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More extraditions to come, Mexico says

Times Staff Writers

On the heels of the extradition of four top drug cartel leaders, Mexico’s attorney general said Sunday he planned to send more suspects to face U.S. trials, tacitly acknowledging that corruption had allowed drug kingpins to direct operations even while in maximum-security Mexican prisons.

The latest round of extraditions Friday night -- which also includes six other drug suspects of lesser rank -- breaks ties between drug capos and “the structures of the criminal organizations in our country,” Atty. Gen. Eduardo Medina Mora said. He added that the transfer of wealthy suspected traffickers to the United States would help return security and integrity to the prisons where they were held.

Aggressive extradition is emerging as the second prong of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s get-tough approach to the drug gang violence that killed more than 2,000 people nationwide last year. In January, 17 Mexican suspects have been handed over to U.S. authorities, a pace that would easily surpass last year’s record 63 extraditions.

Calderon’s first line of attack started shortly after he took office in December, when he began ordering the army, navy and federal police into several states, including his home state of Michoacan and the key smuggling cities of Tijuana and Acapulco.

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Medina Mora said Sunday the army had also been working in Mexico’s so-called Golden Triangle, where the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango intersect in the western Sierra Madre. The mountainous region is a longtime center of marijuana and heroin production, and Sinaloa is home to Mexico’s most notorious drug lords.

Federal forces in recent weeks have burned 2,500 acres of marijuana fields and nearly 2,000 acres of opium poppy fields, security officials said Sunday. They’ve confiscated 2.6 tons of cocaine and 20 tons of harvested marijuana.

Authorities say they have arrested 98 people, mostly low-level growers, workers and a few alleged assassins.

Disrupting business

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Among those turned over to U.S. authorities late Friday was Osiel Cardenas, a former police officer and the reputed head of the so-called Gulf cartel. His group has been battling a Sinaloa-based Pacific Coast organization for control of lucrative smuggling routes along the U.S.-Mexico border. He has allegedly been running his operation from a maximum-security prison outside of Mexico City since his 2003 arrest.

Two of the other top drug leaders extradited were Cardenas allies from Tijuana, brothers Ismael and Gilberto Higuera Guerrero; and one, Hector “Guero” Palma, a competitor from the Sinaloa group.

“There are dozens of extraditions pending, but there are ongoing legal procedures that federal courts haven’t yet resolved,” Medina Mora said. Cardenas and the other drug leaders had exhausted appeals in their legal fight against extradition, he said.

Calderon’s short-term goal, officials say, is to warn competing leaders that he will disrupt business unless they end the daily kidnappings, beheadings and torture in the war between Mexico’s east and west coast factions.

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“Mexicans can be sure that we will continue working to reclaim public spaces and to close down territory on criminals,” Mexican Interior Secretary Francisco Ramirez Acuna said Sunday.

Nearly all the cocaine and marijuana consumed in the U.S., an annual market estimated at more than $50 billion, comes via Mexican smugglers, wholesalers and dealers. Based on 2005-06 border seizures, about 60% of the cocaine arrives in Texas, and California and Arizona each account for about 20%.

Although experts believe some of the profits are invested in Mexican real estate and business, the Calderon administration worries that the drug war will scare off legitimate investors and hobble his promise to create millions of new jobs.

sam.enriquez@latimes.com

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carlos.martinez@latimes.com


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