot on Forbes list of billionaires. He was recaptured in 2014 in Mazatlán, and U.S. authorities urged Mexico to extradite him north, where at least six U.S. federal jurisdictions have returned indictments against him. However, no extradition was forthcoming, and Guzmán escaped prison once more in July 2015 through an elaborate tunnel that led to his cell from the outside. When he was finally caught in January 2016, Mexican authorities appeared to accept that the only way to prevent him from escaping a third time or from running his criminal organization from prison was to hand him over to the United States. A year later, diplomatic negotiations and the Mexican legal process seemed to have stalled—that is, until Guzmán suddenly found himself on a plane with hours to go before the Trump inauguration. Mexico’s deputy attorney general has denied that the extradition was related to the change in administration or to Mexico’s deepening concerns about the bilateral relationship, but the timing suggests otherwise. 

Now Guzmán will stand trial in Brooklyn on a host of U.S. charges related to drug trafficking, money laundering, murder, torture, and intimidation stemming from his time as the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. His extradition is an important step for justice and toward destroying the powerful Sinaloa cartel, but it may be equally important for another reason. At this critical time in Mexican-U.S. relations, his extradition appears to signal Mexico’s continuing commitment to bilateral security cooperation, regardless of the changed political climate in the United States. 

The extradition of a major figure such as Guzmán provides a chance for the two countries to work together toward a common security goal, but only if both sides stress the positives and resist the temptation to come at each other swinging.  This is particularly true for Mexico, whose pride has been bruised by Trump’s campaign rhetoric about the character of illegal migrants in the United States, discussion of jettisoning NAFTA, and an executive order authorizing the construction of a border wall. As a result, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has now backed out of a scheduled meeting with Trump in Washington, D.C.  But despite public statements on both sides of the border, Mexico’s willingness to extradite its highest profile criminal kingpin should be viewed as a sign that the Peña Nieto administration is pragmatic and remains willing to work together with the Trump administration to pursue mutual security objectives. Meanwhile, the White House should acknowledge this gesture and use it as an opportunity to begin a broader dialogue about our shared security interests, and as a chance to ensure this important relationship does not deteriorate further.

A beach in Brownsville, Texas, near the U.S.-Mexican border, March 2013.

Working together to dismantle the organized criminal groups that wreak havoc on both sides of the border is a good place to start. Successfully targeting organized crime enhances regional security by strengthening the rule of law, lowering rates of violence and intimidation, and decreasing corruption. However, it also has very real implications for border security and immigration, which are of great importance to both neighbors. Indeed, Mexico and the United States face increasingly similar security and immigration challenges, which are aggravated by the presence of organized crime.

The number of Mexican migrants illegally entering the United States has decreased in recent years, but the number of Central American migrants has increased dramatically during the same period, creating security concerns on Mexico’s porous southern border with Guatemala and Belize. In fact, during two out of the past three years, the United States Border Patrol apprehended more non-Mexicans (primarily from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) than Mexican nationals. Many Central American migrants state that they are fleeing gang and organized crime—related violence in their home countries, yet those who head north often pay organized criminal groups in Mexico to help them cross into the United States. As a result, targeting the criminals who are contributing to and profiting from illegal migration directly benefits border security and is strongly aligned with both U.S. and Mexican interests. Such activities alone will not suffice, but there are other options that the United States and Mexico could consider to help secure their respective borders, such as a Safe Third Country agreement or a temporary work visa program based on an actual analysis of workers needed.

Mexico and the United States share a strong interest in destroying the powerful organized criminal groups that operate in the region, and the two should work together to ensure both regional and border security. From a long-term security standpoint, this type of cooperation will be more effective than building a wall that stretches from Brownsville to San Diego will be. However, cooperation will not happen automatically, and it will require coordinated enforcement efforts, information sharing, and an overall level of collaboration that does not currently exist.

The extradition of Guzmán is a positive first step, but dismantling the Sinaloa Cartel and other organized criminal networks based in Mexico and operating across the region will require the two nations to quickly overcome current tensions and work together as partners. Despite the differences currently on display, Mexican and U.S. leadership must find a way to work together, as law enforcement and security cooperation will make both nations more secure.

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  • ROBERT C. BONNER is the former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. GILLIAN HORTON is General Counsel at Sentinel Strategy and Policy Consulting, and is an expert on border security and organized crime in Mexico. 
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