Mexico's Supreme Court ruled that suspects facing life in prison can be extradited, overturning a 4-year-old ban that had prevented many of the country's most notorious criminals from being sent to the United States. A 1978 treaty with the United States allows Mexico to deny extradition if a person faces the death penalty. In 2001, the Supreme Court also blocked extradition of suspects facing life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Capital punishment has been banned by Mexico's constitution since June and was almost never applied for decades before that. Life sentences are also extremely rare. But the high court weighed the issue after the government of the northern state of Chihuahua modified its penal code to include life sentences in convictions involving homicide and kidnapping.
Tuesday's ruling also declared Chihuahua's state law constitutional, setting a precedent that could allow for more life sentences. Judges ruled 6-5 to throw out the life without parole restriction, but their ruling will not ease extradition restrictions for suspects who could face the death penalty, a court spokesman said.
He said the ruling will apply to all suspects captured here, including U.S. citizens who commit crimes, then flee south of the border.
During a full high court session, 10 judges normally vote. In the case of a tie, chief justice Mariano Azuela is called upon to cast the deciding vote. The 2001 ban kept many of the country's top drug lords and other notorious suspects in Mexico when U.S. authorities were desperate to try them in their territory.
In one of the latest cases, Raul Gomez-Garcia was caught in Mexico in June after being accused of killing a Denver police officer. Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey brought second-degree murder charges against Gomez-Garcia because a first-degree charge could have blocked the extradition by allowing life imprisonment or the death penalty.
The U.S. Embassy had no comment on Tuesday's ruling. In California, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley praised the ruling. "This is a landmark legal decision that clears the way to return murderers to face justice here in the United States, where they committed their crimes," said Cooley, who estimated that as many as 3,000 murderers have fled the U.S. to Mexico to avoid prosecution. "We're getting into high gear to take advantage of this favorable decision."
The federal attorney general's office is considering U.S. extradition requests for Benjamin Arellano Felix, the reputed head of the Tijuana-based cocaine- and marijuana-smuggling syndicate bearing his family's name, reports the AP. I.L.