Pubdate: Sun, 20 Jan 2002
Source: Seattle Times (WA)
Copyright: 2002 The Seattle Times Company
Author: Tim Weiner


MEXICO CITY - Mexico's Supreme Court has blocked the extradition of 
criminal suspects facing life sentences in the United States, 
confounding U.S. authorities seeking to convict defendants accused of 
being cocaine kingpins and killers.

The ruling, handed down in October but published in full last month, 
has stopped the extradition of more than 70 high-profile defendants. 
The decision is rooted in Mexico's constitution, which says that all 
people are capable of rehabilitation. A life sentence, the court 
ruled, flies in the face of that concept. The maximum prison sentence 
in Mexico is 40 years, although in certain cases a 60-year term may 
be imposed.

The prisoners for whom extradition has been barred include a former 
state governor, Mario Villanueva, indicted on charges of smuggling 
200 tons of cocaine into the U.S. Another is Augustin Vazquez 
Mendoza, who was on the FBI's list of the 10 most-wanted fugitives, 
charged with the 1994 slaying of an undercover drug-enforcement 
officer in Arizona.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spent six years and 
more than $1 million pursuing Vazquez before his arrest in July 2000. 
Now it appears that, in order to extradite him, Arizona may have to 
dismiss the murder case and try him on lesser charges, said law- 
enforcement officials in Mexico.

Similarly, the indictment against Villanueva, a fugitive for two 
years before his arrest in May, will have to be redrawn if he is ever 
to face justice in the United States, officials said. No easy way out 
of the legal situation exists, they said.

The court, in a 6-2 ruling, said a life sentence negated the Mexican 
constitution's provisions for rehabilitation. "It would be absurd to 
hope to rehabilitate the criminal if there were no chance of his 
returning to society," Justice Roman Palacios wrote for the majority.

Because the decision is based on Mexico's constitution, it cannot be 
changed by Congress or presidential order. Either the United States 
and Mexico must rewrite their extradition treaties - which could take 
years - or prosecutors must rethink the severity of the penalties the 
defendants face.

The decision was a bitter pill for U.S. law-enforcement officials, 
who cite the Villanueva and Vazquez cases as crucial for establishing 
a foundation of justice in matters involving the two countries.

Villanueva, the governor of the state of Quintana Roo from 1993 to 
1999, is the highest-ranking Latin American politician to face drug 
charges filed in a U.S. court since the arrest of Gen. Manuel 
Noriega, the dictator of Panama, in 1989. Villanueva stands accused 
of working with traffickers to import cocaine with a wholesale value 
of at least $2 billion into the United States, taking a $500,000 
bribe for every major shipment that passed through his state in the 

The charges against him filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan - 
two counts of running a "continuing criminal enterprise" - carry a 
maximum sentence of life in prison for each charge and a $4 million 
fine. Law-enforcement officials in Mexico said the U.S. attorney's 
office in Manhattan might have to seek a new indictment on lesser 
charges, carrying a maximum 20-year sentence, against Villanueva, who 
is 55 and is imprisoned near Mexico City.

Vazquez, 31, is charged as the mastermind in the 1994 killing of 
Richard Fass, a U.S. DEA agent working undercover, in Glendale, Ariz. 
The state of Arizona charges that Vazquez ordered that Fass be killed 
to recoup a 22-pound shipment of methamphetamine and the $160,000 
that Fass had brought along to pay for it. After six years as a 
fugitive, Vazquez was arrested by Mexican authorities 18 months ago.

But last week, a judge ruled that the recent Mexican Supreme Court 
decision barred his extradition. Law-enforcement officials in Mexico 
City say that leaves Arizona with two hard choices if it wants to try 
Vazquez: drop the murder charge or promise Mexico that he will 
receive a fixed sentence of 60 years or less if convicted.
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