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COLUMN ONE : Unexpected Friend on Death Row : Mexico is giving money, legal aid to help defend its citizens facing execution in U.S. Officials cite moral concerns, public sentiment that has made some condemned men into folk heroes south of border.


NAMPA, Ida. — Attorney Scott Fouser had wondered how he would ever get the resources needed to file appeals on behalf of Aurelio Barajas, 33, a Mexican national sentenced to die in Idaho for the vicious murder of a convenience store clerk.

Out of the blue in November, Mexican government officials called to offer whatever he needed.

"They've already hired an investigator," Fouser said. "And they're flying me to Mexico, where I'll have a room, meals, car, interpreter and driver and meet with people who know Aurelio's background."

The Barajas case is just one example of a new, aggressive effort that Mexico is making on behalf of its 22 citizens on Death Row in the United States.

Mexico, which outlawed capital punishment in 1929, wants to help the inmates win new trials or have their death sentences commuted, said Laura Espinosa, deputy consulate in Salt Lake City. This could help the inmates take advantage of existing extradition treaties and serve out life sentences, which in Mexico typically last 40 years.

"Imagine an American in a small town in Mexico accused of killing someone," Espinosa said. "We are going to use the same force the United States would in such a case to help one of our own."

Indeed, a nation that has long been accused of flouting the human rights of Americans incarcerated there is turning the tables--and getting results.

The rapid intervention of Mexican officials was partially responsible for persuading a Kentucky judge in May not to apply the death penalty in the case of two brothers convicted of a 1992 murder.

The Mexican government also played an active role in postponing the execution of Ricardo Aldape, 31, who was sentenced to die in September, 1992, in Texas for killing a Houston police officer 10 years earlier. Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari even sent a letter to Texas Gov. Ann Richards requesting clemency.

The government is also helping the California Appellate Project find lawyers to represent Ramon Salcido, 32, who is on Death Row in San Quentin for the 1989 murders in Sonoma of his wife, four children, mother-in-law and employer.

In November, officials of Mexico's Commission on Human Rights and Foreign Relations Department interviewed these and other Death Row inmates in California, Arizona, Texas and Idaho with the aim of helping defense lawyers and Mexican consuls conduct investigations on their behalf.

Such efforts are causing deep resentment among American officials who see this as ideological meddling.

"The U.S. Supreme Court has said this is a constitutional type of punishment for a certain classification of crime," said Dane Gillette, state coordinator for capital litigation in California, which has 10 Mexican citizens on Death Row--the most of any state. "We're not punishing people for race or nationality, or sentencing people to death for spitting on the sidewalk. These are heinous crimes."

Idaho Solicitor Gen. Lynn Thomas complains that "we have enough trouble being outmanned by anti-death penalty organizations mounting campaigns against us. Now, we have to put up with foreign governments bankrolling the opposition with unlimited resources."

The danger, Thomas said, "is one of mounting a public relations campaign that distorts the facts--that's what happens when powerful special interests get involved in a case."

Fouser disagreed: "I told the Mexican officials to do everything they feel is appropriate in the Barajas case. Public relations campaigns? Go for it!"

Mexican officials would not reveal how much they have spent on such cases, in part, they say, because costs are virtually impossible to calculate. For example, background investigations inside Mexico are conducted by local and national law enforcement authorities as part of their regular duties.

But they say they are making a full-scale effort to "prevent a Mexican citizen from receiving the death penalty," said Espinosa, who has become an administrator of Death Row appeals for Mexican nationals in the Rocky Mountain states.

Mexican officials say they are resuming a long tradition; in the 1920s, the Mexican consulate successfully pressured California to commute the death sentence of a Mexican minor and lobbied for state legislation prohibiting the execution of children.

This most recent surge is simply a reflection of timing, they say.

After a four-year gap, the death penalty was reinstituted in the United States in 1976. Most such cases take at least 15 years to wind through the courts. So, only recently have Mexican citizens in death penalty cases begun to face execution.

And working with such prisoners, Mexican officials say, has convinced them to get involved earlier in the sentencing and appeals process.

Manuel Hernandez of the consulate office in El Paso said his country is compelled by a moral imperative to aid countrymen convicted of capital crimes.

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