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 Sunday 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 the 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 1985 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 alleged head of the feared Gulf Cartel, Cardenas is believed 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's capture was seen as a major victory for President Vicente Fox. But his 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.
Many countries remain reluctant to facilitate extraditions, which can challenge notions of national pride and sovereignty. Some lack extradition treaties; others refuse to expose their citizens to a potential death penalty or life in prison in the U.S. when similar crimes carry lesser penalties in their own countries.
Mexico and Colombia are the major exceptions — U.S. extraditions from both countries have become almost routine.
"This is not a political bilateral problem, as it used to be in the past," Sigrid Arzt, director the Mexican think tank Democracy, Human Rights and Security, said of Mexico. "Now there's sort of an acceptance."
Calderon wants to "deepen and widen" U.S. ties and advocates extraditing more drug lords, said his international affairs adviser, Arturo Sarukhan.
He will continue "the very successful level of intelligence and information exchange that has characterized law enforcement efforts between Mexico and the United States during the Fox administration," Sarukhan said.
Heading for the border to avoid prosecution is a long tradition for all types of criminals. So many suspects have fled to Mexico that local prosecutors in the United States often don't request help from the Justice Department unless they are suspected killers, drug traffickers or rapists.
Mexico extradited 41 suspected criminals to the U.S. last year, up from 34 in 2004, according to 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 and avoid the lengthy extradition process. Last year, more than 190 people were expelled from Mexico, compared to 135 the year before, according to the Justice Department.
"It's easier to get someone's privilege to be in that country revoked," said James Schield, chief of the international investigations branch of the U.S. Marshals Service in Washington, which opened an office in Mexico City in 2001.
The extradition process requires that U.S. authorities present documents to Mexican courts and foreign relations officials showing compelling evidence to extradite a person. The courts must approve the request, and the suspect has the right to a hearing and to appeal the court's decision.
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.
Extraditions are also rising in other parts of the Americas, such as Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, Schield said.
Colombia extradited 134 suspects in 2005, up from 91 in 2004 and 40 in 2002, the Justice Department said. Among them were drug kingpin brothers Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela — described as founders of the Cali drug cartel — who were convicted on drug charges in Colombia in 1995 and then extradited to Miami.