Editorial: If caught, ‘El Chapo’ should be tried in U.S.

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Federal Police stand guard near a half-built house near the Altiplano maximum security prison in Almoloya, west of Mexico City, Monday. A widespread manhunt that included highway checkpoints, stepped up border security and closure of an international airport failed to turn up any trace of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman by Monday, more than 24 hours after he escaped through an underground tunnel leading from his Altiplano prison cell’s shower area. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

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Look no farther than the shooting death of 7-year-old Amari Brown to understand how the prison escape Saturday night of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is bad news for Chicago.

Amari was gunned down accidentally on July 4 in a gang dispute, it is believed, fueled by illegal drugs. Where did those drugs come from? Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel is the major source of the drugs that come to Chicago.

The cartel also uses Chicago as a distribution center for sales elsewhere in the country. Back in 2009, then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said Sinaloa brought nearly $6 billion worth of illegal drugs narcotics mostly to the Chicago area from 1990 to 2008. In 2010, the Justice Department said the Chicago area was the top U.S. destination for heroin and No. 2 for cocaine and marijuana.

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An escape that helps Guzman and Sinaloa can only serve to deepen the drug-fueled gang wars in Chicago. It’s the cartel at the top that leads to the violence on the street.

Guzman, long known as the No. 1 supplier of illegal drugs to the United States, had already bribed his way out previously from a Mexican prison. After he was recaptured last year, U.S. officials saidthey would try to extradite him, although it’s not clear whether they ever filed an official request.

If the widespread manhunt now under way tracks Guzman down, the United States must insist that he be held in an American prison. If he can saunter so easily out of Mexico’s most secure prison — a mile-long tunnel leading to his prison shower had ventilation, lighting and even a motorcycle — we can never feel certain Mexico can hold him, should he be re-arrested.

In an American maximum-security prison, he’d be kept in a cell, taken out only under heavy guard and watched closely. Compare that with Guzman’s life of leisure in Puente Grande, his first maximum-security prison, where he reportedly lolled around watching films, eating gourmet cuisine, sipping fine wine, importing prostitutes and even enjoying parties at Christmastime before he escaped in 2001.

In Mexico, officials knew that Sinaloa had a history of digging tunnels. Yet no one noticed someone digging one right under the Altiplano prison, from which no one had even before escaped? The vaunted security — the surrounding air space is a no-fly zone, airwaves are restricted to prevent cell phone communications — proved worthless. How many prison guards and even higher officials are beholden to El Chapo?

Mexico prefers to try drug suspects itself, but it is simply incapable of holding dangerous drug lords, who have tentacles everywhere in their home country, and great leverage through rewards and threats. Mexican officials had promised Guzman could never escape, but his departure couldn’t have been much easier if he had called a limo to pick him up at the front gate.

Guzman also has been charged with serious crimes in the United States, which means if he is caught again, he can be brought here and put on trial. He has multiple federal drug trafficking indictments on his rap sheet, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration put him on its most-wanted list. So did the Chicago Crime Commission.

On Monday, the White House said U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch had spoken with Mexico’s attorney general the day after the escape and that the United States is offering Mexico its full support.

That’s not enough. We should also be insisting we’re first in line to try him should he be rearrested. That wouldn’t stop the flow of illegal drugs to Chicago. But it would be a start.

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