MEXICO CITY (AP) — A judge in Mexico ordered drug lord Hector “El Güero” Palma held for 40 more days in non-prison custody pending investigation Wednesday, staving off at least temporarily what would have been international embarrassment had he walked free.
The attorney general’s office said the judge had granted an order to hold Palma at a prosecutors' detention facility while he is investigated on drug and organized crime charges. Mexico has a poor track record in winning organized-crime convictions, and Palma was already acquitted last week on one such count.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said earlier this week that Palma’s release could affect Mexico’s reputation, and the measure announced Wednesday appeared to be a last-ditch attempt to avoid that.
Almost eight years ago, another drug lord, Rafael Caro Quintero walked out of a Mexican prison late at night with an improperly ordered release. He has since returned to drug trafficking and unleashed bloody turf battles in northern Mexico border state of Sonora.
The issue is a sensitive one: Mexico's government is beginning to earn a reputation as one that, under López Obrador, has released more drug lords than it has captured, part of the president’s stated policy of no longer detaining drug lords to avoid violence.
On Saturday, Palma was hours away from freedom after a judge’s secretary sent a letter — on a Saturday and national holiday — saying the government had to release him immediately after he was acquitted on organized crime charges.
López Obrador acknowledged Wednesday that he overrode the initial advice of his own advisers who suggested there was nothing more the government could do to keep him in custody.
“When they told me (about the release order), the first thing I said is wait, look for some legal mechanism,” López Obrador said of the Saturday conversation., in which he quoted aides as saying “'No, nothing can be done, it is an order by a judge, we can't disobey the order.'"
“Look for it,” the president said he replied, “because this is not just a matter of a judge or the judicial branch or the government, this is a matter of national interest. The Mexican government cannot be denigrated, weakened.”
On Monday, López Obrador said “imagine the suspicion, the jokes, the memes” if Palma were released. López Obrador said that over the weekend, prosecutors had won a 48-hour extension to look for any outstanding warrants to justify holding him, a deadline that ran out on Tuesday.
Known as “El Güero,” or “Blondie,” Palma was a founder and leader of the Sinaloa cartel, along with imprisoned drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. He and Guzman drew unwanted attention in 1993, when a Roman Catholic cardinal was killed in a shootout between Sinaloa gunmen and the rival Arellano Félix gang at an airport in Guadalajara. The gunmen apparently mistook the cardinal’s luxury car for that of a rival.
Palma was arrested in Mexico in 1995, and served 12 years in Mexico on bribery and weapons charges before he was extradited to the United States in 2007, where he served 9 years of a 16-year sentence for cocaine trafficking, before being sent back to Mexico, where he was held for trial on the charges that he was acquitted of last week.
Caro Quintero walked free while serving a 40-year sentence for the torture-murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985, and has since apparently resumed his role as violent drug trafficker.
Caro Quintero is at the top of the DEA’s most wanted list, with a $20 million reward for his capture.