MEXICO CITY -- Breaking with long-standing practice, Mexico extradited four major drug traffickers to the United States late Friday and sent a signal that the country's newly elected president, Felipe Calderon, is serious about cooperating with his northern neighbor to dismantle cartels.
U.S. law enforcement officials have long complained about Mexican reluctance to hand over drug traffickers indicted in crimes north of the Rio Grande, and many drug kingpins have continued to operate their deadly networks from inside Mexican prisons, where they have been able to corrupt officials.
Until now, the Mexican government has resisted the extraditions, arguing that the drug cartel leaders must face justice in Mexico first. In some cases, Mexican officials have not been permitted to extradite criminals because they face the death penalty in the United States, which is banned in Mexico.
A court overturned that rule.
"The actions overnight by the Mexican government are unprecedented in their scope and importance," the U.S. attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, said in a statement yesterday. "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."
Osiel Cardenas Guillen, the leader of the Gulf cartel in Tamaulipas state, was among the 21 people flown under heavy armed guard to the United States on Friday night and handed over to U.S. federal authorities. He is under indictment in Texas for trafficking in marijuana and threatening to kill three law enforcement agents.
"Today, both the Mexican and the American people can celebrate a monumental moment in our two nations' battle with the vicious drug traffickers and criminals who threaten our very way of life," Antonio O. Garza, the U.S. ambassador here, said in a statement.
The Mexican government also turned over Ismael and Gilberto Higuera Guerrero, brothers who were high-ranking members of the Arellano-Felix cartel in Tijuana, as well as Hector Palma Salazar, a former leader in the Sinaloa cartel.
All face racketeering and drug trafficking charges in Southern California.
The Sinaloa cartel controls the border around El Paso, Texas. Joaquin Guzman, known as El Chapo, escaped from prison in 2001 after bribing officials and still oversees the gang, along with several other important traffickers who have eluded the Mexican police.
Former President Vicente Fox, who left office in December, created a force to combat organized crime and arrested scores of high-ranking mobsters, weakening the three major cartels in Tijuana and Sinaloa state in the west and Tamaulipas state, along the eastern Texas border.
But his administration failed to break up the Sinaloa mob, and the arrests of people like Cardenas and his counterpart in Tijuana, Benjamin Arellano-Felix, sparked an underworld turf war that has escalated in brutality and claimed thousands of lives in recent years.
Officials at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration privately voiced frustration with the Fox administration for not extraditing the drug kingpins to the United States, where they would be unable to run their networks from prison. A similar tactic proved effective in Colombia, Panama and other countries where drugs are produced and shipped.
Calderon and his attorney general, Eduardo Medina Mora, did not immediately say why they had switched course. Mora's office released a statement saying simply that those extradited had run out of appeals against extradition and that Mexico wanted them to face trial in the United States before the time limit ran out on the charges there.
But all are serving sentences or facing pending trials in Mexico. In the past, the Mexican authorities have said those were barriers to extradition.
"This action is one sign more of the government's firm decision to confront the wave of violence and impunity linked to organized crime through the strict application of the law," the attorney general's office said.