MEXICO CITY – Mexico’s extradition of four reputed drug lords drew praise from the U.S. attorney general on Saturday and signaled its new determination to keep traffickers from running their cartels from inside prison walls.
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the Friday extraditions were “unprecedented in their scope and importance.”
Osiel Cardenas, the alleged Gulf cartel leader who was believed to be running his gang from prison in Mexico, was sent north late Friday along with 14 others wanted by the U.S. after their appeals against extradition ran out, the office of Mexico’s attorney general said.
“Never before has the United States received from Mexico such a large number of major drug defendants and other criminals for prosecution in this country,” Gonzales said in a statement on Saturday.
The Mexican attorney general’s office released photos showing the balding Cardenas being escorted onto a plane bound for the United States in handcuffs, surrounded by U.S. and Mexican agents.
The office said the extraditions were also aimed in part at cracking down on turf battles between Mexican drug cartels, which have cost hundreds of lives in recent months in states like Michoacan, Guerrero, Baja California and Sinaloa. The government has recently sent thousands of soldiers and police to try to stem the drug-fueled violence.
“This changes the rules, as far drug traffickers’ impunity and the potential punishment they face,” said Oscar Aguilar, a political science professor at Mexico City’s Iberoamerican University. “Before, the capos could say, ‘Well, if they ever do catch me, I’ll be in Mexico, my family and associates can visit me whenever they want, and I can keep running the business,’ ” from prison.
Mexican officials have said that Cardenas and top members of the Tijuana cartel had forged an alliance while locked up at a maximum-security prison just west of Mexico City, where they organized to fight turf wars against rival drug lords.
Authorities also said Cardenas sought to control that prison and other jails through gangs of inmates, and may have organized killings both inside and outside prison. Authorities say he ran his cartel by passing messages to lawyers representing him and dozens of associates.
The United States once offered a $2 million reward for Cardenas before his 2003 arrest. In 1999, U.S. officials said Cardenas held two U.S. agents at gunpoint in their car in a Mexican border city, then let them go, saying: “You gringos, this is my territory. You can’t control it, so get the hell out of here.”
In addition to Cardenas, Mexico on Friday extradited Ismael and Gilberto Higuera Guerrero, brothers and former chiefs in the Arellano-Felix cartel in Tijuana and Mexicali; and Hector Palma Salazar, a former leader in the Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Eleven others were extradited on a variety of U.S. charges, including murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping and sex crimes, the two governments said.