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Mexican ruling complicates extraditions

Prosecutors here stymied in life-term cases

By Greg Moran

February 25, 2002

For years, prosecutors have grumbled about how difficult it can be to get a fugitive hiding in Mexico returned to the United States for trial.

Mexican officials historically have been reluctant to extradite their citizens, although in recent years some drug barons have been turned over. And because Mexico does not have capital punishment, the officials often refuse to extradite anyone facing a potential death sentence.

But now, in the wake of a ruling last fall by the Mexican Supreme Court, the often contentious and delicate issue of extradition has become more complicated and could play havoc with scores of prosecutions.

"Basically, it's just a mess," said Barbara Moore, who heads the extraditions unit of the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office, one of the busiest in the country. "It has meant we're kind of at a standstill with many cases."

In October, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that fugitives of any nationality can't be extradited to the United States if they face a potential life term in prison because such a penalty violates the Mexican constitution.

While death-penalty crimes account for a fraction of all prosecutions, cases in which prosecutors seek a penalty of life in prison are more common.

That is why the ruling has state and federal prosecutors up in arms.

In January, all the attorneys general from the 50 states plus the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands fired off a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft seeking federal help.

On a visit to Mexico City on Wednesday, Drug Enforcement Administrator Asa Hutchinson said he was concerned about the impact of the ruling. "We want that issue resolved," he said.

Even now, several months after the ruling, there is confusion about who it covers and what kinds of cases if affects.

Though most officials agree that the ruling prohibits extradition of suspects who face no-parole imprisonments, some say it also applies to those who face any sentence in which they could spend life in prison.

If that is the case, the ruling's potential effect would greatly expand. In California, for example, all murder charges carry a life sentence, ranging from 15 years to life up to 25 years to life for first-degree murder.

In addition, some rape, kidnapping and child-abuse charges carry life sentences, albeit with a possibility of parole.

"The problem is prosecutors can't change the potential sentence that might be facing a person after he is convicted," said Robert Locke, assistant chief of the extraditions unit for the San Diego District Attorney's Office.

"The legislature determines what the sentence structure is, and it is up to a judge to impose the sentence based on whatever the conviction is."

Jose Garcia Villalobos, the regional attache for the Mexican attorney general, said that under Mexican law, the ultimate goal of imprisonment is to rehabilitate criminals so they can re-enter society.

"What the Supreme Court said was that if you are putting someone in prison for life, you are not giving them the opportunity to rehabilitate and reintegrate into the community to be productive," he said. The maximum time one can spend in prison in Mexico is 60 years, he said.

In effect, the ruling requires U.S. prosecutors to file charges that do not carry life or no-parole terms if they want a fugitive returned. Prosecutors are unwilling to do that, said Alberto Gonzalez, a special assistant in the state Attorney General's Office.

In some instances, fugitives are prosecuted in Mexico for crimes committed in the United States under the terms of a 1978 extradition treaty, Locke said.

It is difficult to determine how many cases the ruling has affected. Moreover, authorities try to get suspects returned via means other than extradition, such as deportation or expulsion, Locke said.

"We don't do many formal extraditions," he said. "It's something we do at the very last. We've generally had pretty good luck over the years getting Americans back, but that has not been absolute."

The ruling has affected a handful of cases, including one in Los Angeles, according to officials there.

It involves a Mexican citizen who is wanted on charges of killing two teen-age girls on their way to school, said Moore, the Los Angeles extraditions unit leader.

At first, her office agreed not to seek the death penalty in order to get the suspect, Juan Manuel Casillas Jr., back for trial. But before he could be extradited to the United States, the Mexican Supreme Court made its ruling and her office ­ unwilling to drop charges that carry a no-parole sentence ­ is back to square one, she said.

"We knew we would have to give up the death penalty, but we never dreamed we would get into this hassle about life without the possibility of parole," she said.

Locke said he did not know of any San Diego cases affected. And officials are still able to get some persons charged with crimes returned, as the case of 22-year-old Michael Savala showed.

The Chula Vista man was wanted for the 2001 Cinco de Mayo shootings of two bouncers outside a Bonita restaurant. He was found hiding in Tijuana, and authorities turned him over after getting assurances he would not face the death penalty, said prosecutor Douglas Rose.

Though he faces a potential no-parole sentence, Savala, a U.S. citizen, was actually expelled from Mexico for violating the country's immigration law, Rose said. Mexican immigration authorities handed him over to U.S. immigration officials, who turned Savala over to prosecutors.

Locke worries, however, that the Supreme Court ruling could eventually affect cases like Savala's that are covered under the immigration laws.