JIUTEPEC,—— For years, Des Plaines police had no idea who committed the grisly 1999 knife murder of United Airlines flight attendant Young Kavila.
The slender 30-year-old was nearly beheaded as she tried to fight off an attempted sexual assault in the kitchen of her north suburban apartment, according to law enforcement records. The killer left fingerprints and drops of his blood that police could not match.
Then in October 2007 a family of frightened immigrants told detectives of a violent, hard-drinking relative in Mexico who had boasted about the murder — and threatened to kill any relative who gave him up.
Detective Jennifer De Pastors quickly confirmed links to the crime-scene fingerprints and DNA, and authorities filed murder charges against Luis Rodriguez-Mena, a 37-year-old factory worker who had lived near Kavila's apartment before abruptly returning to his childhood home in central Mexico, government records and interviews show.
FBI agents turned the case over to their Mexican counterparts, who began an operation to capture the suspect in Jiutepec, a crowded maze of cinder-block houses tucked between massive factories.
But the fugitive hunt soon ran aground, leaving Rodriguez-Mena free and Des Plaines police wondering what went wrong.
"It's just been very frustrating for us," Des Plaines Chief Jim Prandini told the Tribune. "We wish we could go get him ourselves."
In its "Fugitives From Justice" investigation, the Tribune found suspects going free because of the lack of coordination among law enforcement officials on the U.S. side of the border. The Rodriguez-Mena case highlights another dimension of the problem: the breakdowns that can take place inside Mexico, which accounts for more than half of all U.S. extradition efforts.
Because the Justice Department shrouds America's extradition program in intense secrecy, it is usually impossible to determine what goes wrong in specific efforts to capture border-crossing fugitives. The Rodriguez-Mena case, though, helps lift a veil on a clandestine world.
FBI reports, Mexican government records and interviews all allowed a closer look at the corruption, incompetence and lack of resources that undermine many attempts to apprehend fugitives in Mexico.
Mexico's elite fugitive task force pursued Rodriguez-Mena in fits and sputters, at one point calling off the investigation for months because the force had been infiltrated by powerful drug cartels and needed to be completely reorganized and retrained, FBI reports and other government records show.
U.S. authorities decided not to ask the Mexican agents to enter Rodriguez-Mena's name into a Mexican warrant database — which would alert any local cop who stopped the suspect — because the "high amount of corruption" among Mexican officials "would make the use of such a database an imprudent tactic," one FBI report concluded.
"As has occurred in the past," a Mexican state or local police officer might spot the warrant and use it to extort the suspect, that report said. "In other words, the wanted subject could pay the officer not to be arrested."
In recent testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the law enforcement breakdowns exposed by the Tribune investigation "simply unacceptable" but praised Mexico's stepped up efforts to capture and extradite fugitives who flee the U.S. to evade trial.
"We have seen dramatic improvements in our extradition relationship" with Mexico, Holder wrote in a letter last month to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., noting that Mexico in the last fiscal year extradited 104 wanted suspects to the U.S., compared with 12 in 2000.
Yet the returned fugitives still represent a fraction of the thousands of criminal suspects who absconded to Mexico in recent years and live there with apparent impunity today, separate government records show.
The office of Mexico's federal attorney general, which oversees extradition cases, declined repeated requests for information or comment. Officials in the state of Morelos, where Jiutepec is located, said they weren't aware of the Rodriguez-Mena case.
Chicago FBI spokesman Ross Rice said American agents can do little to apprehend fugitives in Mexico and other countries.
"FBI agents have no authority to conduct investigations or make arrests in foreign countries without the express permission of the host government," Rice said. "While we do have agents assigned to U.S. embassies around the world, they can only act in a liaison capacity."