A Bad Precedent

THE Mexican government, concerned the United States might not honor extradition agreements, hires shadowy agents to abduct an American from his home in San Diego and spirit him across the border to stand trial in Mexico. OK?

Apparently it would be, regardless of the subterranean methods, the clear violation of international law and national sovereignty, and the outrage it would cause among Americans. At least that's what the US Supreme Court seemed to say this week.

The court decided that since the 1978 extradition treaty between Mexico and the US doesn't specifically prohibit kidnapping, the Drug Enforcement Agency's collaboration with bounty-hunters who seized a Mexican doctor, Humberto Alvarez-Machain, in Guadalajara and hauled him north for trial was all right under the US Constitution. Dr. Alvarez is accused of participating in the 1985 torture and murder of US undercover antidrug agent Enrique Camarena Salazar.

Some legal experts found little surprising in the Supreme Court's decision, given a long tendency in US courts to wink at the issue of how defendants happen to arrive in a jurisdiction. But the court's ratification of the kidnapping tactic could set a regrettable precedent nonetheless.

Not that the US didn't try very hard to extradite Alvarez through normal channels, or that Mexican authorities didn't stonewall. The US had reason to be frustrated. It's far from certain that Alvarez would ever have faced trial in Mexico. Still, the issue is bigger than bringing one notorious figure to justice.

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens chided his colleagues for ignoring a critical difference between this case and earlier ones - that here the US government itself orchestrated the kidnapping, something clearly at odds with any reasonable interpretation of its treaty obligations. If kidnapping is OK, why not murder? asked Justice Stevens.

Some countries aren't fazed by such questions. The US should be.

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