MEXICO CITY – Mexico's Foreign Relations Department ruled Friday that the extradition of convicted drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to the United States can go forward.
The process can still be appealed, meaning it could be weeks, months or even longer before the Sinaloa cartel leader may be sent to the U.S., where he is wanted in multiple jurisdictions on charges related to drug trafficking and organized crime.
Guzman's lawyers now have 30 days to appeal the decision, and they have said they will.
The department said Friday in a statement that the United States has provided "adequate guarantees" that Guzman would not face the death penalty. Mexico has abolished capital punishment and does not extradite its citizens if they face possible execution.
Friday's ruling covered an extradition request from a Texas federal court related to charges of conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine and marijuana, money-laundering, arms possession and murder, and another extradition request from a federal court in California.
In all, Guzman faces charges from seven U.S. federal prosecutors including in Chicago, New York, Miami and San Diego.
Jose Refugio Rodriguez, one of Guzman's lawyers, said Friday the legal team planned to appeal the decision all the way to Mexico's Supreme Court, and possibly to international tribunals. Rodriguez told the Milenio television station that any extradition would take "at least one to three years."
"We expected it," Rodriguez said of the foreign relations department decision. "It is no surprise."
Rodriguez said Guzman knew about the ruling and said he was "calm."
"He knows and is conscious that the real battle against extradition is going to be waged through the constitutional appeals process," Rodriguez said.
Guzman was arrested in January after almost six months on the run following his escape from a maximum-security prison through a mile-long tunnel that opened to the floor of his shower.
He had already escaped once before in 2001 and spent more than a decade as one of the world's most wanted fugitives until he was recaptured in 2014.
Guzman's lawyers have so far waged a public-relations offensive, speaking to the press and even organizing protests; but as extradition draws nearer, the battle could turn violent, like the one Colombian drug lords waged extradition in the 1980s, said Mike Vigil, a former head of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Vigil said there is still the appeals process and he expects Guzman's attorneys to "try to move heaven and earth" to prevent him from being extradited, noting that drug lords fear extradition because it removes them from their criminal infrastructure.
"As long as they have access to their criminal infrastructure, they can intimidate or they can bribe, " Vigil said, "and I'm sure that right now, Chapo Guzman is going to be scrambling, trying to intimidate government officials, because he will fight it to the bitter end."
"That could lead to violence against the government, to intimidate violence against the judicial system, against individuals that will have something to do with his extradition, and if he can't get to them, he'll go after their families," Vigil said. "That's a very strong possibility that he will launch a frontal assault on the Mexican government, to try to intimidate the government to stop his extradition."
Prior to his latest capture, the drug lord met with Mexican actress Kate del Castillo and U.S. actor Sean Penn, who published an interview with the Guzman in Rolling Stone. Mexican authorities say the meeting in a remote area of Mexico helped them track down Guzman.
After the capture, authorities returned Guzman to the same Altiplano lockup where he had pulled off his brazen tunnel escape. They said they had reinforced the prison's security.
But earlier this month, authorities suddenly transferred Guzman to a prison on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, near the U.S. border, a move they said was due to work on improvements at Altiplano.
Rodriguez, the lawyer, is trying to get Guzman returned to Altiplano, arguing that the transfer hurt his defense because it's hundreds of miles away from the court handling the case.
He said a judge told them Guzman could be sent back to Altiplano if prison authorities determine the conditions are right.
Authorities have said Guzman can be held safely in Juarez where, like in Altiplano, he is under 24-hour surveillance through cameras in his cell and on the helmets of his guards.