MEXICO CITY — After decades of resistance, Mexico has quietly begun to extradite Mexicans accused of committing crimes in the United States, setting a precedent that U.S. officials said Sunday could be crucial in fighting the flourishing drug traffic in this country.
"For us, the extradition question . . . is in the top cluster of issues" between the two countries, a senior Clinton administration official said in a telephone interview Sunday.
"They [Mexican leaders] are showing dramatic signs of political will by being willing to do things Mexico has never done before," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The two Mexicans sent to face charges in Arizona and Texas this month are not traffickers. One is a convicted child molester; the other was sought on murder charges. But experts said the extraditions could result in Mexico sending accused drug lords to face U.S. courts, where officials in Washington believe they stand a greater chance of being convicted and receiving stiff sentences.
The extraditions "send a very clear signal that if you're a big organized-crime leader, don't expect to get any safe haven, either in the United States or Mexico, whatever your nationality," U.S. Ambassador James R. Jones said in an interview.
The extraditions of Francisco Gamez and Aaron Morel Lebaron are believed to be the first ever of Mexicans to the United States, U.S. officials said. They were the fruit of years of tough negotiations between U.S. and Mexican officials, culminating in the recent visit to Mexico of a delegation led by President Clinton's new drug czar, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey.
The extraditions come as Mexico is under severe pressure from the U.S. Congress to show results in its war on drugs.
Recently, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) co-sponsored legislation that would bar U.S. loans to Mexico unless it cooperates more in fighting drugs--including agreeing to extraditions.
"One must not downplay the importance of these extraditions, even though the people being extradited were not involved in the narcotics trade," said Armand Peschard, a Mexico expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. government allows Americans to be extradited to Mexico to stand trial. But in this country, which has zealously defended its sovereignty in dealing with its powerful northern neighbor, the idea of extraditing Mexicans has long been taboo.
Mexico's Constitution bars extradition aside from exceptional cases decided upon by the executive branch. Instead, it allows Mexicans to be tried locally for crimes committed abroad.
U.S. officials, however, have complained that such cases sometimes weren't prosecuted vigorously. The United States has requested the extradition of more than 50 Mexicans wanted on criminal charges in the U.S.
Mexican Foreign Ministry officials insist that the men's cases are rare and warranted special attention.
One, Gamez, was convicted in Arizona in a 1993 case of child sexual abuse but fled to Mexico while free on bail. Mexican Foreign Ministry officials said that under the principle of "double jeopardy," Gamez couldn't be tried twice for the same crime, so he would have gone unpunished unless he was sent back to the U.S.
The second man, Lebaron, was accused in U.S. District Court in Houston of involvement in the 1988 slayings of four people who had abandoned his religious cult, the Foreign Ministry said.
Because of the "disgraceful nature" of the crime and the fact that Lebaron had dual Mexican and U.S. nationality, the extradition was granted, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"Mexico's general policy hasn't changed," said Carlos Pujalte, director general of legal affairs at the Foreign Ministry.
"It continues to be that Mexicans aren't extradited. These two cases . . . have very special characteristics."
The potential importance of extradition in the fight against drugs is illustrated by the case of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, alleged to be Mexico's most powerful trafficker. He has been indicted on heroin, marijuana and cocaine charges in the United States but faces only minor charges in Mexico.
Mexican officials declined to say whether they would permit the extradition of someone like Carrillo.
But Bruce Zagaris, a Washington-based attorney who has studied extradition issues, said that once Mexico allows extradition of citizens who have committed serious crimes, "it shouldn't be that hard to make a narco-trafficker of the highest order be in that box too."