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Paperwork snafu keeps suspect from U.S. hands

Thu., May 3, 2007, midnight

MEXICO CITY – The United States missed a chance in January to take custody of Mexico’s most notorious alleged drug baron because U.S. officials hadn’t filed a timely extradition request with Mexico, a McClatchy Newspapers investigation has found.

On Jan. 19, Mexico handed over 15 Mexican nationals sought by the U.S. justice system, including the alleged bosses of the Gulf and Sinaloa drug cartels and eight other high-level drug suspects.

But Alberto Benjamin Arellano-Felix, the reputed leader of the Tijuana cartel, who has been under arrest in Mexico since March 2002, wasn’t among the extradited.

After the slain Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, Arellano-Felix is arguably among the most infamous of suspected drug lords anywhere. The U.S. government has accused him of working closely with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, narco-guerrillas known as the FARC, to convert Mexico into the main drug corridor into the United States.

The Justice Department confirmed to McClatchy Newspapers that an extradition request for Arellano-Felix was first filed in February, weeks after new Mexican President Felipe Calderon handed over alleged top drug traffickers without warning. Prior to that move, Mexico rarely handed over suspected kingpins because of its opposition to the death penalty and life sentences issued in U.S. courts.

The Tijuana cartel is among Mexico’s most violent and dangerous drug smuggling organizations. Controlled by the extended Arellano-Felix clan, the cartel has dominated the flow of cocaine, marijuana and heroin into California and the rest of the West Coast since the 1990s. The cartel is also responsible for elaborate tunnels built under the Tijuana-San Diego border to ferry drugs.

Arellano-Felix has been sought by the U.S. government for at least 15 years, and federal grand juries have returned sealed indictments on seven occasions. In the latest, a grand jury in San Diego returned a 28-count indictment that linked Arellano-Felix to drug smuggling and money laundering in December 2003 and to at least 20 murders in the United States and Mexico.

Both the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego refused to discuss why it took them five years after Arellano-Felix’s arrest on drug-related charges to request his extradition.

During a Jan. 22 news conference on Mexico’s surprise extraditions, Department of Justice officials sidestepped the question of why Arellano-Felix wasn’t among the extradited. DEA officials later suggested that Mexico’s notoriously slow legal system was to blame.

In fact, the U.S. legal system proved too slow.

Bryan Sierra, a spokesman for the Justice Department, confirmed to McClatchy Newspapers that the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego sent case documents to Washington last May seeking Arellano-Felix’s extradition, four years after his arrest.

It took the Justice Department about five months to translate into Spanish 27 boxes full of documents, at a cost exceeding $100,000, Sierra said. The documents were then sent to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico in October. It took four more months before the U.S. Embassy presented the complicated extradition request to Mexico. But that was after Calderon’s government had surrendered some of the drug traffickers most wanted by the U.S. justice system.


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