America's faltering program for apprehending international fugitives got some badly needed attention Monday when Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin announced a series of measures aimed at capturing the growing numbers of criminal suspects who flee across America's borders after they are charged with violent felonies.
In the most ambitious measure, Durbin said he has recently met withMexico'sambassador to press for revisions of the U.S.-Mexico extradition treaty, which is more than 30 years old and omits serious crimes such as reckless homicide.
"Thirty years is long enough. It's time to sit down at the table," Durbin told the Tribune, adding that the ambassador responded positively to the idea.
Durbin also introduced a bill Monday that would direct $1 million to $3 million per year to a fund dedicated to enhancing efforts to apprehend international fugitives. Under his Bringing Fugitives to Justice Act, the new fund would not require any taxpayer contributions but would be funded by bail bonds and other fees forfeited by federal defendants who flee justice.
Durbin said these and other reform measures were inspired by the Tribune's ongoing "Fugitives From Justice" investigation, which examined more than 200 international fugitive cases from the Chicago area and thousands more nationwide.
Suspects charged with murder, rape and other felonies remain at large in foreign countries because of an astonishing lack of coordination among U.S. law enforcement agencies; a failure by government officials to keep track of their mounting caseloads; and arcane and out-of-date treaties that omit serious felonies, the Tribune found.
Among new reform measures, Durbin said Monday that the Justice Department has clarified its chain of command and designated the U.S. Marshals Service as the primary point of contact for Illinois police and prosecutors pursuing border-crossing fugitives. In the past, local law enforcement officials have expressed frustration about whether they should turn to the marshals or the FBI — two agencies with overlapping missions that often failed to coordinate their fugitive apprehension efforts.
And following up on an earlier reform pledge, the Justice Department on Tuesday will begin training Illinois law enforcement on how to handle international fugitive investigations.
Top Justice Department and Interpol officials will fly in from Washington to lead the session. DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin is to participate personally along with two of his deputies. Attendees will also include representatives from Chicago police and the offices of the Illinois attorney general and Will County's state's attorney.
"In the past we did not have a lot of people trained" in the complex paperwork needed to request an arrest warrant from a foreign government, said Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, who plans to send a dozen criminal prosecutors to the session. "It's better for all of us if we have more than one person who can do this."
Alvarez added that she is implementing new measures within her office to better manage the growing stream of international fugitive cases, noting that prosecutions can unravel when the cases drift for years with little attention.
"We're looking at how we can flag these cases and stay on top of them, (and) meet regularly with the feds to make sure they're always on someone's radar," Alvarez said.
Both nationally and in northern Illinois, border-crossing fugitives have found haven in countries as far-flung as Nigeria, South Korea and India, but more than half fled to Mexico, the Tribune investigation found. The newspaper's reporters traveled to central Mexico and searched for nine fugitives — including six wanted in homicides. They found eight of the nine and determined that the wanted suspects had taken few if any steps to conceal their identities or whereabouts.
At a January Senate hearing, Attorney General Eric Holder said the articles exposed "simply unacceptable" flaws in America's extradition system, and Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan vowed in a letter to Durbin that his country would "never be a safe haven for fugitives fleeing justice in the United States."
At a Feb. 29 meeting with Sarukhan, Durbin discussed revising the U.S.-Mexico extradition treaty to eliminate barriers caused by differences in the two countries' statutes of limitations and to update the list of extraditable crimes.
For example, killing someone while driving drunk is not an extraditable crime under the treaty. That omission baffles and angers the family of Rachel Gilliam, a Chicago college student who was run over and killed as she tried to hail a cab in the early morning hours of Nov. 1, 2009.
The suspect in the case, Carlos Castillo, fled to Mexico, and FBI agents worked with Mexican authorities to trace his precise location there, according to a law enforcement source. But officials have told Gilliam's family that Castillo cannot be returned to the U.S. because of the gap in the treaty.
"The treaty undoubtedly needs to be modernized," said Bruce Zagaris, an attorney based in Washington who specializes in international law.
Sarukhan spokesman Ricardo Alday declined to comment on the meeting with Durbin.
But Durbin said the Mexican ambassador "could not have been more positive and cooperative" about revising the treaty. Durbin added that he now is "going to reach out to the State and Justice departments and tell them there is an opening here and a necessity for us to try to update this treaty."
At the meeting with Sarukhan, Durbin also asked about five Chicago-area fugitives highlighted by the Tribune, including four charged with murder and one with raping a child.
"He gave me his word that he would get back to me with a personal review on each case, and we're looking forward to that happening soon," Durbin said.
Up to now, federal law required that all forfeited appearance bonds, bail bonds and collateral in federal criminal cases be deposited into a specially designated Crime Victims Fund, which then disburses grants to organizations that work on behalf of crime victims.
The fund has a $6.1 billion balance, Durbin said, and only a small fraction of the incoming money would be diverted to boost fugitive apprehension efforts under his new bill.
"I think this is a legitimate claim," Durbin said, one that won't "unduly sacrifice other programs or needs."
The new fund created under Durbin's proposed legislation will benefit the Marshals Service, U.S. attorneys' offices and the Justice Department's Office of International Affairs, Durbin said.
Durbin said his bill will be referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he will ask if it "can possibly move" to a Senate vote this year. He added that he hopes state and local jurisdictions will follow with similar measures.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun