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US praises Mexico for extraditing drug lords

AG calls transfer 'unprecedented'

Osiel Cardenas was moved from an undisclosed location Friday. Cardenas and 14 others were transferred to US custody. Osiel Cardenas was moved from an undisclosed location Friday. Cardenas and 14 others were transferred to US custody. (Mexico Attorney Generals Office via Associated Press)

MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's extradition of four reputed drug lords drew praise from the US attorney general yesterday and signaled its new determination to keep traffickers from running their cartels from inside prison walls.

US Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said the extraditions on Friday were "unprecedented in their scope and importance."

Osiel Cardenas, the alleged Gulf cartel leader who was believed to be running his gang from prison in Mexico, was sent north late Friday along with 14 others wanted by the United States after their appeals against extradition ran out, the office of Mexico's attorney general said.

"Never before has the United States received from Mexico such a large number of major drug defendants and other criminals for prosecution in this country," Gonzales said in a statement yesterday.

The Mexican attorney general's office released photos showing the balding Cardenas being escorted onto a plane bound for the United States in handcuffs, surrounded by US and Mexican agents.

The office said the extraditions were also aimed in part at cracking down on turf battles between Mexican drug cartels, which have cost hundreds of lives in recent months in such states as Michoacan, Guerrero, Baja California, and Sinaloa. The government has recently sent thousands of soldiers and police to try to stem the drug-fueled violence.

"This changes the rules, as far drug traffickers' impunity and the potential punishment they face," said Oscar Aguilar, a political science professor at Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. "Before, the capos could say: 'Well, if they ever do catch me, I'll be in Mexico. My family and associates can visit me whenever they want, and I can keep running the business' " from prison.

Mexican officials have said that Cardenas and top members of the Tijuana cartel had forged an alliance while locked up at a maximum-security prison just west of Mexico City, where they organized to fight turf wars against rival drug lords.

Authorities also said Cardenas sought to control that prison and other jails through gangs of inmates, and may have organized killings both inside and outside prison. Authorities say he ran his cartel by passing messages to lawyers representing him and dozens of associates.

The United States once offered a $2 million reward for Cardenas before his 2003 arrest.

In 1999, US officials said Cardenas held two US agents at gunpoint in their car in a Mexican border city, then let them go saying: "You gringos, this is my territory. You can't control it, so get the hell out of here."

In the past, Mexico has been reluctant to extradite major Mexican drug lords to the United States, arguing that they should face justice in Mexico first. They also refused to send anyone to the United States who would face the death penalty, which is illegal in Mexico.

But that attitude changed under former president Vicente Fox, who in September promised to extradite "all of those who have pending matters with US justice." Fox extradited a record 63 alleged criminals to the United States in 2006, including the suspected drug kingpin Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix.

In addition to Cardenas, Mexico on Friday extradited Ismael and Gilberto Higuera Guerrero, brothers and former chiefs in the Arellano-Felix cartel in Tijuana and Mexicali; and Hector Palma Salazar, a former leader in the Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

Eleven others were extradited on a variety of US charges, including murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and sex crimes, the two governments said.

Many drug leaders remain at large.

Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa cartel who escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001, is described as Mexico's most powerful drug lord.

Mexican investigators say Guzman has formed an alliance with alleged drug barons Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada and Juan Jose "El Azul" Esparragoza.

Known as "The Federation," the alliance is engaged in a bloody turf war with the Gulf and Tijuana cartels, with the gangs using heavy weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades.

Washington has offered rewards of $5 million each for information leading to the arrests of Zambada and Guzman.