Mexico: drug justice deferred

Last week's rulings on 'kings of meth' jar relations with US and cause

Every night Mexican television plays up the "errors" committed by NATO in its air war against Yugoslavia. Now the press here is also paying closer attention to a set of "errors" closer to home - in the Mexican justice system.

The system's most recent black eye stems from the crumbling of Mexico's legal action against the Amezcua brothers, considered by both Mexican and US drug officials as the "kings of methamphetamine" - traffickers in the easily made synthetic drug that is a serious problem on both sides of the border.

Only last year the handling of the case was trumpeted by both Mexico and the United States as evidence of improved cooperation in the binational antidrug battle. Current troubles in the case - plus other botched cases - are agitating already testy relations between the US and Mexico over illegal drugs.

Adn Amezcua Contreras was released from prison in Guadalajara May 19 after a judge found the state was trying Mr. Amezcua under new drug-money laundering laws that did not exist at the time of the accused's alleged offense.

Also last week, a Mexico City judge stayed the Mexican government's extradition order for Jos de Jess Amezcua, who is wanted in the United States on drug-trafficking charges. A third imprisoned Amezcua brother, Luis, also faces drug-trafficking charges in the US.

In another case, a Mexican judge on Friday rejected the extradition to the US of Oscar Malherbe, whom the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers Mexico's second most powerful drug trafficker. The DEA alleges Mr. Malherbe, nabbed in 1997 while driving with $2 million in cash, has operated the Gulf drug cartel since cartel leader Juan Garca Abrego was extradited to the US in 1996.

The Amezcuas debacle follows a number of legal cases that have raised questions about the Mexican attorney general's work and about the operation and efficiency of the Mexican justice system in general.

In recent years corrupt bankers who stole millions have used the system to remain free, while money-launderers for Mexico's largest drug cartels have successfully beat the raps brought officially against them. Even the drawn-out murder case against Raul Salinas, brother of former president Carlos Salinas, nearly foundered over instances of official evidence-planting and other scandals before Mr. Salinas was finally convicted in January.

The American expatriate community in Mexico remembers best the case of El Chucky, the crime gang leader accused of murdering a US citizen in a December 1997 Mexico City taxi robbery. Both the case prepared by prosecutors against El Chucky and the reviewing judge's precipitous release of the accused (while the judge was supposed to be on vacation) raised heavy suspicions.

Citing the Amezcua cases in a string of judicial failings, the Mexico City daily La Jornada condemned in an editorial both the attorney general's "shameful and exasperating" defeats over recent years, and "the way [criminal] investigations and judicial procedures are managed in the country."

But Mexico's top law-enforcement officials insist the fault lies with the judges hearing the cases, not with their investigations and procedures.

Mariano Herrn Salvatti, Mexico's special narcotics investigator, said at a Friday press conference that the judge's finding in the Adn Amezcua money-laundering case was an "error of interpretation" of Mexican law. The ruling lacked "systematic analysis" of the country's fiscal and penal codes and was simply "wrong."

Assistant Attorney General for International Affairs Eduardo Ibarrola Nicoln criticized the judge's reasoning in the case of Jess Amezcua, who the judge said potentially faced life imprisonment in the US if found guilty - a sentence that has fallen into disuse in Mexico. But while Mexico refuses to extradite its citizens who might face the death penalty in the US, Mr. Ibarrola said, no such refusal exists regarding life imprisonment.

Despite the uproar over the Amezcua cases, analysts say it would be short-sighted to attribute all of the recent high-profile examples of "judicial errors" to inefficiency or official corruption.

"We're seeing many more independent judges than just a few years ago, when it would have been unthinkable for a judge to rule against federal authorities in any case," says Mexico City political analyst Sergio Sarmiento. Prosecuting authorities are coming up against higher hurdles in making their cases stand up, he says. "And you can use circumstantial evidence much more easily in the US than in Mexico."

The Amezcua cases are likely to feed the frustrations of the US's "Casablanca" money-laundering investigation last year and other recent cases that have troubled relations between officials in the two countries, says Mr. Sarmiento.

"The DEA will always say it can't do its job [because of] the Mexicans' inefficiencies and corruption," he says, "and the Mexicans will say the problem is the gringos. There's some truth in both positions, and they will be difficult to resolve."

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