Judicial Reversal, Political Problem : Now Camarena case goes to Mexico's president

The U.S. Justice Department has suffered a setback in its aggressive campaign to convict the killers of U.S. drug agent Enrique Camarena, murdered in Mexico five years ago. But if the department reacts coolly, rather than emotionally, to the federal court ruling that a suspect be set free, federal officials can use the decision to make the "war on drugs" more effective.

U.S. Dist. Judge Edward Rafeedie, who presided over the second in a series of trials that grew out of the Camarena murder, ruled Friday that federal agents violated a U.S.-Mexico extradition treaty when they took a suspect into custody last April. The decision was not unexpected, because the arrest of Dr. Humberto Alvarez Machain caused an international outcry the moment it became public.

A Guadalajara physician, Alvarez Machain has been accused of helping drug traffickers torture Camarena to death. Camarena was a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, and his former colleagues went to extraordinary lengths to track down suspects in the case and bring them before U.S. courts. Questions have been raised about the legality of some of their tactics.

Alvarez Machain, the alleged torture doctor, was kidnaped in Mexico and flown to the United States by bounty hunters who testified that they were paid by the DEA. That angered the Mexican government, which not only demanded the doctor's return, but wants to prosecute the men who kidnaped him. Even Mexico's President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, during a recent visit to the United States, publicly warned that the Alvarez Machain arrest could hamper U.S-Mexican cooperation in the drug war.

Friday Rafeedie ordered the government to return Alvarez Machain to Mexico. Prosecutors want to appeal the ruling--but there are better ways to deal with this setback.

Alvarez Machain should be returned to Mexico to prove to the Mexicans that this is a nation of laws. But the Justice Department's evidence of his complicity in the Camarena killing should also be turned over. Then the Bush Administration can either request the formal extradition of Alvarez Machain, or it can ask Mexico to prosecute him under Mexican law.

Federal agents who so zealously tracked down Camarena's killers probably won't cotton to cooperating so closely with the Mexicans. They remain convinced that Mexican officials are deeply implicated in drug trafficking and Camarena's death.

But while he can't publicly admit to having similar suspicions, Salinas wants to clean up corruption in Mexico, too, and the Alvarez Machain case might help him do it. At the very least, it will give us a chance to test Mexico's good faith.

If such a gesture helps improve U.S.-Mexican cooperation in the drug war, the gamble would be worth it.

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