- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2006

MEXICO CITY — Gone are the days when Americans on the lam could look to Mexico as a refuge. Extraditions and deportations have risen sharply as U.S. and Mexican law-enforcement officials work closely together to bring suspected criminals to justice.

Neither leading candidate in Mexico’s presidential election tomorrow is likely to change that.

Felipe Calderon, the conservative candidate for the ruling National Action Party, has promised to increase the flow of extraditions of drug traffickers to the United States.

Leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador — running about even with Mr. Calderon — hasn’t mentioned extraditions, but wants to work with U.S. authorities to combat drug traffickers, said his campaign manager, Jesus Ortega.

Such vows are a big change from the years following the brazen 1990 kidnapping by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents of a Mexican citizen suspected in the killing of undercover DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena. Mexican politicians were infuriated that the agents would make such a move inside Mexico, and it took years of careful work to restore good relations.

Mexico’s next president could face the toughest test yet of the countries’ cooperation: the pending extradition of Osiel Cardenas to face U.S. drug-trafficking charges.

The purported head of the feared Gulf Cartel, Cardenas is thought to be leading a turf war from his prison cell, commanding assassins to make brazen hits on police and rival traffickers as he awaits trial at the top-security La Palma prison west of Mexico City.

Cardenas’ capture was seen as a major victory for President Vicente Fox. But Cardenas’ Mexican charges must be resolved before he can be sent to face trial in the United States for organized crime, drug trafficking, money laundering and assaulting federal agents. An army of lawyers is fighting to stall his case as he awaits trial in Mexico.

“This is not a political bilateral problem, as it used to be in the past,” said Sigrid Arzt, director the Mexican think tank Democracy, Human Rights and Security. “Now there’s sort of an acceptance.”

Mexico extradited 41 suspected criminals to the United States last year, up from 34 in 2004, according to the Justice Department. The number has risen steadily since 2000, when 12 were extradited.

When the suspected criminals are U.S. citizens, both countries increasingly work together to deport them from Mexico. Last year, more than 190 people were expelled from Mexico, compared to 135 in 2004, according to the Justice Department.

Mexico can deny extradition if a suspect faces the death penalty — a punishment illegal in Mexico — and this is a source of frustration for prosecutors in the United States. To get around this, some local prosecutors have avoided pushing for death for suspects hiding in Mexico.

The process became more difficult in 2001 when Mexico’s Supreme Court declared life sentences to be cruel and unusual punishment, but extraditions have been back on track since the court overturned its ruling in November.

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