Ross Parker was chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 8 years and worked as an AUSA for 28 in that office.
By Ross Parker
Both the U. S. and Mexican governments face some difficult policy questions in light of the surprise release from jail last week of one of the murderers of iconic hero DEA Special Agent Enrique Camarena. With no advance warning and under highly questionable circumstances, an intermediate Mexican court overturned the conviction of drug kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero on the grounds that he had been convicted in federal rather than state court.
The decision was kept secret for two days from the media and the U. S, government. Quintero was released from Jalisco jail before any steps could be taken to review the ruling. His release blindsided the U. S. government. Quintero’s current whereabouts are unknown.
Mexican legal authorities say that the decision was contrary to Mexican Supreme Court precedent and that the court avoided the logical remedy of simply remanding the case to the appropriate state court. These anomalies and the secrecy that surrounded his release have raised questions on both sides of the border in light of the Mexican legal system’s reputation for corruption when dealing with the cartels.
Although the United States has lodged a protest over the matter, DOJ has not yet announced a decision to pursue extradition of Quintero. Nor is it clear whether extradition was ever formally sought on existing U.S. drug charges. This is somewhat surprising given the fact that Mexican authorities had allowed him to flee in 1985 before he was captured in Costa Rica.
Law enforcement sources indicate that Quintero, considered the godfather of the Mexican cartels in the 1970s and 80s, has continued his criminal activity from prison, operating a substantial money laundering operation for the Similoa cartel. This, of course, could be the basis of future charges and an extradition request.
It would be a mistake for the Obama administration to underestimate the depth of outrage by U. S. law enforcement over this incident. As summarized in a column a couple weeks ago, “Kiki” Camarena continues to be remembered as a courageous and effective federal agent whose efforts under constant threat were successful in dealing a serious blow to the cartel’s operation in Guadalajara.
His kidnapping, torture and murder mobilized federal agents as few such atrocities on foreign soil have. U.S. agents crossed the border to hunt down his killers. Customs agents deliberately slowed cross-border traffic to put pressure on Mexican authorities. The killers were brought to justice on both sides of the border, but the incident affected the relations between respective law enforcement officers for a generation.
Attorney General Eric Holder has sent a letter on the Quintero release to his counterpart in Mexico but the contents have not been made public. A failure of DOJ to take concrete steps to bring Quintero to justice would damage law enforcement morale, as well as the already problematic relationship with Mexican law enforcement.
Moreover, the message to both the cartels and the vulnerable members of the Mexican legal system would be extremely negative. American submission to the caprice and corruption of Mexican justice would only encourage future manipulations. There is good reason to believe that the Quintero case is only the first of many potential releases of high level traffickers. An attorney for a co-defendant in the Camarena murder case has already publicly announced his expectation that his client will also be freed.
Other Mexican legal authorities have speculated that the continuing reform of the Mexican justice system from its former activities of forced confessions and other such practices will provide fertile ground, even years later, for high-priced defense attorneys to seek the reversals of the convictions of high level traffickers. Apparently Mexican post-conviction proceedings lack the strict limits and finality of the United States Code.
U. S. federal prosecutors may react to such developments in Mexico by bringing a host of insurance indictments to serve as bases for future extradition requests to cope with wholesale releases of culpable traffickers.
Beyond case-by-case reaction to this situation, the U. S, administration will face some tough decisions about relations with Mexico on this issue. The U. S. has spent billions of dollars to support Mexican law enforcement in their efforts to cope with violent offenders. Some have suggested that the billion-dollar-a-day economy between the two neighbors under the North American Free Trade Agreement will make American authorities reluctant to do more than express their displeasure with such releases.
Mexico, too, has some awkward policy choices to make. The law enforcement and prosecutorial systems have many brave and dedicated professionals who have had some success in battling the deep pocket resources of the cartels. Releasing some of the cartel leaders not only threatens this success but increases the danger they face every day.
The current President of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, was elected last December. He took immediate steps to cut back on the access by U. S. law enforcement agents to investigative and intelligence activity with their Mexican counterparts. His predecessor, Felipe Calderon had forged a strong working relationship with DEA, ICE, and other federal agencies. The U. S. provided extensive resources, manpower, and financing to bolster Mexican efforts to target drug kingpins. That policy has been reversed in the last six months in favor on concentrating on the violence on the streets.
In their meeting in May, Presidents Obama and Nieto discussed American concerns over this development. President Obama, however, concluded the meeting by announcing that he accepted this change as a matter of Mexican domestic policy. The result has been a serious deterioration in the working relationship and trust that had developed between the two countries’ law enforcement forces. The Quintero debacle and the looming threat of other releases are the latest blows to this delicate situation.
Mexican acquiescence to these questionable releases runs the risk of losing whatever control there is over drug enforcement there. Continued massive violence and a collapse of integrity to the legal system are at stake. Then there is the risk of backlash in the United States resulting in eliminating the billions in foreign aid as well as damaging the burgeoning economy between the two countries.
Mexico has justifiably taken steps to re-balance their legal system by providing due process guarantees to criminal defendants. But such efforts must be based on integrity in enforcing the rule of law and the effects that such reforms could have on the fragile law enforcement system and the catastrophic loss of life. Weakening the structure of Mexican society will be a devastating price to pay for such reforms.
The U. S. must continue to assist Mexico to navigate these treacherous waters and work to reverse the retrenchment of joint efforts by the two nations’ law enforcement.
Such efforts will not succeed without a re-doubling of efforts to reduce America’s insatiable demand for illegal drugs.