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Mexico Bars Extradition of Criminals Facing Life Sentences

A ruling by the supreme court of Mexico has blocked the extradition of more than 70 murderers, drug smugglers and organized crime figures who face life sentences in U.S. prisons.

The high court's decision, handed down in October 2001 and published two months later, flows from an interpretation of Mexico's constitution that provides that all people can be successfully rehabilitated. A life sentence, said the court, is contrary to that concept. In Mexico, the maximum prison sentence is 40 years, although a 60-year term can be imposed in special circumstances. Mexico does not have the death penalty.

In a 6-2 opinion, Justice Roman Palacios wrote: "It would be absurd to hope to rehabilitate the criminal if there were no chance of his returning to society." Consequently, a life sentence would be inimical to the Constitution's spirit of rehabilitation.

Because the high court's decision is based on the constitution, neither Mexico's president nor its legislators can change it.

In January 2002, a lower court judge in Mexico invoked the Supreme Court ruling to bar the extradition of Augustin Vasquez, charged with the 1994 murder of Richard Fass, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agent in Arizona. Mexican police arrested Vasquez, now 31, in July 2000.

Law enforcement officials in Mexico City now say that Vasquez will not be extradited unless Arizona drops the murder charges and guarantees he will receive a sentence of 60 years or less. Mexico already refuses to extradite defendants who face the death penalty.

The extradition of Mario Villanueva, the governor of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo from 1993 to 1999, is also barred. Villanueva, 55, has been imprisoned near Mexico City since his May 2001, arrest. In 1999 a federal grand jury in New York indicted him on two counts of running a continuing criminal enterprise and alleged that the former governor worked with drug traffickers to import cocaine into the United States.

Villanueva allegedly took a $500,000 bribe for every major cocaine shipment that passed through his state. Each count of the indictment carries a maximum sentence of life in prison and a $4 million fine.

Mexican government officials said the U.S. Attorney's office in New York might have to seek a new indictment on lesser charges against Villanueva where the maximum penalty would be a 20-year sentence. It is unclear if the Supreme Court ruling only applies to Mexican citizens or also to fugitives from other countries. (Mexico generally refuses to extradite anyone facing a death sentence, regardless of citizenship.)

This ruling also illustrates how far out of sync the U.S. is with its draconian policies of mass imprisonment. Like Mexico, most countries in the world impose statutory maximum sentences of between 15 and 30 years. Life without parole sentences, either real or de facto, are imposed virtually nowhere else. However, no one would know that from the U.S. media.

Sources: New York Times, Seattle Times

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