Pubdate: Sun, 20 Jan 2002
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2002 The New York Times Company
Section: International
Author: Tim Weiner


MEXICO CITY, Jan. 19 -- Mexico's Supreme Court has blocked the extradition 
of criminal suspects facing life sentences in the United States, 
confounding American 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 in New York on charges of smuggling 
200 tons of cocaine into the United States. Another is Augustin Vazquez 
Mendoza, who was on the F.B.I.'s list of the 10 most-wanted fugitives, 
charged with the 1994 murder of an undercover drug-enforcement officer in 

The Drug Enforcement Administration spent six years and more than $1 
million pursuing Mr. 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 Mr. Villanueva, a fugitive for two years 
before his arrest in May 2001, 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-to-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 penalities the defendants face.

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

Mr. 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 United States court since the arrest of Gen. Manuel Noriega, the 
dictator of Panama, in 1989. Mr. 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 cocaine 
shipment that passed through his state in the mid-1990's.

The charges against him filed in Federal 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 United States attorney's office in 
Manhattan might have to seek a new indictment on lesser charges, carrying a 
maximum 20-year sentence, against Mr. Villanueva, who is 55 and is 
imprisoned near Mexico City.

Mr. Vazquez, 31, is charged as the mastermind in the 1994 killing of 
Richard Fass, a United States Drug Enforcement Administration agent working 
under cover, in Glendale, Ariz.

The State of Arizona charges that Mr. Vazquez ordered that Mr. Fass be 
killed to recoup a 22-pound shipment of methamphetamine and the $160,000 
that Mr. Fass had brought along to pay for it. After six years as a 
fugitive, and an intensive national manhunt, he was arrested by Mexican 
authorities 18 months ago.

But this 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 Mr. 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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