LAPD Foreign Prosecution Unit : South of the Border Is No Longer Safe for Criminals

Times Staff Writer

Seven years ago, the body of first-grader Lisa Ann Rosales was found dumped in a ditch near her home in Pacoima. She had been sexually molested and strangled.

The case was not an easy one for the Los Angeles Police Department--it took a tip five years later for detectives to identify a suspect, and then they discovered that the man had fled to his native Mexico.

In previous years, the case might have ended there, with police thwarted because the suspect was beyond the reach of U.S. laws. The problem, which had long frustrated American law enforcement officials, was that Mexico refuses to extradite its citizens to the United States for trial, despite the existence of an extradition treaty between the two countries.

But this time the case did not end. Detectives turned to a new squad of the LAPD, the foreign prosecution unit.

Six months after the Los Angeles detectives decided that they knew who killed Lisa Ann Rosales, Mexican authorities were handed a complete file on Luis Raul Castro, translated into Spanish, and were even told where he could be found. They took the case from there.

Today, Castro stands convicted in a Mexican federal court of murder. He is expected to be sentenced by the end of the year and could serve up to 40 years in a Mexican jail.

"Before we had the foreign prosecution unit, people were literally getting away with murder," said Lt. Keith Ross, supervisor of the unit. "The fact was, we were not actively pursuing Mexican suspects that fled to Mexico. That has changed."

The Rosales case is one of many examples of how Los Angeles crime means Mexican prison time since the four-member unit began working with Mexican authorities in 1985. Since then, 48 Los Angeles cases--all but three involving murder--have been brought in Mexico. More than half the suspects have been captured, convicted and jailed there.

'Is It Legal?'

Scattered cases have been brought in other countries as well, including one in France.

"The first thing people ask is 'Can you do that? Is that legal?' " Ross said. "The answer is that it is a legitimate means of prosecution that is available to us."

But some legal observers question whether suspects should face Mexican justice for American crimes. They argue that Mexico's justice system affords defendants few of the protections of the U.S. system--most notably, defendants do not have a chance to face their accusers; the testimony of the American witnesses is delivered solely through documents.

"My first reaction is that it presents an enormous problem," said Leon Goldin, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. "We are talking about the LAPD, acting as an arm of our government, using court procedures in Mexico that wouldn't pass muster here in a moment."

No Acquittals

The record shows that the California law enforcement officials are almost certain to go home happy after bringing a case to Mexico. No case brought by the LAPD has yet to result in an acquittal.

It is a great contrast to the situation Los Angles police faced when they conducted a 1984 study that prompted creation of the foreign prosecution unit.

In that study, according to Ross, police reviewed all outstanding murder warrants--cases in which a suspect had been identified, but no one arrested. Of 267 people being sought, about 200 had Latino surnames, he said.

"That gave us the strong feeling that a large number of suspects were fleeing to Mexico and finding sanctuary," he said. "There was no department-wide procedure for tracking, arresting and prosecuting them."

"There was a lot of frustration," said Detective Arturo Zorrilla, noting that most officers' attitude was, "Let's file the case away and hope (the suspect) comes back across."

Extradition Treaty

In theory, prosecutors here could have sought extradition of any of the suspects confirmed as being in Mexico. The two countries have an extradition treaty that provides for Mexican citizens to be returned to the United States to face trial for serious crimes. But, a U.S. Justice Department spokesman said, "it has not occurred, ever."

The refusal to extradite, officials said, is rooted in a firm belief in Mexican law that Mexican citizens who commit crimes outside the country should be prosecuted by Mexican authorities.

U.S. law, on the other hand, provides that U.S. citizens who commit crimes in other countries should be subject to prosecution there. (About half a dozen American citizens have been extradited to Mexico in the last decade to face trial, according to the Justice Department.)

On Books Since 1928

The different approaches are reflected in a provision of Mexico's penal code that allows for the prosecution of foreign crimes. Although on the books since 1928, the provision was infrequently used until recently because other countries' law enforcement agencies rarely brought cases to the attention of Mexican authorities.

Before the Los Angeles foreign prosecution unit was formed in April, 1985, the LAPD, like most U.S. police agencies, did not have formal procedures for cutting through the diplomatic red tape to pursue cases in Mexico. Few detectives even knew it was possible.

Today, a U.S. Justice Department international law specialist said, the Los Angeles unit is in "the forefront of using this tactic."

