Mexican judge recommends alleged Tijuana cartel leader not be extradited

MEXICO CITY: A Mexican judge on Thursday recommended that a reputed leader of a Tijuana-based drug cartel not be extradited to the United States, after his defense argued he should not be tried twice on the same charges.

The judge made the recommendation to Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department, which has overseen an increasing number of extraditions in recent years.

While the opinion in the case of accused drug lord Benjamin Arellano Felix is not binding, the government is required to take such rulings into account. The department did not comment.

Arellano Felix was arrested in 2002 and has already been sentenced to 22 years in prison in Mexico on drug-trafficking and organized-crime charges. He faces indictments on similar charges in the United States. He also has been sentenced to more than five years for weapons possession.

Lawyer Americo Delgado, who represented Arellano Felix, said the judge’s ruling was based on the legal precept that suspects should not be tried twice on the same charge.

Mexico was once reticent to extradite its citizens to the U.S., but has recently stepped up the pace of extraditions. Some convicted drug lords have reportedly continued to run their gangs from behind bars in Mexico, something that presumably would be harder to do from U.S. prisons.

U.S. State Department officials said Mexico extradited 73 suspects to the U.S. in 2007. The law allows defendants to appeal their extraditions in court.

The Arellano Felix cartel emerged as a drug-trafficking powerhouse in the 1980s in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, California. Operated by several brothers of the same name, the cartel recruited dozens of police into its ranks and paid millions of dollars in bribes to law enforcement and military personnel.

One of the brothers, Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, was sentenced to life in prison in the U.S. in November on charges that he led the cartel. Another brother, Ramon Arellano Felix, was killed in a shootout with Mexican police in February 2002.