Pubdate: Thu, 01 Dec 2005
Source: Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Copyright: 2005 Sun-Sentinel Company
Author: Sam Enriquez and Andrew Blankstein, LA Times Staff Writers


MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to allow the
extradition of criminal suspects who face life sentences abroad,
clearing the way for thousands of alleged killers and drug traffickers
to stand trial in the United States.

The court's 6-5 vote ends four years of wrangling between the U.S. and
Mexican governments over murder suspects who have been protected by
Mexico's ban on life sentences.

U.S. lawmakers this fall threatened to cut off millions of dollars in
aid to Mexico unless it turned over suspects in a number of high-
profile cases, including the fatal shootings of a Los Angeles County
sheriff's deputy and a Denver police detective.

Since 1978, Mexico has barred the extradition of its citizens accused
of crimes that carry the death penalty. The Mexican Supreme Court
extended the extradition ban in October 2001 to Mexicans facing life
in prison, a penalty the court said violated the country's
constitution as a cruel and unusual punishment.

Since then, U.S. law enforcement officials have complained that scores
of Mexicans who committed crimes in the U.S. escaped justice by
crossing the border and going home. In some cases, U.S. prosecutors
have agreed to pursue reduced criminal charges, with lighter
sentences, to persuade Mexican authorities to hand over suspects.

"We estimate there are 3,000 individuals who committed murders in the
United States, several hundred in Los Angeles County, and fled to
Mexico," said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley.

The ruling "is going to have a major impact, especially on the border
states, but also as far north as Washington state," he said. "This
means murderers who fled our country can be extradited and face the
appropriate penalties. This is a big deal."

The court's reversal began in September during a review of a proposed
law in the state of Chihuahua creating consecutive sentences for
kidnapping and murder.

Mexican lawmakers hoped the stiffer sentences -- which could stretch
to more than 100 years -- would stem the homicide epidemic in Ciudad
Juarez and other border cities.

A court majority approved the law Sept. 6. Justice Juan Diaz Romero
said the ruling did not explicitly allow life sentences, but it
amounted to the same thing and thus opened the door to changes in
extradition policy.

Justices deliberated on the issue Tuesday, and after a three-hour
discussion were deadlocked.

"I understand the underlying problem is the extradition of criminals
to the United States," Justice Genaro David Gongora Pimentel said. But
he voted against extradition because of his continuing opposition to
life sentences.

In the afternoon, Supreme Court President Mariano Azuela Guitron was
asked to break the tie, and he voted in favor of allowing the

"As long as there's no decision on this issue, there's legal
insecurity. The moment a decision is made, we return to legal
security," he said, according to a transcript of the

Teri March, widow of slain Los Angeles Sheriff's Deputy David March,
called the decision "some of the best news I've heard in the last 3
1/2 years.

"It's a step in the right direction for our family, and for other
families who find themselves in this situation -- where killers flee
to Mexico and avoid punishment."

Her husband had pulled over Armando Garcia in Irwindale during a
routine traffic stop in April 2002. A minute later, authorities
allege, Garcia fatally shot March with a 9-millimeter semiautomatic

Garcia was in the United States illegally and had been convicted of
dealing drugs. He was wanted by Baldwin Park police on suspicion of
attempted murder when he was stopped by March. Garcia had told friends
that he would shoot the first cop who stopped him.

Teri March was among a growing number of Americans who have been
lobbying the U.S. and Mexican governments to remove the roadblocks to

This month, Congress approved legislation denying some foreign aid to
countries that block extraditions. March's slaying was mentioned
during debate this summer.

"Let's be clear," Rep. Gary Miller (R-Diamond Bar) told colleagues on
the House floor, "the Mexican government is harboring a cop killer."

Prosecutors in Colorado had been negotiating for months with Mexican
officials for the extradition of Raul Gomez-Garcia, a Mexican
suspected of fatally shooting Denver police Det. Donald Young in May.

They reached an agreement on Thanksgiving, with prosecutors reducing
the charge to second-degree murder -- which would not carry a sentence
of life in prison -- in exchange for Gomez-Garcia returning to stand
trial. It was unclear whether Tuesday's ruling would affect the case.

The ruling also means that some of Mexico's biggest drug traffickers
are now vulnerable to extradition, including Osiel Cardenas, the
imprisoned head of the so-called Gulf cartel, as well as his ally
Benjamin Arellano Felix, who has led the Tijuana cartel. Prosecutors
also are seeking Jose de Jesus Amezcua, known as the king of
amphetamines, and Miguel Angel Caro Quintero of the Sonora cartel.

Mexico had made some exceptions to its extradition ban.

In June, authorities returned Ricardo Rodriguez, who had fled to
Mexico after he allegedly fired an assault rifle at two Los Angeles
County sheriff's deputies during a chase last year. He faces a maximum
prison term of two life sentences.

And Mexican law allowed U.S. prosecutors to present cases --
translated into Spanish -- for prosecutors in Mexico to pursue. But
those were expensive and difficult trials. Until the Supreme Court's
ruling, the maximum sentence was 60 years.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said Tuesday that he believed the
Mexican people would applaud the court's decision.

"They do not appreciate the Supreme Court harboring murderers in their
midst," Baca said. "It's a win for the Mexican people. It's a win for
the American people."
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