U.S. applauds record extraditions from Mexico, but drug war violence continues

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010

In the cross-border war against narco-trafficking, Mexico is sending a record number of criminal suspects to the United States for prosecution, a point of pride for President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who met in Washington this week for their first formal state visit.

But the sharp rise in extraditions has not been matched by broader success in breaking the violent crime syndicates that control much of the border. In fact, the extraditions might be responsible for a surge in brutality, say experts in and out of government.

Mexico extradited 107 alleged criminal offenders last year, far more than in any previous year, and is on pace to top that number in 2010, according to Justice Department statistics. A dozen high-level traffickers have been convicted in the past two years in U.S. cities that include Houston, Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The strategy has yielded mixed results in the struggle to curtail illegal trafficking of drugs, weapons, money and people. Extraditing high-ranking mobsters has sparked more ferocious turf battles both within the cartels and between rival organizations. But officials from both nations say bringing Mexican criminals to justice in the United States sends a strong signal that the two countries remain committed to the drug war.

The latest big catch came last week when federal prosecutors in New York charged a former Mexican governor with numerous counts of money laundering and drug conspiracy.

Investigators spent 11 years chasing Mario Ernesto Villanueva Madrid, who is accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for providing police protection to the Juarez cartel as it smuggled 200 tons of cocaine into the United States.

He is the highest-ranking former official to be extradited from Mexico, and his case is proof of the unprecedented level of cooperation between the two neighbors, leaders in both countries say.

"The tempo of these criminal investigations and prosecutions will only increase in coming months," Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said at a Senate hearing Tuesday.

For years, Mexico was reluctant to turn over suspects, viewing extradition as a loss of sovereignty. Calderón's predecessor, Vicente Fox, began to soften that position after he was elected in 2000, and Calderón, elected in late 2006, has made extradition a key plank in an anti-trafficking agenda that includes mass deployments of the Mexican military to battle cartels.

Modeled after a similar approach in Colombia, the extraditions are intended to reduce organized crime by taking cartel masterminds out of circulation.

"We are dislocating the command and control structures of organized crime," Arturo Sarukhán, the Mexican ambassador to the United States and a key adviser to Calderón, said in an interview.

Extradition also acts as a deterrent, said one veteran Drug Enforcement Administration agent who requested anonymity in order to speak freely.

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