The capture of drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman marks a significant turning point in cooperation between U.S. and Mexican counternarcotics agencies. Both nations seem to recognize that the extreme violence and multinational reach of Mexico's cartels make them more than mere law enforcement challenges. They are national security threats.
Years of distrust blocked closer cooperation, fueled by American concerns that Mexican law enforcers could not be trusted with classified intelligence and that corrupt officials would warn drug lords of impending raids.
Mexico, likewise, has been concerned about protecting its sovereignty. Allowing U.S. direct intervention can come at a heavy price, as Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras and Chile can attest.
The capture of Guzman, head of the Sinaloa cartel, helps put those old worries to rest. The Sinaloa cartel is Mexico's largest, accounting for many of the bloody turf battles that have led to nearly 80,000 deaths since 2006.
Despite Guzman's arrest, the battle is far from over. A lieutenant always stands ready to fill the power vacuum, and all too often, the replacement is someone even more ruthless than the fallen kingpin.
Guzman was captured before, in 1993, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He escaped and had been at large since 2001. Another drug kingpin, Rafael Caro Quintero, walked free from a federal prison in August because a judge hastily ordered his release on technical grounds.
Those two episodes underscore why Mexico's judiciary and prison system cannot reliably dispense corruption-free justice. It's all too easy for cartel kingpins to purchase special treatment, escape or walk free. They can even continue running their empires from inside prison. Until Mexico reforms its penal and judiciary systems, thugs like Guzman can continue to bend the system to their will.
That's why the United States should vigorously press for Guzman's extradition at the earliest possible moment. GOP Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, agrees.
"I think the concern is the fact that he's already broken out of prison once," the Austin congressman told ABC's "This Week." Extradition would ensure U.S.-Mexico cooperation wasn't for naught.
Grand juries in at least seven states have issued indictments against Guzman for drug trafficking, racketeering and being an accessory to murder.
The threat of U.S. capital punishment could pose a big impediment to extradition since Mexican law prohibits death sentences. But it didn't stand in the way of other extraditions, such as one in 2011 of Tijuana cartel leader Benjamin Arellano Felix and, in 2012, of Jesus Zambada, a chief deputy of Guzman.
The promise of a long life behind bars seems more than enough to assuage Mexican death-penalty concerns while ensuring the justice that both countries want to see dispensed swiftly.