The government of President Felipe Calderon is extraditing drug suspects and other fugitives to the United States at a record pace, reflecting a quiet but seismic shift in Mexican policy that many analysts say could help dismantle trafficking gangs.
Calderon's administration has handed over more than 150 criminal suspects since coming to power in December 2006.
The extradition rate is double what it was before Calderon took office. And it represents a radical policy change from a decade ago, when Mexico, sensitive about its sovereignty, rarely handed suspects over for prosecution in the United States.
Officials and analysts say Mexico's new posture on extradition signals Calderon's determination to combat violent drug smuggling groups through closer collaboration with U.S. authorities. At the same time, the United States is promising $1.4 billion in security aid for Mexico over three years.
"Calderon's message is, 'Trust in me. I'm sending you these people and I have the willingness to work with you,' "said Raul Benitez, an expert on U.S.-Mexican relations at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
The list of suspects extradited under Calderon includes marquee names such as Osiel Cardenas, the head of the so-called Gulf cartel, and brothers Ismael and Gilberto Higuera Guerrero, identified as bosses in the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix organization.
Extradition proceedings are underway against Eduardo Arellano Felix, an alleged kingpin captured by Mexican forces in Tijuana after a shootout in October. U.S. officials sought his extradition last year.
"Under the Calderon administration, we have seen a significant increase not only in the number of extraditions, but in the higher profile of the criminals being extradited, clearly demonstrating that Mexico will not allow itself to be used as a refuge or safe haven," said Antonio O. Garza Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
Mexico extradited 83 suspects to the United States last year and has handed over about 70 so far this year, according to U.S. figures. Fifty-one more cases await approval by Mexican judges. In return, U.S. authorities say that they have sent 26 wanted suspects to Mexico this year, a record.
The jump in extraditions from Mexico is one of the few measurable results in Calderon's war against organized crime.
The nation's drug violence, meanwhile, has worsened. The death toll this year is over 4,000, according to unofficial tallies by Mexican news outlets, and there is little evidence that Mexican forces have dislodged drug-smuggling operations from strongholds along the U.S. border and elsewhere.
In several cases, extraditing kingpins appears to have sparked violent struggles to fill the vacuum at the top.
Members of the Gulf cartel have jostled for control since Cardenas was extradited in early 2007. Much of the violence convulsing Tijuana in recent months stems from clashes among rival members after the arrests or deaths of some of the Arellano Felix group's most powerful leaders.
"All extradition does is remove some of the top dogs, and others step in for them," said Bruce Bagley, an international studies professor at the University of Miami. "It might actually increase the level of violence."
But sending high-ranking Mexican suspects to the United States may offer the government an upper hand, other experts say.
For one thing, the extraditions remove wealthy drug chieftains from Mexico's pris- on system, where they often are able to run their enterprises with the help of cellphones, crooked prison officials, lawyers and other intermediaries.
High-profile inmates also have bribed their way out: Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, head of a drug-trafficking organization in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, paid guards to help him escape from a maximum-security prison in a laundry truck in 2001.
"When we have a criminal of this nature in a Mexican prison, we run the risk that he could maintain contact with his criminal bases," said Leopoldo Velarde, who heads the extradition division in the Mexican attorney general's office. The idea, he said, "is to take them out of their range."
Mexico began handing over a growing number of suspects under Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, president from 2000 to 2006. But some legal barriers did not fall until 2005, when the Supreme Court cleared the way for Mexico to extradite its citizens in cases involving life terms.
Mexico no longer rules out extradition in cases that carry the possibility of life in prison without parole, though it still refuses to extradite if the defendant might be sentenced to death.
Almost immediately on taking office, Calderon made it clear that he would push for stepped-up extraditions to the United States as the two governments began talks on an aid package to bolster security through equipment and training.
Congress has approved $400 million as the first installment, but the United States has not yet delivered it. Mexican officials say the increase in extraditions is not part of the aid deal.
Winning extradition can take two years or more because U.S. prosecutors must convince Mexican prosecutors and judges that they have sufficient evidence to support charges. Defendants have many opportunities for appeal.
Tijuana crime boss Benjamin Arellano Felix, arrested in 2002 and convicted in Mexico on drug trafficking and money laundering charges, is fighting the Calderon administration's decision in June to approve an extradition request by U.S. authorities.
Despite its drawbacks, officials say extradition will remain a central weapon in Mexico's drug-war arsenal. It may also prove useful in the related battle to clean up official corruption.
Mexican prosecutors revealed last month that they had arrested or fired 35 officials in an elite organized-crime unit on suspicion of tipping off Sinaloa-based traffickers. Even as they announced the charges, authorities were working to extradite one of the suspects, a supervisor named Miguel Colorado Gonzalez.
Ellingwood is a Times staff writer.
latimes.com /siege Previous coverage of Mexico's drug war is available online.