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—known as "Min," short for Benjamin—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. In addition, he's alleged to have bribed powerful Mexican politicians, and Mexican authorities suspect that his organization was behind the 1993 assassination of a Roman Catholic cardinal at an airport in Guadalajara.
The Drug Enforcement Administration had offered a $2 million reward for the arrest of Arellano-Felix and a $5 million reward for his brother Francisco Javier Arellano-Felix, who reportedly took over the cartel after Benjamin's arrest in 2002. Francisco Javier was arrested in international waters aboard a deep-sea fishing boat off the Mexican Pacific Coast on Aug. 14 and now faces federal trial in California. He's indicted as a co-defendant under the same 28 counts as Benjamin.
The DEA believes that their brother Eduardo is now running the organization, and it has a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest.
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.
In fact, one of Arellano-Felix's top lieutenants, Ismael Higuera Guerrero, was named in the same federal indictment as his boss and was extradited on Jan. 19 in response to a standing U.S. request. Higuera pleaded guilty on March 16 and is expected to testify against Arellano-Felix should Mexico extradite him.
During a Jan. 22 news conference on Mexico's surprise extraditions, Department of Justice officials sidestepped the question of why Benjamin 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.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, James Dickmeyer, said that once the extradition request was received in Mexico City, embassy officials reviewed it and passed it on to Mexico "within the normal time frame, taking into account that there was a change of government here on Dec. 1."
There's no way of knowing for sure whether Mexico would have extradited Arellano-Felix had the United States filed extradition papers. Mexican drug traffickers have long bribed or killed those in Mexico who would punish them. Although he was arrested in March 2002, it wasn't until April 26, 2007, that Arellano-Felix was convicted and sentenced for any crime and that was for the minor offense of arms possession, which carries a five-year term.
But it's clear that without an extradition request, there was no way for Mexico to hand over Arellano-Felix to the United States.
Sierra, the Justice Department spokesman, said his agency doesn't believe that the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Diego erred in not seeking the extradition of Arellano-Felix earlier. He added that "we are still talking with Mexico about extraditing him here, and we'd prefer to discuss the case with the Mexicans, not the media."
Debra Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Diego, declined to discuss the delay in seeking Arellano-Felix's extradition. So did Carol Lam, the former U.S. attorney in San Diego who was fired late last year by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Mexican government officials declined public comment for this story. That's partly because they and their families risk death if drug cartels see them as supporting extradition of traffickers or interfering with the lucrative illicit drug trade.
Some experts think that Arellano-Felix will eventually be extradited because cracking down on cartels has become Calderon's signature issue.
Calderon took office on Dec. 1 in a disputed election and is seeking to boost his image at home and abroad by getting tough with drug traffickers. Cartels have responded by killing police and judicial officials across Mexico, and that's drawn Mexicans to the side of the new president.
"He's made a very pragmatic decision that he would much rather not have to jail these people in Mexico," said Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. "He understands there is some collateral benefit from being cooperative with the U.S. on these issues that get him some positive reaction in Washington, but it has been much more him taking care of a practical problem for the Mexican legal system."
Historically, staunchly Roman Catholic Mexico has refused to extradite top drug barons such as Arellano-Felix to the United States because they could face the death penalty or life imprisonment. Neither sentence exists in Mexican law.
That has protected drug bosses from facing the U.S. justice system and allowed them to run their empires from jail cells. U.S. prosecutors softened their indictments against Arellano-Felix in 2003 to avoid the chance of a death sentence or life imprisonment.
However, in 2005, Mexican courts began allowing extradition even when life terms were possible. Since then, Mexico has allowed more extraditions, but the process remains confusing and partly shielded from public scrutiny on both sides of the border.
"It's hard to get your hands around the fact of how this really happened," said Chip Lewis, a Houston attorney serving as co-counsel to Osiel Cardenas, the alleged leader of the violent Gulf cartel who was extradited on Jan. 19 to face trial in Brownsville, Texas.
Lewis, who recently defended the late Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, said he was studying whether rules were broken in what appeared to be snap extraditions by Mexico.
In Mexico, Arellano-Felix is known to have at least eight powerful attorneys trying to prevent his extradition to the United States. Although his brother Francisco Javier has retained counsel in the United States since his arrest and U.S. imprisonment last August, Benjamin doesn't appear to have hired a U.S. attorney.