After consistent denials, the Mexican government acknowledged Friday that it had received a formal request from the United States for the extradition of notorious drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
Mexican Atty. Gen. Arely Gomez said her office received the request June 25, 16 days before Guzman made a brazen escape from Mexico's premier maximum-security Altiplano prison through a mile-long tunnel.
In the petition, the U.S. asks for Guzman's extradition based on an indictment in Federal District Court for Southern California, in San Diego.
Gomez said her office was analyzing the request when Guzman escaped on July 11. She made the revelation Thursday night during a closed-door session of Congress and her office later confirmed the information.
Alana Robinson, chief of the criminal division of the San Diego office, has said extradition requests were based on a 1996 indictment of Guzman and 22 others for importation into the U.S. of "huge quantities" of cocaine through tunnels as well as jets, railways and cars.
Robinson, in an interview this week with KPBS radio in San Diego, said the U.S. had been going through diplomatic channels since last year. "We were very hopeful that Chapo Guzman would come and [face] the charges here in San Diego so of course [his escape] is disappointing," she said.
The extradition issue is important because some U.S. officials have criticized Mexico for failing to send the billionaire head of the powerful Sinaloa cartel to the presumably more airtight prisons of the U.S.
But Mexico had argued that national sovereignty should prevail, saying its judiciary was capable of prosecuting and punishing the crime boss.
Moreover, Mexican officials had said, they never received a formal petition from the U.S., an assertion now shown to be inaccurate.
Guzman's escape has roiled Mexico. His was a daring but methodical flight through an elaborate tunnel whose complicated and presumably noisy construction somehow managed to elude detection by prison guards and electronic surveillance. On Friday, authorities who have been questioning more than 30 guards and prison officials arrested seven. The warden has been fired.
In 2001, Guzman escaped from another prison and remained on the loose for 13 years. He was recaptured last year in Mazatlan.
"Subsequent to the arrest of Guzman, the United States did submit a full extradition request to Mexico," a Department of Justice spokesman in Washington said Friday.
The 1996 San Diego grand jury indictment (which misspells Chapo as "Chappo") accused Guzman and his associates of criminal conspiracy to import cocaine with the intent to distribute as well as money laundering and other "criminal enterprise" charges.
Their vast operations worth billions of dollars thrived thanks in part to the bribing of Mexican authorities who protected their cocaine shipments, the indictment said, much of which was hidden in warehouses in El Monte, Calif., and used seemingly legitimate Mexican importers of jalapeno chiles and other foods as covers.
Guzman's name also appears in an indictment unsealed in San Diego in January that does not specifically target him but focuses on his partner in running the Sinaloa cartel, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, who remains a fugitive.
Separately, Guzman has also been indicted in Chicago and other U.S. cities.
Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong confirmed at a news conference after Gomez's acknowledgment that the June extradition "process was being followed." He denied news reports that Mexico had rejected U.S. help in the search for and recapture of Guzman.
"I want to tell you that is false," he said. "From the beginning, at the level of attorney general to attorney general, and with various organs of the U.S. government and the Mexican government, we have been working in a coordinated and joint manner."
Meanwhile, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who was in France on an official visit during the week's Guzman crisis — one of the most serious of his administration — returned home Friday.
Speaking to a gathering of industrial food processors, he repeated an earlier statement that he was "indignant" at Guzman's escape and had ordered a massive manhunt to find him and an investigation of how he got away.
Guzman's capture last year was one of this government's greatest victories, and Peña Nieto has come under withering criticism for remaining in France, where he visited Napoleon's tomb and Versailles, instead of returning home.
He said he understood the public's anger.
"The government has not evaded its responsibility," and the way to restore confidence, he said, is to recapture Guzman.
The government has gone full speed ahead with an operation to capture Guzman, including offering a reward of nearly $4 million. Newspapers are carrying full-page ads offering the bounty, along with radio and television spots. Police were boarding buses and handing out leaflets with information on the reward.
Times staff writers Wilkinson reported from Mexico City and Perry from San Diego. Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.