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Chicago could be Second City in ‘El Chapo’ case

Chicago could take a back seat to New York in behind-the-scenes maneuvering in Washington to determine where notorious drug trafficker El Chapo would be prosecuted if extradited from Mexico.

Joaquin Guzman Loera, known as El Chapo, or “Shorty” in Spanish, faces federal charges in Chicago, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Miami, New Hampshire, San Diego and El Paso, Texas.

A New York television station reported Wednesday that El Chapo will be tried in Brooklyn if Mexican authorities send him to the United States. On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported Justice Department officials are “tentatively planning” to send him to the Big Apple.

But one high-level official in Washington told the Chicago Sun-Times the deal isn’t done.

“All the jurisdictions that have cases have made their play to DOJ,” the source said. “DOJ is evaluating the strength of the cases.”

Of all the cities where El Chapo is facing charges, the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago has produced the most results since bringing its case against the kingpin and his Sinaloa cartel associates in 2009.

Twins from Chicago — Pedro and Margarito Flores — have pleaded guilty to importing tons of El Chapo’s heroin and cocaine. They have also helped the feds in their probe of El Chapo’s multibillion dollar cartel, which shipped drugs here on trains, tractor-trailers, submarines, ships, 747 cargo jets and even submarines.

In one recorded phone call, El Chapo told Pedro Flores he would reduce the price on 20 kilos of heroin — evidence putting the kingpin at the center of a drug conspiracy linked to Chicago, according to prosecutors.

In addition, high-ranking Sinaloa operatives, including the son of El Chapo’s partner, Ismael Zambada Garcia, have been extradited to Chicago where they’re awaiting trial.

Despite the strength of the Chicago case, legal observers say the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn, where El Chapo was indicted in 2009, could have an advantage in being picked as the site of his trial.

A superseding Brooklyn indictment brought in 2014 said the Sinaloa cartel distributed about half a million kilos of cocaine into the United States between 2002 and 2014 through “a network of corrupt police and political contacts.”

The cartel’s “sicarios,” or hitmen, carried out “murders, assaults, kidnappings, assassinations and acts of torture,” said the indictment, which seeks to seize $14 billion from El Chapo.

No one has been arrested in the Brooklyn case, according to court records, but Attorney General Loretta Lynch once served as the U.S. attorney there. Because of her familiarity with the Brooklyn case, she might decide to hold the trial there.

But that all depends on whether Mexico coughs up El Chapo this time.

In January 2015, after El Chapo was captured, Mexico’s attorney general dug in his heels and refused to extradite him until he completed his sentence, which he said could take “300 or 400 years.”

In July, though, El Chapo famously escaped from a maximum-security Mexican prison through a tunnel.

While he was on the lam, the elusive kingpin met with actor Sean Penn in an interview for Rolling Stone magazine.

El Chapo was recaptured on Jan. 8 on a highway outside a coastal city in Sinaloa state.

Mexican officials say they have taken the first steps toward starting formal extradition proceedings to the United States.

Meanwhile, El Chapo’s lawyer has told Univision his client would agree to plead guilty to drug trafficking charges in the United States on the condition that he doesn’t go to a high-security prison.

But Andrew Porter, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago who supervised the case against El Chapo here, said it’s unlikely the kingpin will get his wish.

“I would be surprised if there were negotiations by the United States on the terms of extradition,” he said.

Asked if he would like the case to be tried in Chicago, Porter said, “Absolutely,” noting that he spent “hundreds of hours” on it.

Wherever the case is tried, though, U.S. attorney’s offices across the country will cooperate, said Porter, now a partner at the Schiff Harden law firm in Chicago.

“The Chicago case is very strong,” he said.

“But I would assume that if Chapo is extradited to the United States, that wherever the DOJ decides he would land, the districts would share their evidence,” Porter said.

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Cramer said Lynch is likely to select Chicago or New York as the venue for an El Chapo trial.

DOJ will evaluate each case and the prosecution team in each district, and the Chicago U.S. attorney’s office would get high marks, said Cramer, who now heads the Chicago office of Kroll Inc., a firm that does corporate investigations.

Chicago has handled high-profile drug cases and the evidence against El Chapo in Chicago would include testimony from co-defendants who already have cut deals with the government in the years since the indictment was handed up in 2009, Cramer said.

“Chicago has already handled a lot of cases against Guzman’s (co-defendants),” Cramer said. “So in that way, they’re starting on second base.”

Still, Cramer gave a slight edge to New York as a likely destination for El Chapo because Lynch was U.S. attorney in Brooklyn after the charges were brought against Guzman there.

“The fact she knows intimately the prosecutors and the case, I think it would be naïve to think it wouldn’t be a factor,” Cramer said. “I think she can divorce herself from her roots, but if you’re in Brooklyn, you’ve got to like your home-field advantage.”