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Fugitive Mexican Official Fighting Extradition : Crime: Fernando Hernandez, charged in $3-million embezzlement, spent five years undetected in Chula Vista. He ran afoul of the INS in a visa scam.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

During almost five years on the run, a fugitive Mexican official accused of embezzling more than $3 million lived comfortably in a suburban house guarded by security cameras a few miles north of the border, according to federal agents.

Then Fernando Rodolfo Hernandez Martinez stumbled, authorities say. He applied for a special clergy visa to legalize his status, one of dozens of applicants who posed as ministers in an immigration scam broken up by investigators this month.

“Not only were they not working on Sundays, they were not men and women of the cloth,” said Rudy Murillo, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Now Baja California state prosecutors want to extradite Hernandez, 55, on charges of engaging in a massive land fraud while he was manager of a state-run resort development. The INS is trying to deport him. The former official has asked for political asylum on the grounds of government persecution in Mexico, a claim that Baja officials deny.

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“There has been a charge pending since 1989,” said Gabriel Rosas Guzman, a spokesman for Baja Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel. “The criminal case will proceed like any other.”

Shortly after Hernandez’s arrest this month, his lawyer said the charges were false. The lawyer, George Siddell, has declined further comment. Hernandez will go before a U.S. immigration judge for a hearing this week.

The case represents one strand of a web of scandal that brought down former Baja Gov. Xicotencatl Leyva Mortera of Mexico’s dominant Revolutionary Institutional Party in 1989. Allegations of rampant corruption and incompetence forced Levya’s resignation, helping to bring about the historic election that year of Ruffo, the first governor from the opposition National Action Party.

A subsequent investigation by Baja California authorities targeted Hernandez and more than 20 other Leyva administration officials, including several who reportedly fled across the border.

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Mexican authorities alleged that as manager of San Antonio Del Mar, a state-run coastal development south of Tijuana, Hernandez sold properties to politically prominent cronies at undervalued prices and pocketed more than $3 million.

Hernandez owns a jewelry store and real estate in the San Diego area, authorities said, and he told investigators that he owns restaurants in Tijuana. He used a legal border-crossing card to enter the United States, Murillo said.

Hernandez lived in Chula Vista during much of the past five years and crossed back and forth into Baja occasionally despite his fugitive status, according to Jeff Casey, a U.S. Customs Service official. Customs conducted a brief investigation, but it was closed because too much time has passed to trace the embezzled funds, Casey said.

INS agents ran across Hernandez’s name recently while investigating a scam in which a Pentecostal minister charged at least 82 illegal immigrants up to $4,000 apiece. The applicants posed as assistant pastors of a small barrio church to obtain special expedited visas granted to foreign clergy.

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Realizing that Hernandez was wanted in Mexico, agents arrested him Feb. 10 at a house registered to his mother.

“We got out there and the house had security cameras. We sensed immediately a lot of security,” Murillo said. “But he did come to the door. He was pretty talkative and forthright.”

Hernandez admitted paying $4,000 for the bogus visa application and asked for political asylum, Murillo said.

Mexicans in the United States rarely gain asylum, which is granted in cases of fear of persecution based on political affiliation or other grounds. Hernandez will be deported if his petition is denied.

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