MEXICO CITY – Mexico’s Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to allow the extradition of criminal suspects who face life sentences abroad, clearing the way for thousands of alleged murderers and drug traffickers to stand trial in the United States.
The court’s 6-5 vote ends four years of wrangling between the U.S. and Mexican governments over accused killers who have been protected by Mexico’s ban on life sentences.
U.S. lawmakers this fall had threatened to cut off millions of dollars in aid to Mexico unless it turned over suspects in a number of high-profile cases, including the fatal shootings of a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy and a Denver police detective.
Mexico since 1978 has barred the extradition of its citizens accused of crimes that carry the death penalty. The Mexican Supreme Court extended the extradition ban in October 2001 to Mexicans facing life in prison, a penalty the court said violated the Constitution as a cruel and unusual punishment.
Since then, American law enforcement officials have complained that scores of Mexicans who committed crimes in the U.S. have escaped justice simply by crossing the border back home. In some cases, U.S. prosecutors have agreed to pursue reduced criminal charges, with lighter sentences, to persuade Mexican authorities to hand over suspects.
“We estimate there are 3,000 individuals who committed murders in the United States, several hundred in Los Angeles County, and fled to Mexico,” said Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley.
The ruling “is going to have a major impact, especially on the border states, but also as far north as Washington state,” he said. “This means murderers who fled our country can be extradited and face the appropriate penalties. This is a big deal.”
The ruling also means that some of Mexico’s biggest drug traffickers are now vulnerable to extradition, including Osiel Cardenas Guillen, the imprisoned head of the so-called Gulf Cartel, as well as his ally Benjamin Arellano Felix, who has led the Tijuana Cartel.
The court’s reversal began in September, during a review of a proposed law in the state of Chihuahua creating consecutive sentences for kidnap and murder.
Mexican lawmakers had hoped the stiffer sentences – which could stretch to more than 100 years – would stem the homicide epidemic in Ciudad Juarez and other border cities.
A court majority approved the new law on Sept. 6. Justice Juan Diaz Romero said the ruling did not explicitly allow life sentences, but it amounted to the same and thus opened the door to changes in extradition policy.
Justices deliberated on the issue Tuesday and after a three-hour discussion were deadlocked 5-5.
Supreme Court president Mariano Azuela Guitron was asked to break the tie, and he voted in favor of allowing the extraditions.