Operating under the fugitive division headed by Ross, the foreign prosecution is led by two homicide squad veterans, Detectives Zorrilla and Gilberto Moya.

Both see their jobs as equal parts detective work and diplomacy.

The 'Murder Book'

To file cases in Mexico, the unit, whose members are bilingual, compiles a written record of the case in Spanish. Affidavits, witness statements, photographs and descriptions of evidence are put into a report they call the "murder book."

This consolidation and translation is often the longest part of the procedure, usually lasting several weeks. The Lisa Ann Rosales case filled four thick files.

The district attorney's office must then formally relinquish jurisdiction of a case, an action that is not taken lightly. Prosecutors acknowledge that because of the U.S. Constitution's protection against double jeopardy, if they seek trial of a case in Mexico and do not get a guilty verdict, any attempt to refile the charges in the United States would be quickly challenged.

Norman Shapiro, a deputy district attorney who handles the foreign cases, said the decision depends mainly on the prospects for prosecution in the United States and a certainty that the suspect will not return from Mexico.

'We Have Been Satisfied'

"We have to have solid information that the suspect is down there," Shapiro said. "When we have that, we have been quite willing to let Mexico prosecute. We have been satisfied with the results."

(Of the 26 Los Angeles cases that have made it through the Mexican justice system, according to the foreign prosecution unit, all have resulted in convictions. And although Mexico does not have the death penalty, officers familiar with U.S. cases tried there said prison sentences seem to be slightly longer. Because of differences in laws, making exact comparisons is impossible.)

Before the case travels to Mexico, the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles must certify the authenticity of the investigative documents. In practice, this usually means confirming that a crime was committed and that the investigating officers are legitimate.

Then, once officers have determined through informants and other detective work where a suspect is in Mexico, the unit moves.

Checked Weapons at Border

This year, the detectives have checked their weapons at the border and crossed into Mexico an average of twice a month.

Occasionally they travel with Mexican police to observe the arrests, but most often they wait at police stations or hotels until a suspect is in custody or local police determine that he cannot be found. Moya said the officers go to Mexico to streamline the filing process, strengthen relations with authorities there and be available to offer additional case details or even question suspects themselves.

The officers make no secret of the value of the social side of the visits.

"Diplomacy and image are important," Moya said. "You make concessions, courtesies to their protocol. You pay your respects. We don't want to meddle in the internal workings of the law enforcement of another country. We work within their customs."

Protocol Observed

On a recent trip to Mexicali to present evidence in connection with an East Los Angeles murder, Moya and Jose Herrera, the case detective, did not go directly to the prosecutor who would handle the case.

They first went to see the director of the state police, whose men had caught the suspect a week earlier based on leads Moya and Herrera had provided. Then there were several meetings with Mexican detectives and police administrators to shake hands and pay respects.

The Los Angeles officers offered the Mexicans small gifts of basic equipment not provided by their own department: flashlights, handcuffs, note pads, even bullets. The Californians had purchased the items in the United States with their own money.

When the detectives finally got to the office of Angel Saad, attorney general of the state of Baja, their stay in Mexico was nearly over. Saad looked over the file, grimaced at photographs of the victim's body and asked detailed questions about the legal and diplomatic procedures they had followed.

After a 45-minute meeting, Saad finally placed the "murder book" in the hands of one of his prosecutors.

Notified of Outcome

In a year or so, after the process of trial and appeal is completed, Mexican authorities will officially notify Los Angeles police of the outcome.

American law enforcement officials acknowledge that procedural differences make it easier to get convictions in Mexico than in the United States.

Once a case is accepted for prosecution in Mexico, a defendant is assumed to be guilty and then has to prove his innocence. There is no bail allowed in murder cases, no jury trials and guidelines on the admissibility of evidence are less stringent.

LAPD foreign prosecution unit officers said they know of no instance in which a witness in a Los Angeles murder case, detectives included, went to Mexico to testify. Instead, Mexican prosecutors rely upon the witness accounts and affidavits supplied by police.

Attorneys Disturbed

That the defendants thus are denied the opportunity to face their accusers, a cornerstone of the U.S. justice system, is disturbing to some attorneys.

"No one says a criminal should go unpunished," said Jaime Cervantes, a former president of the Mexican-American Bar Assn. in Los Angeles. "But this country has a long developed concept of how someone is proven guilty of a crime and there is something fundamentally unfair about going to another country's procedures to convict and punish them."

