NO SOONER had Mexican security forces captured Joaquín “El Chapo” (Shorty) Guzmán, the country’s most wanted drug trafficker, in February 2014 than the United States began preparing the papers to request his extradition. He faced numerous charges north of the border and presented an obvious flight risk, having already escaped from prison in 2001.

However, Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s president, saw the incarceration of his trophy inmate as a matter of national dignity. He had already curbed collaboration between his justice officials and their American counterparts by halving the number of extraditions and requiring security dealings to pass through a “single window” at the interior ministry. When asked in January this year about extraditing Mr Guzmán (the model for the masks above), Jesús Murillo Karam, then the attorney-general, quipped that “Chapo must stay here to complete his sentence, and then I will extradite him. So in about 300 or 400 years.”

Just six months on, Mr Murillo had reason to rue his sarcasm. In an escape worthy of his legend, Mr Guzmán snuck out of prison through a mile-long tunnel. In September Mr Peña implicitly admitted that the Americans had a point by approving the extradition of 13 prisoners to the United States, including Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal, a bloodthirsty Texan drug lord.

Mexico’s U-turn is the most striking recent example of a Latin American government turning to outsiders to help enforce its laws. In 2012 Honduras ended its 30-year ban on extraditions. The next year El Salvador sent a citizen to the United States to face organised-crime charges for the first time. In April this year the UN’s independent prosecutor in Guatemala revealed a bribery scandal that led to the resignation and arrest of the president.

Extradition is widely seen as a double-edged sword, compensating for institutional weaknesses in the short run but perpetuating them as the years go on. In many countries courts and prisons are no match for drug lords who can bribe or intimidate judges and witnesses, and run their empires from jail cells using mobile phones. In 1991 the Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar was confined to a “jail” called the Cathedral, featuring a football field, jacuzzi, waterfall and prostitutes. Mr Guzmán was said to enjoy similar privileges during his first prison stint.

When capos are arrested but threaten to undermine their own trials or to endanger the public, extradition is the only way to eliminate the risk. Moreover, putting them in the hands of American interrogators dangling plea bargains can yield priceless intelligence. Colombia did not manage to stop gangs from systematically endangering the public until Álvaro Uribe, a right-wing president, outsourced a chunk of law enforcement: from 2002-14, he and Juan Manuel Santos, his successor, handed over nearly 2,000 inmates to the United States.

Even though new mafia leaders will inevitably replace departed ones, succession struggles mean they are likely to invest their blood and treasure for a time in internal squabbling rather than in co-ordinating narcotics shipments or kidnapping civilians. As William Rempel, an author on Colombian gangs, has put it, “extradition disorganises organised crime.”

No one is more aware of the threat that extradition poses to mobs than the mobs themselves. Before Escobar entered the Cathedral, he launched a successful terrorist campaign to get Colombia to ban extradition. The slogan of his group, “The Extraditable Ones”, was “We prefer a grave in Colombia to a prison in the United States.” (The government did not resume extraditions until 1997.) In 2010 Jamaican gang members battled with state security forces for four days hoping to prevent the arrest and extradition of their boss, Christopher “Dudus” Coke. By the time he surrendered, more than 70 people had died.

Yet extraditers pay a price. Extradition can create dependency by reducing pressure to clean up local justice systems. Although Colombia has broken up gangs, increased drug seizures and cut its murder rate, its courts and jails remain inefficient and corruptible by global standards. Because it now extradites even mob foot-soldiers, no one knows if it could jail a proper capo safely. Just 9% of murders there lead to a conviction.

In recent years American prosecutors have shifted their emphasis from punishment to intelligence, leading to lenient plea bargains and making extradition a less effective deterrent. Those who turn state’s evidence get off with lighter sentences than they might receive at home, and may get to keep more of their money. In May the head of the Dominican Republic’s anti-drug agency spoke wistfully of the Extraditable Ones’ motto, saying that for mobsters “it is better to be extradited to the United States than anything else.” Kingpins still tend to spend decades in American jails, but for junior gangsters extradition is increasingly seen as a soft option.

Outsourcing justice abroad can also undermine it at home. Since American prosecutors focus exclusively on crimes against the United States, extradited prisoners are not tried there for wrongdoing against their own countrymen. This prevents victims from seeing justice done, and the public from learning about dark chapters of local history. In 2008 Mr Uribe sent 14 members of right-wing paramilitary groups to the United States on drug charges just as Colombian investigators were examining their alleged human-rights violations and potential ties to the government. Many of their records were sealed, causing the president’s opponents to accuse him of using extradition as part of a cover-up.

To serve as more than a stopgap solution, extradition must be part of a broader strategy. That should include attacking mob finances, professionalising law enforcement, rooting out corruption and providing jobs for potential gang recruits. Colombia has made big strides in these areas, and Mexico is pursuing reform (see Bello). It is introducing adversarial trials, in which prosecutors build cases against defendants, which makes them less prone to rely on dubious confessions.

Such efforts can take years to bear fruit. According to Edgardo Buscaglia of Columbia University, Mexican judges make 61% more errors in organised-crime cases now than they did in 2003, owing either to honest mistakes or to corruption. Extradition is the second-best way to punish criminals, but for many Latin American countries it is still the only reliable one.