MEXICO CITY — Mexico has extradited a record number of criminal suspects to the United States this year, underscoring a dramatic improvement in cross-border law enforcement cooperation‚ and an urgent attempt to clean up the country’s crime-addled prisons.
Authorities reached the historic 100-person mark with the shipment north of 11 crime fugitives on Sunday, the eve of a visit by Mexican Attorney General Arturo Chavez to Washington. Previously, the most suspects sent from Mexico to the U.S. in a year was 95, the number extradited in 2008.
While it behooves Mexican justice officials to cooperate with their counterparts given a $1.4 billion, three-year aid package the U.S. has recently promised them, they stress their historic willingness to extradite criminals is more than a symbolic gesture.
Since he took office in December 2006, President Felipe Calderon has launched a nationwide crackdown against Mexico’s ubiquitous and powerful drug traffickers, sending thousands of troops into practically every area of the country.
That effort has been undermined, however, by widespread corruption plaguing both law enforcement and the country’s prisons, where bribed guards turn a blind eye as captured criminal kingpins continue to run their illegal operations behind bars.
In that context, getting the criminals out of the country is simply good law enforcement, said Leopoldo Velarde Ortiz, Mexico’s deputy attorney general in charge of extraditions.
“It isn’t a case of ‘You give me something and I’ll give you something,’ ” Velarde Ortiz told the Associated Press in a recent interview, referring to the promised U.S. crime aid. “There is no such negotiation. What there is, is a clear understanding that we cannot allow impunity, and that we have to stop crime.”
Velarde Ortiz noted that top-level drug suspects often bitterly fight extradition through drawn-out appeals because in U.S. penitentiaries “they would lose the possibility of operating their activities from inside prison.”
“We hope that someday soon we can end this vice that we still have in Mexico, but it still exists,” he said.
Mexican authorities have extradited 284 fugitives to the U.S. since Calderon became president‚ more than in the previous 15 years all together.
The increase is a sign the two countries have laid to rest a long history of disputes in which Mexico traditionally treated extradition requests from the U.S. as threats to its sovereignty.
In 1990, relations between the two countries reached a low point when, after authorities refused to extradite a Mexican doctor wanted in connection with the slaying of a U.S. drug agent, U.S.-paid bounty hunters captured the suspect in Mexico and brought him back to Los Angeles for trial.
Mexico demanded the doctor’s return and briefly suspended anti-drug cooperation with the United States as a result.
The Mexican government’s resistance began to ease in the late 1990s, signaled by the 1996 extradition of a Mexican singer convicted of child molestation. In 1999, a Mexican man was extradited to face murder charges in the killing of a Florida woman. By 2000, the number of Mexicans extradited to the U.S. in one year had increased to nine.
“Each year since 2001, Mexico has increased the number of defendants it extradites to the United States,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement Sunday. “By ensuring that alleged criminals are held accountable, we send a strong message that fleeing across the border does not mean you will escape justice.”
The 11 suspects extradited Sunday are wanted for murder, sex offenses, drug trafficking and money laundering in Texas, Washington, Florida, Indiana, California and Maryland.
“This is a great day for U.S.-Mexican partnership and cooperation. And obviously, a very bad day to be a bad guy,” U.S. Embassy charge d’affaires John Feeley said in a statement. “This action by the government of Mexico demonstrates it will not allow its country to be a refuge and hiding place for criminals.”
Authorities still refuse to extradite anyone who might face the death penalty, which is illegal in Mexico. U.S. prosecutors usually overcome that obstacle by promising to give the criminals life sentences instead.
Velarde Ortiz said there are still about 30 top-level suspects awaiting extradition to the U.S. Many are using any legal loophole they can find to stop themselves from being sent across the border.
“They do things to buy time ... and avoid being handed over to the United States,” he said, such as demanding that authorities prove their identity, a process made more difficult by the long list of aliases Mexican criminals use, not to mention the plastic surgery to which some turn in their desperation not to be found.
Extradition candidates still in Mexico include reputed drug lord Benjamin Arellano Felix, arrested in 2002, and former Mexican state Gov. Mario Villanueva, who was convicted of aiding drug traffickers. Both are wanted on drug charges in the U.S.
“What we are certain of is that ... they are all going to be handed over in extradition,” Velarde Ortiz said.
“Some sooner than others‚ but they are all going to be handed over.”