Thursday, January 8, 2004

Hundreds of Mexican citizens suspected of committing violent crimes in the United States have escaped justice by slipping across America’s porous southern border into Mexico, which refuses to extradite suspects facing the death penalty or life imprisonment.

Authorities have identified more than a dozen cases in which illegal aliens were accused of injuring or killing a U.S. law-enforcement officer but are believed to have fled to Mexico.

President Bush’s plan to grant legal status to millions of illegal immigrants employed in the United States raises questions about whether Mexico may agree to start extraditing suspects in all U.S. crimes.

“One of the things would be cooperation on extraditions,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank supporting tighter controls on immigration.



Mr. Bush heads Monday to the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, and a White House spokesman yesterday did not know whether the president plans to discuss extradition with Mexican President Vicente Fox. Mr. Fox has been seeking greater access to U.S. jobs for Mexicans and praised Mr. Bush’s immigration proposal Wednesday.

U.S. officials don’t have information on the number of violent criminals hiding in Mexico, but they believe the number is at least in the hundreds. District attorneys in most states don’t keep records of crimes committed by illegal aliens, even ones who have fled.

In California, officials estimate some 350 violent felons have fled south seeking protection of a Mexican Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty and life in prison without parole represent cruel and unusual punishment.

Sen. Diane Feinstein, California Democrat, introduced a Senate resolution last month calling on Mr. Bush to put pressure on Mexico to ensure suspects wanted for serious crimes can be extradited.

“Many of these people are living free and unpunished in Mexico,” she told reporters in California. “In some cases, we even know where they are.”

Perhaps the most high-profile case is the April 2002 murder of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff David March, who was shot execution-style during a traffic stop. The prime suspect is Mexican national Armando Garcia, said to have fled south after the murder.

“He’s believed to be somewhere in Mexico,” said Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

Mrs. Gibbons said the office has been working so far unsuccessfully with federal officials in the State and Justice departments to get Mr. Garcia and others returned from Mexico for trial.

“We feel that if a person commits a crime here, especially if they kill someone here, that they need to be brought back here to be brought to justice,” she said. “This is where the victims are.”

Mrs. Gibbons noted Mexico’s refusal to extradite criminals applies only to Mexican citizens. There have been cases, she said, of non-Mexican nationals who have been extradited and tried in the United States.

A recent case in Burbank, Calif., involved extradition of David Garcia, the top suspect in a November murder of Burbank police Officer Matthew Pavelka.

Mexican authorities arrested Mr. Garcia on Thanksgiving in the border city of Tijuana. As a U.S. citizen, he was extradited almost immediately to the United States, where he most likely will face the death penalty.

Mrs. Feinstein said a survey last year by the National Association of District Attorneys determined that in addition to the California cases, there are at least 60 others being held up nationwide by Mexico’s refusal to extradite.

Wrangling over extradition between U.S. and Mexican authorities is nothing new. Fifteen years passed before Rudolph Romero, the gunman who fled to Mexico after the 1988 killing of Phoenix police Officer Ken Collings, was caught, brought back for trial and sentenced.

Mexican authorities didn’t agree to look for Romero until 11 years after the killing, and when they caught him, he wasn’t returned to the United States until prosecutors in Phoenix guaranteed he wouldn’t face the death penalty.

U.S. authorities say that is an accepted part of the process of arresting fugitives in Mexico. It’s not exclusive to Mexico though.

“I know of no countries that have a no-death-penalty statute who will extradite on a death-penalty case without the assurance that we won’t seek the death penalty,” said Chris Dudley, chief inspector of international investigations for the U.S. Marshals Service.

However, Mr. Dudley, and others, including U.S. Marshal Geoff Shank, who heads investigations for the Northeast United States, said Mexico’s extradition policy “has not negatively affected our relationship with Mexico at all.”

Mr. Shank said the Marshals Service, which routinely hunts fugitives in foreign lands, gets along with Mexican police “better than anyone else.”

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