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Mexican Court Opens Way for More Extraditions of Drug Suspects to US

The Mexican Supreme Court recently ruled that Mexican citizens can be extradited to another country to face justice, even if they would face a life sentence in prison there. Prosecutors in the United States are now preparing dozens of extradition requests for Mexicans accused of drug trafficking, murder and other major crimes. But extradition could also create some problems for Mexican authorities and even generate more violence.

The recent court ruling has been praised by law enforcement agents and government officials on both sides of the border. Mexican President Vicente Fox says it will allow his country to rid itself of some the most notorious drug lords currently serving time in maximum security prisons here. He says he hopes he will soon be able to send these criminals to the countries that want them so that they may receive the punishment they deserve.

Under Mexican law, a Mexican citizen facing a death sentence in another nation may not be extradited and, until the recent court decision, neither could a Mexican who faced life imprisonment, which was considered cruel and unusual. Although there will still be legal processes to follow in each case, extradition of major suspects could soon become routine.

But Jorge Chabat, an expert on the Mexican criminal justice system, does not believe there will be a flood of such cases.

"We will not see many extraditions because the United States is not interested in many, many drug traffickers," he said. "But we are probably going to see the extradition of the big capos, the big drug lords and that is what is going to make an important change in US/Mexico relations."

Among the most notorious Mexican drug lords who could soon face justice in the United States are Benjamin Arellano, Osiel Cardenas and Hector Palma.

One danger, however, is that these men, currently in Mexican prisons, might follow the pattern set by Colombian drug traffickers of the 1980's whose henchmen carried out violent attacks to intimidate the government. Mr. Chabat says that could be a concern for Mexico.

"Pablo Escobar Gaviria [slain Colombian drug lord] said he would prefer a funeral in Colombia rather than a prison in the United States," said Mr. Chabat. "I am not sure that this will be the logic of the Mexican drug traffickers, but we cannot discard that scenario."

But an even bigger concern for Mr. Chabat is the violence that could follow the capture and extradition of some current leaders in the illicit drug business.

"If you capture one big drug lord, not only are there many successors fighting for the place of this guy, but at the same time, you create imbalances among drug gangs and once you have these imbalances, violence is inevitable," he added.

Another concern is expressed by Professor Maria Celia Toro of the Colegio de Mexico, who wants to see a more effective justice system in her country. Ms Toro says extradition of Mexican citizens was rare before 1996 when then President Ernesto Zedillo used it to get some dangerous drug kingpins out of the country.

"You could not extradite nationals according to the penal code and, in general, as a matter of policy, Mexicans had to be judged by Mexican judges in Mexican territory," said Professor Toro. "But it was a desperate decision by the Zedillo administration who saw in the U.S. judicial system a way out."

But Professor Toro says sending criminals to face justice elsewhere does nothing to improve the police, court and prison systems here.

"It can be a way out. It can get you off the hook for the moment, but it does not substitute for a decent criminal justice system," she said.

A more immediate concern for some Mexican prison officials is that major drug lords in their custody might attempt escapes in order to avoid extradition. They say security has been stepped up at the prisons just in case.