Drug leaders extradited

The Baltimore Sun

MEXICO CITY -- On a weekend when four top drug leaders were sent to face trial in the United States, Mexico's attorney general said yesterday he plans more extraditions, tacitly acknowledging that corruption has allowed drug kingpins to direct their operations even while behind bars in maximum-security Mexican prisons.

The latest round of extraditions breaks ties between drug capos and "the structures of the criminal organizations in our country," said Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora. He added that the transfer of wealthy traffickers to the United States will help return security and integrity to the prisons where they were held.

Aggressive extradition is emerging as the second prong of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's get-tough approach to the drug gang violence that killed more than 2,000 people nationwide last year. This month, 17 Mexicans have been handed over to U.S. authorities, setting a pace that would easily surpass last year's record 63 extraditions.

Calderon's first line of attack started shortly after taking office in December when he began ordering the army, navy and federal police into several states, including his home state of Michoacan and the key smuggling cities of Tijuana and Acapulco.

Medina Mora said yesterday the army also has been working in Mexico's so-called Golden Triangle, where the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango intersect in the western Sierra Madre. The mountainous region is a longtime center of marijuana and heroin production, and Sinaloa is home to Mexico's most notorious drug lords.

Federal forces in past weeks have burned 2,500 acres of marijuana fields and nearly 2,000 acres of opium poppy fields, security officials said yesterday. They have confiscated 2.6 tons of cocaine and 20 tons of harvested marijuana. Authorities say they have arrested 98 people, mostly low-level growers, workers and a few alleged assassins.

Among those turned over to U.S. authorities late Friday was Osiel Cardenas, a former police officer and the reputed head of the so-called Gulf Cartel. His group has been battling a Sinaloa-based Pacific Coast organization for control of lucrative smuggling routes along the U.S.-Mexico border. He has allegedly been running his operation from a maximum-security prison outside of Mexico City since his 2003 arrest.

Two of the other three top drug leaders extradited were Cardenas allies from Tijuana, brothers Ismael and Gilberto Higuera Guerrero. The third, Hector "Guero" Palma, is a competitor from the Sinaloa group.

"There are dozens of extraditions pending but there are ongoing legal procedures that federal courts haven't yet resolved," said Medina Mora. Cardenas and the other drug leaders had exhausted appeals in their legal fight against extradition, he said.

Calderon's short-term goal, officials say, is to warn competing drug leaders that the president will disrupt business unless they end the daily kidnappings, beheadings and torture in the war between Mexico's east and west coast factions.

Based on 2005-2006 border seizures, about 60 percent of cocaine consumed in the U.S. arrives in Texas, while California and Arizona each account for about 20 percent.

Sam Enriquez and Carlos Martinez write for the Los Angeles Times.

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