Pablo Escobar's biggest fear was extradition to the US

Top hitman reveals the two things that spook drug lords like Escobar and Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán

Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, also known as 'Popeye', was Pablo Escobar's Chief assassin.  Photo: El Proceso

Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, also known as 'Popeye', was Pablo Escobar's Chief assassin. Photo: El Proceso

When drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán was spirited from a high-security prison in central Mexico to one just miles from the US border under the cover of darkness on May 7, many saw it as a step toward the fate that terrifies drug traffickers: extradition to the US.

According to Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez — Pablo Escobar's top hitman — extradition to the US is the fate that drug barons like Escobar and Guzmán fear most.In the jails and prisons of Latin America, kingpins often exercise a great deal of influence.

While detained at Puente Grande Federal Prison from 1993 to 2001, for example, Guzmán was allowed to host his family for a vacation inside the prison grounds, held multiple parties for friends, and had female inmates brought to the all-male jail for his enjoyment, Mexican journalist Anabel Hernandez says.

The US legal and prison systems, however, strip drug barons of their power.

Extradition threatens powerful narcos like Escobar and Guzmán because they would be cut off from their cartel business, their family, and corrupt authorities willing to accept bribes. In the words of Escobar, "better a grave in Colombia than a cell in the United States."

In an interview with Univision, Velásquez elaborated on another thing that scared traffickers: "wanted" posters. As one of the few surviving members of Escobar's Medellín cartel, Vásquez, commonly referred to as "Popeye," claimed that the "king of cocaine" once told him, "Popeye, we're dead," after seeing his face on a "wanted" poster.

"The 'wanted' poster is very dangerous for us as bandits because you go to a store to buy a drink and there's your photo. Someone sees it on TV and knows you are worth US$10 million," Popeye said.

For Guzmán, the years long "wanted poster" portion of his criminal career, which included two brazen prison escapes, appears to have given way to the extradition portion. Mexican officials dismissed the possibility of his extradition to the US after Guzmán was captured in 2014, but the government seemed to be changing its mind before his breakout last July.

The extradition of Guzmán to the US was already in the works, according to the Mexican attorney general's office — Mexico received the extradition request on June 25, but Guzmán slipped out of prison through a mile-long tunnel two weeks later.

Now, four months after Guzmán was reapprehended in January, he sits in a jail outside Ciudad Juarez, miles from El Paso, Texas. A Mexican judge recently signed off on the legal proceedings involved in the kingpin's extradition, but diplomatic and political hurdles remain.

It seems unlikely that Guzmán will arrive on US territory anytime soon, but the move does put him within surveillance range of US intelligence assets in Texas, which could help Mexico prevent or respond to an escape attempt.

And, as Nathan P. Jones of Rice University's Baker Institute has noted, the new location puts Guzmán near El Paso, where he faces indictment and where he can be moved quickly if the Mexican government decides to expedite his extradition.

Popeye was Escobar's chief assassin during the final years of the drug lord's life, and he was responsible for more than 300 assassinations and for organizing another 3,000 homicides. He spent 23 years in six different Colombian prisons after he turned himself in to authorities in 1992. He was released in August 2014.

Popeye estimates that Guzmán's 2015 escape could have cost at least US$50 million in bribes to authorities and prison workers since "at [Altiplano] they have sensors and cameras to prevent tunnels," according to his interview with Univision, though other sources put that number much lower.

But no amount of money is likely to win Guzmán favor in a US prison, something the Sinaloa cartel kingpin most likely knows all too well.