By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010; A07
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.
"Incarceration in the U.S. is what they fear the most because it puts them in our system and out of their comfort zone," the agent said.
Mexico's prison system is widely viewed as weak and, often, corrupt. Some of the most notorious convicts have broken out of the jails or simply directed their syndicates from behind bars.
But once a defendant is in the United States, communication is more difficult. Equally important, investigators have extracted valuable intelligence from cartel members brought here.
Take the case of Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, one of the most feared drug lords in all of Mexico. As head of the Gulf cartel, he built up a vast smuggling operation known for its deadly force. A larger-than-life character famous for brandishing a gold-plated rifle, Cárdenas is said to have risen to power by executing a friend.
Even after his arrest in 2003, he reputedly continued to order hits and monitor finances from a Mexican jail cell.
In 2007, Cárdenas was extradited to Houston, and after two years of secret negotiations, he agreed to cooperate with investigators. He was sentenced in February to 25 years in a U.S. prison.
The details of the court agreement have been sealed, although it is widely believed that Cárdenas provided critical information about the Zetas, a gang of former military commandos running a rival trafficking operation near the Laredo, Tex., border crossing.
That sort of information makes extradition "terrific" from the U.S. perspective, said Bruce Bagley, an authority on narco-trafficking and Latin America at the University of Miami.
But in an illegal drug industry estimated to generate $25 billion in annual revenue, the removal of one kingpin does not halt operations. To the contrary, the extradition often triggers fresh battles over turf and control of the cartels, he said.
"The profitability is so high, what they're fighting over is who controls the trafficking routes," Bagley said. "It creates job opportunities for new lieutenants."
During the first four months of this year, more than 3,800 people died in Mexico's drug war; the heaviest toll came in border communities such as Ciudad Juarez that serve as major thoroughfares for smugglers. Many Americans fear the mayhem is spilling over into the United States, although hard data are difficult to come by.
"It is our U.S. dollars and our U.S. weapons that are fueling this war-like situation in Mexico and instability in many other countries," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of a Senate subcommittee on human rights and the law.
"While extradition can be effective in the short term, it is not the long-term solution to illegal drug trafficking," he said.