Peter Shey, chairman of the international law committee of the local National Lawyers Guild, also questioned the Mexican prosecutions.

"Basic notions of fundamental fairness are either nonexistent or rarely employed in their justice system," Shey said. "If people are required to stand trial in Mexico for crimes in the United States, they would be placed at a significant disadvantage."

'A Jaundiced Eye'

Lt. Ross, the unit's supervisor, said he believes that such concerns are unfounded.

"I think a lot of people have tended to view Mexican justice with a jaundiced eye," he said. "But that is an American perception and it is a misconception. Mexico has a very legitimate legal system that operates very well."

Ross and his fellow officers contend that a murder suspect who flees to avoid prosecution in Los Angeles is accepting the justice system of the country he runs to.

"You have to accept the risks that you have incurred by fleeing," Moya said.

Much like the LAPD unit, the California attorney general's office has developed specialists in bringing cases to Mexico. The state's chief expert is Ruben R. Landa, a special agent with the attorney general's office in San Diego, who took his department's first murder case to Mexico in 1980.

70 Murder Cases Brought

Since then, Landa has helped various California police departments bring 70 murder cases to Mexico, 14 so far in 1987, more than in any previous year. About 20 of the cases have worked their way through Mexican courts, he said, all resulting in convictions, although one of those was thrown out on appeal.

"Now it's sort of snowballing," he said. "More and more detectives are finding out that this is a way to go with their cases."

One benefit for U.S. authorities is financial. Mexico pays for prosecuting the cases, and police officials estimate that it costs American taxpayers less than $1,000 in travel and other expenses to bring a case there, an amount that pales in comparison to the costs of jailing, prosecuting and defending a murder suspect in Los Angeles.

"You are probably talking about saving thousands of dollars on every case," Ross said.

'Two-Way Street'

But Angel Saad, the Baja attorney general, said the arrangement does not just help the U.S. agencies.

"It is a two-way street with positive results for both countries," he said. "For Mexico, it signifies its willingness to punish its citizens that commit crimes in foreign countries."

A more tangible way the relationship pays off for Mexico, police say, is when the foreign prosecution unit, acting on tips from Mexican police, locates Mexicans in Los Angeles who are suspected of crimes in their own country. So far this year, 13 such suspects have been arrested by immigration authorities in Los Angeles as illegal aliens and returned to Mexico with the help of the unit. Because they are illegal aliens, they can be shipped back without lengthy extradition proceedings.

Other Kinds of Cases

Although most of its time has been spent on murder cases in Mexico, the foreign prosecution unit has been used on occasion in child abuse, robbery and auto theft investigations. And its officers have pursued murder cases in other countries where laws allow prosecution of foreign crimes. Two cases have been brought in El Salvador, one in France and one investigation is pending in Honduras.

The crimes that lead the officers across the border are quite varied, involving both Mexican and American victims.

Lorraine Kiefer, 70, was a well-liked Van Nuys widow and retired real estate broker who worked without pay at an American Cancer Society thrift shop. In 1980, she had married Gilberto Flores, a longtime acquaintance who was 38 years her junior. Four years later, police said, Flores hired a second man, Andreas Hernandez Santiago, to kill her for $5,000.

Filed in Mexico

After detectives unraveled the Oct. 2, 1984, killing, the case was filed in Mexico, where the two men, both Mexican nationals, had fled. Santiago was arrested in Oaxaca and later convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Flores is still being sought.

In one of the first cases handled by the unit in 1985, Juan Francisco Rocha, 36, was arrested in Monterrey, Mexico, for the killing in Hollywood of his girlfriend, Brenda Joyce Abbud, a decade earlier. She had been doused with paint thinner and set on fire.

"Many of the cases have strong impacts on their communities," Zorrilla said.

The Dec. 8, 1980, killing of Lisa Ann Rosales was such a case, prompting the Los Angeles City Council to offer a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. A local high school started a college scholarship in Lisa's name and an elementary school named a garden after her.

There were few solid leads until a woman called police anonymously in 1985, saying her conscience bothered her and that she wanted them to know that Castro, who worked as a maintenance man at the Rosales home, was the killer. That lead gave the case a new focus, and police said more evidence was uncovered against Castro.

Castro, who had returned to Mexico weeks after the killing, confessed shortly after he was arrested in Mexicali in 1986, according to police in both countries.

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