SAN DIEGO — After years of trying, federal authorities Monday had Everardo Arturo Paez Martinez where they wanted him: in a courtroom on U.S. soil.
Paez, a Mexican citizen suspected of having been a top aide in Tijuana's Arellano Felix drug cartel, was arraigned in U.S. District Court after being extradited by Mexico in a move hailed as historic.
It was the first time Mexico had agreed to hand over a major Mexican drug suspect, U.S. officials said. Mexico in recent years has extradited minor suspects and, in one case, a top drug boss who held dual U.S. citizenship. But its traditional reluctance to hand over Mexican citizens has long frustrated U.S. drug agents and has been a sore spot in binational relations.
That changed after Mexico's Supreme Court issued a ruling in January removing legal barriers to the extradition of Mexicans. Paez's extradition Friday was the first since the ruling.
"This sends a very loud message to the traffickers in Mexico that they will be held accountable for their actions," said Errol J. Chavez, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's office in San Diego.
Paez, 34, is charged in a six-count 1997 indictment with directing the shipments of tons of cocaine into the United States during an eight-year period. The charges include money laundering and a so-called drug kingpin allegation that carries a mandatory life sentence if Paez is convicted.
Clad in an orange jumpsuit, Paez, who grew up in Chula Vista, listened intently to a Spanish-speaking interpreter in court Monday as his attorney entered not guilty pleas.
Paez had fought extradition since his arrest in Tijuana in 1997. Even after the Supreme Court ruling in January, U.S. officials worried that he would find new ways to fend it off.
Officials said Mexico's president, Vicente Fox, deserved credit for the quick handling of the extradition and for signaling a renewed partnership in fighting drug trafficking. Fox has vowed since taking office in December to wage war on organized crime.
"Now the major Mexican drug traffickers cannot assume that, as long as they stay in Mexico, they will never have to face justice in the United States," said Gregory A. Vega, U.S. attorney for San Diego and Imperial counties.
Authorities say Paez enjoyed a close relationship with two Arellano brothers, Benjamin and Ramon, who face U.S. charges but remain at large. Paez knows the workings of the drug gang and may have contacts with associates, officials said. But one U.S. official conceded that Paez, who has spent more than three years behind bars near Mexico City, might lack up-to-date information, such as the whereabouts of the Arellanos.
The extradition marks the latest setback for the gang, which some believe is responsible for up to a fifth of the cocaine smuggled into the United States. Two ranking operatives, Jesus Labra Avila and Ismael Higuera Guerrero, are in custody in Mexico after being captured in separate operations last year.
U.S. authorities have sought the extradition of Higuera, who faces Mexican charges. Under the U.S.-Mexico extradition treaty, Higuera must face those charges and serve any sentence in Mexico before he could be handed to the United States.