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Foiled by Border-Crossing Suspects

If Mexico tries citizens for alleged U.S. crimes, they can't be retried in California. A pending bill would change that.

June 10, 2004|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Anabella Vara looks over her shoulder every day, fearing that her ex-husband will find her.

On April 9, 1999, Daniel Perez kidnapped her at gunpoint from a restaurant in South Gate. She was shot in the head and seriously wounded.

During his trial in Norwalk for attempted murder, Perez allegedly killed Vara's father, Carlos, a witness against him, before fleeing to Mexico.

Vara feels sick knowing that Perez is living free south of the border. She also feels helpless. She believes Mexico won't send him back because a Los Angeles judge sentenced him to life in prison, in absentia, for attempting to kill her.

There is another option -- to let Mexican authorities try him in Mexico. But Vara, 26, worries that a judge would throw out the case or that Perez would be able to buy his freedom from corrupt officials and then cross back over the border. Under current California law, he would then be immune from prosecution here.

"That would be my worst nightmare," she said. "He gets away with it over there; he comes back over here and he's standing on our front lawn and we can't do anything."

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, whose office will prosecute Perez if given the opportunity, said he had little confidence in Mexico's criminal justice system, calling it "hit and miss."

"There are acquittals. There are dismissals on technical grounds. There are lenient sentences," Cooley said. "And there are, quite frankly, thousands upon thousands of individuals who are not apprehended and there is no effort being made to apprehend them."

Mexico will not extradite nationals who have been accused of crimes in the U.S. punishable by death or life in prison without parole. If extradition is denied, Mexico holds a trial within its borders to determine whether its citizen is guilty of the crime alleged in the United States.

But the outcome of such cases often frustrates California district attorneys, who now must accept the results.

Los Angeles prosecutors want the legal authority to prosecute Mexican nationals here, even if they have already been tried in Mexico. A bill pending in the California Legislature would grant that authority.

Los Angeles County prosecutors estimate that there are hundreds of fugitives like Perez who have fled across the border. They say families suffer the double injustice of being victimized and then being forced to sit helplessly while the suspected killers walk free in Mexico or receive short sentences there and then return to the U.S. with impunity.

Prosecutors cite the case of Mario Chaidez, who lured 17-year-old Francisco Barajas Lopez out of his South Gate home to confront him about phone calls made to his daughter. Chaidez allegedly shot Lopez in the back of the head. Los Angeles prosecutors charged Chaidez with the 1989 murder, punishable by 35 years to life in prison.

Chaidez fled to Mexico and was instead prosecuted there. A judge convicted the Mexican national not of murder but of the lesser crime of manslaughter, which requires a finding that he did not intend to commit murder. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.

But after just two years behind bars, he was permitted to serve out the remainder of his sentence on weekends. Chaidez returned to California in 2002 and was arrested on the outstanding warrant in the murder case. Because he could not legally be retried, however, prosecutors had to recall the warrant and he was released.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office says prosecution in Mexico jeopardizes public safety, ignores victims' rights and allows suspects to avoid justice.

"Until we pass this legislation, we can't afford to seek extradition," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Jan Maurizi. "There are horror stories of the sentences they receive."

For example, two defendants are serving 10-year sentences in Mexico for beating their son to death. If tried here, they could have received 29 years to life.

California Special Assistant Atty. Gen. Alberto L. Gonzalez said that of 93 first-degree murder cases he was able to track in Mexico, the average sentence was about 27 years.

But Enrique Zepeda, who works for the Mexican federal attorney general's office, says Mexico aggressively prosecutes defendants who commit crimes in the U.S. and pushes for lengthy prison terms.

Zepeda said that of 165 U.S. homicide cases prosecuted in Mexico since 1993, 29 received sentences longer than 30 years. Several first-degree murderers have received 60-year prison terms, he said. In all cases involving crimes committed in the U.S. that have been prosecuted in Mexico during that time, Zepeda said, there have been 193 convictions and only 15 acquittals.

"We don't want to let someone go without being tried, without being punished," he said.

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