U.S. Ambassador Lauds Mexican Extradition of Alleged Drug Kingpin

The U.S. ambassador praised the "courage and conviction" of Mexico's President Vicente Fox on Sunday after Mexico extradited alleged drug kingpin Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix to the United States.

Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix was loaded into a helicopter Saturday in the Mexican city of Matamoros, then flown across the border and handed over to Texas officials in Brownsville after serving a 10-year sentence in Mexico.

The first major Mexican drug suspect to be extradited north, he will be taken to California to face trial on charges stemming from a 1980 case in which he allegedly sold cocaine to an undercover police officer in the United States.

Ambassador Antonio Garza's message of praise, issued by the embassy, followed a statement last week that irritated the Fox administration by urging Americans traveling in Mexico to beware of "the rising level of brutal violence" — much related to drug trafficking — south of the Rio Grande.

"While I'm the first to point out those instances where more can be done, particularly along the border," Garza said Sunday, "I've also got to say that this administration has been aggressive about extraditions and committed to doing what they can when they can.

"President Fox has been unwavering in that regard and I recognize and appreciate both his conviction and courage," Garza added.

Fox's government said it had "discrepancies" with Garza's warning to U.S. citizens on Thursday and said it has called U.S. officials to discuss the issue this week.

U.S. officials have been pushing Mexico to overcome reluctance to extradite its citizens. When Mexico officials have tried to extradite major trafficking suspects, courts have blocked them.

Arellano Felix was arrested in December 1993 in Tijuana and was convicted under Mexico's tough weapons laws rather than for drug offenses. He was the oldest of seven brothers in a family accused of running what was throughout the 1990s one of Mexico's largest and most-violent drug smuggling gangs.

Most of the Arellano Felix brothers have been arrested or killed, weakening the cartel. But Mexican and U.S. officials said the gang still moves tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States from its operations base in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego.

Arellano Felix's brother Francisco Javier Arellano Felix was captured on a fishing boat last month by the U.S. Coast Guard in international waters off the coast of La Paz, Mexico.

Benjamin Arellano Felix, reputedly the planning chief of the gang bearing the family's name, was arrested in March 2002 in Puebla, east of Mexico City. He is still being held in a Mexican jail.

Another brother, Ramon Arellano Felix, was shot to death a month earlier in the Pacific tourist port of Mazatlan. Police say he had been the group's feared enforcer, in charge of killing to settle scores.

Eduardo Arellano Felix is still at large.

Mexico last year extradited 41 suspected criminals to the United States, up from 34 in 2004; 31 in 2003; 25 in 2002; 17 in 2001; and 12 in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.