Mexico Wants Fugitive Back, US Judge Says No

FOR months, the United States has urged Mexico to crack down on crime and political corruption. Now Mexican authorities complain the US legal system is blocking their best efforts to do just that.

On Monday, a US magistrate in New Jersey thwarted Mexico's second attempt to extradite one of its most-wanted fugitives, former deputy attorney general Mario Ruiz Massieu. The resulting diplomatic strain underscores the difference between US and Mexican courts. American judges often issue rulings that do not please politicians. In Mexico, many judges have often seemed in thrall to a quasi-autocratic regime.

''This decision is a commentary on the evidence against Ruiz Massieu - and what would serve as evidence in the Mexican criminal process,'' says Roderic Ai Camp, a prominent Mexico scholar at Tulane University, in New Orleans. ''There would be much more political pressure in a Mexican court, and many more consequences for a judge who did not bow to that pressure. Keep in mind that in United States courts there is a real difference between the executive and judicial branches.''

Mexican prosecutors accuse Mr. Ruiz Massieu of embezzling government funds and obstructing the investigation of a high-level political assassination here last year. But Ronald J. Hedges, a federal magistrate in Newark, is not convinced.

Mr. Hedges ruled first on June 22 and again on Monday that Mexico has failed to produce enough evidence to warrant releasing Ruiz Massieu to Mexico. The ex-prosecutor was arrested in March at Newark International Airport on lesser charges of breaking US customs law.

While vowing to press its battle to bring Ruiz Massieu to trial in his home country, Mexico has made the case a test of relations with its northern neighbor. Mexican Attorney General Antonio Lozano Gracia raised the issue with his American counterpart, Janet Reno, in a meeting here this month. Ms. Reno has backed Mr. Lozano, but so far to no avail.

After Hedges issued his second rejection, the Mexican foreign relations ministry declared that it would convey to the US government its ''profound concern and opposition to this decision, which does not support the priority that the government of Mexico gives to insuring the rule of law and abolishing impunity.''

Indeed, the Mexican government this year has made unprecedented strides toward cleaning house. For the first time, the attorney general is a member of an opposition party. What's more, President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon has given Lozano free rein to investigate politically sensitive crimes. The chief prosecutor has staked much on the Ruiz Massieu extradition.

Mexican authorities allege that in his former post, Ruiz Massieu was tainted by undue connections to drug traffickers. They say that they will file charges of money-laundering against him in a new extradition request.

IN addition, many Mexicans believe bringing Ruiz Massieu to trial may be the only way to solve the political assassinations that have cast a pall over the country's rulers in the past few years.

For example, Ruiz Massieu is one of the few former Mexican officials with firsthand knowledge of the conduct of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in the months after a ruling party leader was assassinated in September 1994.

That party official, Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, happened to be Mario's brother. And an older brother of the former president, Raul Salinas de Gortari, happens to be in jail on charges of masterminding the assassination. So Mexicans curious about such intimate family connections - and their import for criminal justice - are frustrated by Hedges's decisions.

''It seems very strange to me, the position of this judge,'' said Emilio Krieger, a legal scholar and leader of a reformist movement called Democratic Lawyers in Mexico City. ''I don't know what his motives are, but his decisions have political consequences. This is a way of helping Salinas. Ruiz Massieu is a symbol for the impunity and the corruption of the Salinas regime.''

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