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Extraditions make a point

Mexico's new president could gain credibility at home and with the U.S. for turning over drug-trade leaders.

January 21, 2007|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Mexico's decision to extradite 10 leaders of its most powerful drug-trafficking organizations to the U.S. is a landmark event that will boost the fortunes of new President Felipe Calderon, though the long-term effect on the drug business remains uncertain, Mexican analysts and U.S. officials said Saturday.

The extraditions took place late Friday night, just seven weeks after Calderon took office, but after several years of legal and diplomatic wrangling by officials on both sides of the border.

"The actions overnight by the Mexican government are unprecedented in their scope and importance," U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales said in a statement Saturday. "Never before has the United States received from Mexico such a large number of major drug defendants and other criminals for prosecution in this country."

In all, Mexican authorities extradited 15 people. The most prominent was Osiel Cardenas, who was reputed to have been running the Gulf cartel from his cell at the maximum-security La Palma prison since his arrest in 2003.

A federal grand jury in Texas indicted Cardenas in 1999 on drug-trafficking and assault charges. The Bush administration singled him out for special treatment in 2001 under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, which allows the government to freeze the assets of those who do business with drug lords and their families.

Three others extradited late Friday were on the White House kingpin list, including Hector Palma, said to be the top lieutenant of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa cartel. Had he not escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001, Guzman too might have been extradited Friday.

Palma is a colorful figure who, it has been said, once paid $40 million in annual protection fees to the Guadalajara municipal police. When he was arrested in 1999 after his small plane crashed, he had in his possession a handgun encrusted with diamonds and emeralds.

The other two on the kingpin list extradited were Ismael Higuera Guerrero and Gilberto Higuera Guerrero, brothers and bosses in the Arellano Felix cartel, based in Tijuana.

Even inside their Mexican prisons, the kingpins were known for outrageous behavior. Cardenas treated 17,000 people to a Day of the Child party at a baseball stadium in the border city of Reynosa last year.

Columnist Ricardo Aleman wrote in the Mexico City newspaper El Universal that Cardenas was deliberately making the government of then-President Vicente Fox look ridiculous.

"In spite of being locked up in the most secure and strict of Mexico's prisons, the head of the cartel does what he wants," Aleman wrote last May. "It seems to confirm the fact that the most powerful cartels and criminal groups are beyond the control of the state."

Widespread corruption in the prison system made it nearly impossible for Mexican officials to control the drug bosses, said Jorge Chabat, an expert on the drug trade.

"Having them out of Mexico is one less headache for the Mexican government," Chabat said. The extraditions, coming on the heels of Calderon's decision to send federal troops to combat drug trafficking in Baja California and the southern states of Michoacan and Guerrero, add to the sense that the new president is trying to take charge of a seemingly intractable problem.

"We are determined not to tolerate any defiance to the authority of the state," Calderon said Friday.

The extraditions give Calderon increased credibility as he deals with the U.S. on contentious issues, including immigration reform and legislation approved last year in Washington to tighten the U.S.-Mexican border.

As well, the extraditions in effect end the kingpins' influence over the vast drug-trafficking organizations, although new leaders are almost certain to emerge. "It's like any big business," Chabat said. "If the CEO resigns, then a new CEO takes his place."

U.S. and Mexican officials say the drug-trafficking organizations are huge businesses in which no individual knows more than a handful of others -- a cell-like structure that makes them especially difficult to break.

How the drug-trafficking organizations will react to the extraditions remains an open question. In Colombia in the 1980s, drug kingpins resisted extradition to the U.S. with a campaign of bombings and assassinations.

In recent years, analysts say, Mexico's drug-trafficking organizations have not sought an open confrontation with the federal government. Most of their firepower has been directed against one another, and against municipal and state officials. Last year, more than 2,000 people were killed as rival groups battled one another and the authorities.

Cardenas and the Gulf cartel, based in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, have upped the ante in the war against their rivals from the western state of Sinaloa by recruiting highly trained soldiers from the Mexican army, known as the Zetas.

The rival Mexican syndicates are responsible for 80% of the cocaine that enters the United States, according to American officials.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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