Mexico promises increased efforts to return border-crossing fugitives

Mexican Ambassado Arturo Sarukhan vowed to help the United States track down fugitives. (Gary Fabiano/Getty)

Mexico's top diplomat in the United States has vowed that his government will redouble efforts to apprehend the growing numbers of criminal suspects who escape across America's borders.

"You have my firm commitment that Mexico will never be a safe haven for fugitives fleeing justice in the United States," Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan wrote in a Jan. 25 letter to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

Durbin received the diplomat's letter late Friday and provided a copy to the Tribune on Monday.

Durbin has seized on the issue of border-crossing fugitives in response to a recent Tribune investigative series that found violent criminals were able to leave the country and remain at large because of an astonishing lack of coordination among U.S. Justice Department officials, county prosecutors and local police; a failure by these agencies to keep track of their cases; and inexplicable, years-long delays.

Penetrating the intense secrecy that surrounds America's extradition program, the Tribune identified more than 100 international fugitives from northern Illinois who remain free today. Wanted on charges of homicide, rape and other felonies, those suspects fled to countries as far-flung as Nigeria, South Korea and India, but more than half found haven in Mexico, records show.

During an 18-day trip to central Mexico, reporters searched for nine of the fugitives, including six wanted on homicide charges, and found eight. Two agreed to interviews, and the reporters learned that authorities had long ago stopped searching for all eight.

At a Nov. 8 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testified that the Tribune had exposed "simply unacceptable" flaws in America's system for apprehending dangerous international fugitives. Holder later secured pledges from the Mexican attorney general's office and the U.S. State Department to help his prosecutors.

Durbin, meanwhile, convened a separate meeting last month in Chicago with top federal and local law enforcement officials that ended with plans to coordinate their international fugitive apprehension programs more closely, better manage their mounting caseloads and train local prosecutors and police in the often complex extradition process.

"The government of Mexico shares your concerns and has been working diligently with the government of the United States to expedite the extradition process," Sarukhan's two-page letter to Durbin said.

Sarukhan pointed out that the number of extraditions from Mexico has increased sharply during the last five years under the administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

But the country remains engulfed by a bloody war against narcotics trafficking that has consumed politicians, corrupted law enforcement and led to tens of thousands of deaths. While Mexican and U.S. authorities have extradited numerous drug kingpins in recent years, hundreds of fugitives charged with crimes such as murder and rape remain free in Mexico — even though U.S. authorities often have an exact street address or town where the suspect is living.

In Chicago, many of the fugitives' crime victims were immigrants who spoke of losing faith in America's courts and government when no arrest was made.

Sarukhan offered to meet with Durbin "to discuss this important issue in further detail." A spokeswoman for Durbin said his office was working on setting up that meeting.

The Mexican Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to phone calls and an email seeking comment Monday.

gmarx@tribune.com

dyjackson@tribune.com