Tijuana cartel leader extradited to US, first under President Pena Nieto

An alleged drug trafficker was extradited from Mexico on Thursday to face charges in San Diego that he oversaw efforts to bring methamphetamine to the U.S., authorities said.

Cesar Alfredo Meza Garcia, 36, is one of the first people to be extradited from Mexico since President Enrique Pena Nieto took office Dec. 1.

Pena Nieto's predecessor, Felipe Calderon, embraced extraditions as he launched an offensive against drug cartels that shaped his presidency. His administration said it extradited 502 people from Dec. 1, 2006, to the end of 2011, including 478 to the United States.

"We're hoping (Pena Nieto) will continue what President Calderon started," said Tim Durst, assistant special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations unit in San Diego. "It's wait-and-see. This is a good sign."

U.S. authorities seized more than 200 pounds of methamphetamine and 100 pounds of cocaine during a 20-month investigation that ended in May, ICE said. The drugs were mostly hidden in cars and trucks and strapped to bodies at San Diego border crossings.

The investigation began when authorities stopped a car with 48 pounds of methamphetamine that crossed the border in San Diego and was headed to Los Angeles, Durst said.

U.S. authorities described Meza Garcia as a top figure in the Tijuana cartel, made of the remnants of the once-powerful Arellano Felix family. Secretly recorded phone conversations featured repeated references to "The Engineer," as cartel leader Fernando Sanchez Arellano is known.

Meza Garcia was arrested by Mexican authorities in Tijuana in September and is the highest-ranking target in an investigation that has led to federal charges against nearly three dozen people in San Diego. So far, 21 have been sentenced to prison.

The extradition comes amid a spike in methamphetamine seizures at U.S. border crossings. In California, border inspectors confiscated 9,735 pounds of the drug during the 2012 fiscal year, up 33 percent from a year earlier and nearly five times the amount seized in 2008.

Meza Garcia was scheduled to make an initial court appearance Friday on a charge of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.