Reno to Protest Mexico's Plan to Withhold Suspect in Rape

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and other U.S. officials plan to protest the Mexican government's refusal to extradite a suspect in the brutal rape of a 4-year-old Riverside County girl when they meet with the Mexican Cabinet here today, officials said Sunday.

Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari personally promised to secure the extradition of Serapio Zuniga Rios last year, when the issue was a point of contention in the congressional debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But late last month, the Mexican government notified the U.S. Embassy here that Zuniga had been tried in secret and convicted--meaning he would not be extradited after all.

Both Reno and State Department officials had planned to protest the Mexican action strongly during their meetings here, aides said.

Reno arrived in Mexico City Sunday night along with Secretary of State Warren Christopher and other top Clinton Administration officials for a two-day mission, one of a series of regular meetings between the two governments.

"We are deeply shocked and disappointed by the Mexican government's actions," said Robert S. Gelbard, assistant secretary of state for narcotics and international crime issues.

"The Mexican government has known from the beginning that we have considered the Zuniga Rios case to be of fundamental importance," he said. "We thought we had complete assurances from the Mexican government . . . that this man would be extradited. . . . If they are not prepared to extradite Zuniga Rios under the assurances we have gotten, under what circumstances are they going to extradite anyone?"

A senior State Department official, speaking anonymously, was blunter. "They lied to us," he said. "There was amazement, horror and real anger when we learned what they had done."

Zuniga, a 28-year-old Mexican national, was sentenced April 27 after he was convicted of sexual assault, abduction and burglary in the kidnaping of the girl from a ranch near Temecula in September, 1992.

After assaulting the girl, Zuniga wrapped her in a blanket and hanged the bundle from a tree, according to police. Zuniga was allegedly enraged because he had been fired from a job at the ranch, which is owned by the girl's parents.

Zuniga later fled to Mexico, where he was arrested last December after an extensive manhunt.

The issue of extradition has been a sore point in U.S.-Mexican relations. Mexico has never extradited one of its citizens wanted for crimes in the United States, citing concerns of national sovereignty.

In 1990, U.S. agents abducted a Mexican wanted for participation in the murder of U.S. drug agent Enrique Camarena because the George Bush Administration did not believe Mexico would extradite him.

Since then, the two countries have drafted a "non-abduction treaty" to prevent similar incidents. But U.S. officials said they negotiated the treaty on the understanding that Mexico had changed its extradition policy, and said President Clinton is unlikely to sign the pact unless the policy is changed.

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