Drug lord Hector “El Guero” Palma, one of the founders of the Sinaloa cartel, returned to Mexico on Wednesday after serving almost a decade in a US prison.
US authorities handed over Palma in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, according to a Mexican federal official who requested anonymity due to a lack of authorization to speak publicly on the matter. The US embassy in Mexico confirmed Palma’s transfer in a statement.
Palma was arrested in June 1995 in western Mexico and later extradited to the US where he pleaded guilty to cocaine trafficking charges and was sentenced to 16 years in prison. The US embassy said Palma received early release for good behaviour.
Palma had been released from federal prison in California on Friday and put into the custody of US immigration officials.
The Mexican official did not know whether authorities in Mexico planned to bring new charges against Palma. If not, Palma would go free.
Mexico’s attorney general, Arely Gómez, said recently her office was reviewing whether there were any pending cases against Palma.
“We are in the process of carrying out an exhaustive review, checking all the prosecutors’ offices,” Gómez said. “In some cases, the statute of limitations has run out.”
Experts say Palma may well get back into drug trafficking, but would face a world that had changed since he helped Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman found the Sinaloa cartel in the early 1990s.
“He could try to get involved, but I don’t know how directly,” said Mexico City-based security analyst Alejandro Hope. Palma may have lost much of his money and his connections since he was arrested following a plane crash.
Once released, he may just disappear into Mexico’s hinterlands, just like the last major old-guard drug lord released, Rafael Caro Quintero, Hope said.
Caro Quintero hasn’t been seen since he was freed by apparent judicial misconduct in 2014. He is being sought on a re-arrest warrant. Given that he participated in the 1985 torture-slaying of US Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, Caro Quintero’s release was a major embarrassment for the Mexican government.
Palma’s return threatens to be another headache.
Even before he was extradited to the US in 2007, Palma had compiled an excellent track record of beating charges in Mexico. He was acquitted of robbery, kidnapping, murder, drug possession, robbery, kidnapping and nine counts of murder, or had the charges dismissed.
Palma, known as “El Guero” for his fair hair, served only a 2 1/2-year sentence for minor convictions including weapons violations in Mexico.
Palma’s return raises the possibility that some day, Guzman could be sent back. “If we extradite narcos to the United States, we should demand they not send them back,” read a cartoon in the newspaper La Jornada, depicting Palma’s return.
That is not just an idle jibe, said Mike Vigil, a former head of international operations for the DEA.
“There are a lot of individuals in Mexico, government officials, that are a little bit perplexed because they feel that if the United States wanted Palma, that he should have remained in prison here for a lot longer time ... And then you’re letting him go very quickly,” Vigil said.
“That is their concern, so that is going to throw a little bit of a bar into the extradition process between Mexico and the United States, which has been sporadic at best since the inception since the extradition treaty was signed between the two nations in 1978.”
Vigil said Palma was likely to cause trouble if he’s released. “In my opinion based on 13 years in Mexico ... Palma’s release will translate to more drugs in the US and more violence for Mexico.”
“The thing, the only business that ‘El Guero’ Palma understands is the drug trade, he’s an expert when it comes to trafficking and distributing drugs,” Vigil said.
And as Vigil noted, Palma “is extremely, extremely, extraordinarily vicious”.
Palma’s wife was seduced by a rival trafficker, who had her withdraw a purported $7m from Palma’s bank accounts, then beheaded her and sent her head to Palma. Venezuelan trafficker Rafael Clavel then allegedly took Palma’s two children, aged four and five, and threw them off a bridge.