November 11, 1997
Drug Case in Mexico Tests Pact With U.S.
By TIM GOLDENn a case likely to test Mexico's willingness to extradite powerful drug traffickers to face American justice, U.S. officials said on Monday that they would seek to prosecute a suspected Mexican cocaine smuggler who was arrested in Tijuana over the weekend.
The suspected trafficker, Arturo Paez Martinez, was captured outside a shopping mall on Saturday afternoon by Mexican federal police agents, officials said. He was flown to Mexico City on Sunday for security reasons, and was charged in an indictment unsealed in San Diego Monday with conspiring to distribute more than 2,200 pounds of cocaine in the United States.
Paez has been a longstanding target of an American effort to dismantle the Tijuana-based drug organization run by the Arellano Felix brothers. Federal officials describe the effort as probably the most ambitious criminal investigation that the United States has ever directed across its southern border.
"This is a chance for the Mexicans to prove themselves," said a senior U.S. law-enforcement official who discussed the case on condition of anonymity.
In a telephone interview from Mexico City, a senior Mexican official predicted that Paez -- a swaggering young man who moved among Tijuana's most prominent families and is said to have run part of the Arellanos' distribution network in the United States -- would indeed end up in the United States.
Making good on that vow could bring an important turn in the relationship between the two countries. The extradition of drug figures has caused friction between Mexico and the United States, and Mexican officials have mostly ignored a wish list of 20 suspected Mexican traffickers given to them by American officials earlier this year.
Last month, the two governments completed work on a new protocol to their existing extradition treaty, an addendum that would allow for the temporary exchange of criminals who face charges in both countries. The protocol is expected to be signed during a visit by President Ernesto Zedillo to Washington this week.
Yet American officials acknowledge that the new arrangement will address only a bit of the tension created by Mexico's unwillingness to extradite its own citizens.
For example, the deal would allow Mexico to prosecute a Mexican drug trafficker wanted in Guadalajara and then send him to Chicago for prosecution there. If convicted in both countries, the smuggler would serve his first sentence in Mexico and then be shipped back to the United States to serve the other.
Now, even if Mexico agrees to extradite its own citizens in such cases, they can be sent north only after serving any prison time they face at home. By then, witnesses in the American cases may have disappeared, evidence may have grown stale, and effective prosecutions may be impossible.
The new agreement has no bearing on the extradition cases in which American officials say Mexico has traditionally been most reluctant to cooperate: those in which a Mexican citizen faces drug-trafficking charges only in the United States.
Paez, who is believed to be 31, is such a case.
He is described by Mexican and U.S. investigators as a son of Tijuana's elite, one of about two dozen young men who have joined the ranks of the Arellano Felix organization as traffickers, front men and enforcers.
Investigators say Paez has specialized in transporting drugs into the United States and their wholesale distribution. He is said to have risen to the 10-man "council" that acts as a kind of board of directors for the Arellano Felix gang.
In his interrogation by the Mexican authorities, one official said, Paez acknowledged spending much of his time in Southern California. But he claimed that he had only a social acquaintance with Benjamin and Ramon Arellano Felix, the bosses of their family gang. Ramon Arellano, 33, was put on the FBI's ten-most-wanted list in October.
Mexican officials said Paez was with three other men when he was caught. His companions ran at the sight of the police agents, but he remained calmly in place, offering his captors the $1,200 he had in his pocket in exchange for his freedom.