MEXICO CITY — A Mexican court has blocked the extradition of a man wanted in the 1994 murder of an American drug agent because the U.S. government refused to give assurances the man would not face life imprisonment.
Agustin Vazquez Mendoza — one of the United States' most wanted men — is at the center of a disagreement over a 1978 extradition treaty that threatens to create a diplomatic impasse.
In a landmark ruling one year ago, Mexico's Supreme Court said for the first time that citizens could be extradited as long as potential punishment did not include life prison terms or the death penalty.
Mexican law has no provisions for either penalty.
This week's ruling by a federal court in Mexico City "is a conditional stay (of extradition) that would be resolved if the Foreign Ministry notifies the court that those conditions on life imprisonment or capital punishment had been satisfied," a Supreme Court official said on condition of anonymity.
The dispute arose on the eve of the first visit by the newly appointed U.S. drug chief, John Walters, and amid signs that the United States is pressing Mexico to hand over fugitives more quickly.
Upon arriving, Walters said the United States "respects the sovereignty of Mexico and the decision of its courts."
Then he said the subject of life sentences is part of "ongoing discussions."
"What we are trying to do is prevent either of our countries from becoming a haven for criminals who have committed serious offenses," Walters said.
One Mexican government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mexico "will go to the consultations, stress compliance with the treaty, and tell them that we have a Supreme Court ruling on the issue and there is nothing we can do."
Vazquez is accused of masterminding the 1994 killing of Drug Enforcement Agency agent Richard Faso, who was shot during an undercover drug operation in Arizona. Vazquez was placed on the FBI's 10 most wanted list, with a reward of $2.2 million offered, before he was arrested in Mexico in July 2000 on a U.S. extradition request.
Extradition was granted, but was blocked by this week's ruling. The deaccession does not free Vazquez, or set the lengthy extradition process back to the beginning, but rather simply takes note of unmet conditions.
In past cases, U.S. prosecutors have agreed to avoid seeking death penalties in extradition cases, but the government balks at also ruling out life sentences.
The U.S. government argues that the 1978 treaty obliges Mexico to extradite suspects regardless of domestic court decisions or possible sentences.
But President Vicente Fox, the first opposition candidate ever to win the presidency here, has made respect for the independence of the judicial and legislative branches a cornerstone of what he calls a "transition to democracy."
Walters praised the changes under Fox's administration, particularly the anti-drug effort.