Seven federal courthouses have open cases against drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, but it’s unclear which one will have the chance to try him.
Guzman has been accused of running drugs from California to the East Coast, and faces a slew of money laundering and federal conspiracy charges in the U.S. since at least 1996. But he’s never faced justice in America.
That will likely change. But as Mexico tries to figure out if and when Guzman will be extradited, the Justice Department is trying to determine which U.S. federal courthouse will put him on trial first.
Guzman, recaptured last week after six months on the run, faces murder and drug trafficking-charges in the Southern District of California, the Northern District of Illinois, the Eastern District of New York, the Western District of Texas, the Southern District of New York, the U.S. District of New Hampshire and the Southern District of Florida, in Miami.
Several district attorney’s offices with cases against Guzman declined to comment Fox News Latino. But experts on the issue say there's often politicking involved in these decisions, and deference is sometimes paid to the office that filed its case first.
But others disagree – saying that the newer cases would get the first priority because the evidence in the first ones may have grown stale as many investigators and lawyers on the case may have moved on.
Whichever court tries him, one thing is certain – the Justice Department will make sure they have airtight evidence and be certain he stays behind bars for the rest of his life. In order for Mexico to agree to extradite “El Chapo,” the U.S. must agree to not to execute him after a conviction, so the stiffest sentence he could get is multiple life sentences.
“The Department of Justice has assessed all the prosecutorial venues and I’m sure has them prioritized in order of which one will prosecute first,” said Michael A. Braun, a former DEA Assistant Administrator and Chief of Operations now serving as a Managing Partner at SGI Global, a security consulting firm. “All of the indictments are very strong with compelling evidence that will easily lead to convictions on all counts and lifelong sentencing.”
“El Chapo”’s oldest case is in the Southern District of California, which brought federal charges against him in 1996 for allegedly running a cocaine ring stretching from Southern California to the East Coast. The San Diego case was the one the Justice Department used when it tried to extradite him last year before he escaped from prison, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The most recent case was in the Western District of Texas in El Paso, where he faces charges for money laundering and conspiracy to commit murder.
But other experts say the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn may be a top choice because Attorney General Loretta Lynch – which would make the final decision on who will try “El Chapo” Guzman – was the U.S. attorney in that office when the charges were filed against him in 2009.
“It will be interesting to see if this has an influence,” Braun said. “But I doubt it.”
Legal experts say another factor in choosing which court will try him will be which one has the strongest evidence against him.
"The overwhelmingly most important factor is which office has the best case against him and the most likelihood of conviction," said Marcos Jimenez, a former U.S. attorney in Miami who oversaw drug cases involving extradited defendants. ”I would think that they would put those things together and pick the office that has both the best case and the best team of prosecutors available."
Regardless of where El Chapo ends up, it's safe to expect jockeying among the different offices.
Prosecutors in San Diego, for instance, can point to their experience in going after the Arellano Felix cartel. That group's former leader, Benjamin Arellano Felix, was extradited from Mexico in 2011 and was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison in 2012.
In Chicago, Guzman has been dubbed "Public Enemy No. 1" and prosecutors there say the city is a major hub for the Sinaloa drug cartel, while the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn may argue that it has a vast experience in narcotics cases.
It could be that several districts get a chance to try him. If he appeals a conviction, or one of them is somehow overturned, he could be moved to another jurisdiction.
As the court jostling begins, one certainty is that the Justice Department will make sure Guzman never tastes freedom again.
“Bottom line: If extradited to the United States,” Braun said, “Chapo Guzman will undoubtedly die while incarcerated in SuperMax, FCI Florence, Colorado.”
The Associated Press and Fox News’ Courtney Stein Vargas contributed to this report.