In the eight years since he returned to this sprawling city where he once lived, Caudel never changed his name or made any effort to conceal his whereabouts from U.S. or Mexican police.
"They've never looked for me," he said.
Federal law enforcement officials say finding a fugitive abroad is often difficult and dangerous. Yet it took Tribune reporters less than two days in Guadalajara to locate Caudel. Facing open warrants on charges of child sex assault and fleeing the United States to avoid prosecution, he readily agreed to an on-camera interview to profess his innocence and describe his easy escape from American justice.
Caudel was just one of eight Chicago-area fugitives Tribune reporters located during an 18-day trip to central Mexico. Five other escapees are accused of homicides, one of child molestation and the other of shooting a man.
All eight went right back to their hometowns, where they registered cars, got birth certificates for their children or recorded marriages using their own names. In only one case did the fugitives or their families tell the Tribune that law enforcement officials had come looking for them, even though authorities had learned their addresses in Mexico soon after the crimes.
Those fugitives are among a growing number of criminal suspects who flee the country each year to evade trial for murder, rape and other serious felonies. Breakdowns at every level of the U.S. criminal justice system allow the suspects to escape, then cripple efforts to bring them to justice, the Tribune found in an investigation based on new Justice Department data as well as sealed warrants and other government records on 129 border-crossing fugitives from northern Illinois.
"It's like, anybody can kill anybody and just leave the country," said Brenda Molina, whose mother was allegedly slain by a drunken driver who then fled to South Korea.
Government records document an alarming lack of coordination between U.S. Justice Department officials, county prosecutors and local police; a failure by these agencies to keep track of their mounting caseloads; inexplicable years-long delays, and outright errors.
For example, although the Tribune identified more than 60 fugitives who fled to Mexico rather than face trial in Cook County, local prosecutors listed only 12 they are seeking for extradition or deportation from Mexico.
Justice Department officials had in many of these cases filed court papers stating the fugitive's whereabouts in Mexico — sometimes listing an exact address or tiny village — but Cook County prosecutors told the Tribune that this information was never presented to them, so they couldn't initiate formal extradition proceedings.
"The system is broken right now," said former Joliet Police Chief Fred Hayes, who watched numerous fugitives disappear across America's borders without repercussions during his decades in neighboring Will County. "This work is not getting done. Federal officials and state and local officials should sit down and really come up with a single point of tracking these cases, instead of the disorganized system that's out there now."
In case after case, the failure to apprehend international fugitives makes a mockery of the law, leaving victims' families shattered and communities distrustful of police.
As suspects fled to Mexico, Brazil, the Philippines, India and other locales, the Tribune found:
•Many of the escapees paid a startlingly low price for freedom, fleeing America after posting as little as a few thousand dollars in bail when charged with murder, rape and other violent felonies. At the same cursory bond hearings, county judges failed to confiscate passports or impose other travel restrictions, even when the accused was a citizen of another country.
•When fugitives' families helped them flee, these relatives could not be held responsible or even be pressured for information by detectives because, unlike in most states, the law in Illinois specifically exempts close family members from being charged with aiding a fugitive. Some who fled sustained themselves or enriched their families by selling property or conducting other financial transactions in Illinois while on the run.
•Gaps riddle the patchwork of local and international warrants meant to alert authorities that a person is wanted. Only two of the 129 border-crossing fugitives from northern Illinois were listed as wanted by Interpol, the global agency responsible for capturing international suspects and funded with millions of U.S. dollars annually.
Justice Department data obtained by the Tribune show that the number of new leads on international fugitives — and the number of suspects captured — generally grew every year over the last decade. In defending their efforts, department officials said in a statement: "We have seen a marked increase in extraditions from Mexico, and many other countries around the world."
Still, American law enforcement officials at all levels complain about a lack of resources while shifting blame to other agencies, arcane international treaties and foreign governments.