MEXICO CITY — THE abduction of a Mexican doctor charged with involvement in the murder of a United States Drug Enforcement Administration agent has been a source of tension between Mexico and the US in recent months. Now there is an opportunity to dissolve the tension, Mexican officials say. Federal district judge Edward Rafeedie in Los Angeles vindicated Mexican claims last Friday by ruling that the April 2 abduction of Dr. Humberto Alvarez Mach'ain violated the extradition treaty between the US and Mexico. The judge has given the Justice Department until today to respond, or Dr. Alvarez will be returned to Mexico.
Of the 22 people indicted in connection with the murder of undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique Camarena Salazar, two were abducted (from Honduras and from Mexico) to stand trial in the US. Both were convicted. Neither abduction triggered Mexican protests. In the Alvarez case, however, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari registered several complaints.
Since the judge's decision, a spokesman for President Salinas has called it a ``victory for legality and justice. We can't fight illegal actions with another illegal action. That jeopardizes bilateral cooperation.'' Another Mexican official described the ruling as ``good for Mexico-US relations.''
Alvarez was brought from Guadalajara, Mexico, to stand trial in Los Angeles by Mexicans paid by the DEA. He is accused of aiding in the 1985 kidnapping and torture leading to Camarena's death. If Alvarez is returned (along with the evidence US prosecutors may have), he will be arrested and tried here, says a spokesman in the Mexican attorney general's office.
But in Washington, there is debate between officials in the State Department, who would like to see this rift mended, and those in the Justice Department, which may decide to appeal. A Justice Department spokesman declined comment on the matter.
In the midst of its proclaimed war against illegal narcotics, the Justice Department may be loath to give up the practice of abducting suspects abroad, which has proven effective, especially in situations (as DEA agents have argued in this case) where Mexican officials seem unwilling to cooperate.
Last month, for example, Mexico received a clear indication of US Justice Department feelings on the subject. Mexico had requested the extradition of Hector B'errellez, a DEA agent based in Los Angeles, and Antonio G'arate Bustamante, a DEA informant. The two allegedly plotted the abduction of Alvarez. But US Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said the request threatened the ``constructive relationship'' between US and Mexican law enforcement agencies. No action has been taken on the request.
Why didn't the 1986 abduction of Ren'e Verdugo Urqu'idez to stand trial in the US generate a storm of protests? One Mexican official shrugs: ``There were different administrations in power, here and in Washington.''
Ross Gandy, a lecturer in international relations at the Autonomous National University, says Salinas's tougher stance on the Alvarez abduction may be based partly on scoring political points at home. Mexican officials say those responsible for Camarena's murder have been sentenced in Mexico and resent further investigation.
``Salinas's economic reforms - selling off some government assets to foreign interests and opening up the economy to more foreign competition - are not popular policies with nationalists in the ruling party. Sovereignty is a very sensitive issue here,'' Mr. Gandy says. ``Taking a tough stand on Dr. Alvarez Mach'ain makes the president look like he's standing up to the US. It's a chance to wave the flag.''
While opting to send Alvarez back to Mexico, Judge Rafeedie did not set aside the indictment, permitting Mexico to return him. In the same case, earlier this month three people were found guilty of kidnapping Camarena. Another was found guilty of murdering two American tourists mistaken for DEA agents.