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When the going gets tough, desperados often look to Mexico

By John Springer

Luster returns to Los Angeles last week after his capture in Mexico.
Luster returns to Los Angeles last week after his capture in Mexico.

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(Court TV) -- Some people accused of committing crimes cannot wait to get their day in court. Others, like Max Factor heir Andrew Luster, high-tail it for Mexico.

Luster, who jumped bailed days before he was convicted in absentia of using a drug to rape women, was living virtually in plain sight in the popular resort town of Puerto Vallarta when a bounty hunter pulled the plug on his vacation last week.

Another Mexican resort area, Cancun, was the preferred hideout of Christian Longo of Oregon after he killed his wife and three young children in 2001. Longo, then 27, was posing as a travel writer, dating and living in a grass hut when the Mexican federales and FBI agents caught up with him.

After shooting and killing upstate New York abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian in 1998, right-to-life extremist James Kopp used Mexico's notoriously porous borders to make his way to Ireland and ultimately France.

As recently as May 26, a Catholic priest who slipped into Mexico via El Paso, Texas, jumped to his death as Mexican authorities were closing in on the hotel where he was hiding to execute an American arrest warrant charging him with molesting children in two states.

And the list goes on.

Ever since America's big push West began in the 19th century, countless murderers, horse thieves, drug traffickers, rapists and tax cheats have looked to Mexico as a safe haven.

So why Mexico? With so many places in America for criminals to hide, why do some opt to make their run south of the border?

For one thing, Mexico routinely declines to extradite suspects facing life in prison or the death penalty. Mexico's Supreme Court, which favors rehabilitation and views capital punishment and no-parole sentences as cruel, has blocked numerous extraditions until U.S. authorities agreed to lower the potential punishment a suspect faced in an American court.

Another reason is the perception that Mexico is relatively lawless. Reports of corruption and bribery are still widespread and a well-financed fugitive can sometimes pass some pesos to get an underpaid, overworked small-town Mexican cop to look the other way.

"It's unbelievable. It's still like the wild, wild West in many ways," said Bobbi Bacha, a Texas private investigator whose firm has done some work in Mexico. "Mexico's a good stepping stone to countries that won't extradite."

Cuba's one of them.

West Hartford, Connecticut, security guard Victor Manuel Gerena got to Havana via Mexico City after stealing $7 million from the Wells Fargo depot where he worked in 1983. Gerena, who is believed to be a guest of the Cuban government, was part of a Puerto Rican nationalist movement that was financed in large part from the proceeds of robberies. Brazil, Costa Rica and other South American countries also have strict extradition policies and are favored by fugitives from U.S. law.

Mexico itself has a mixed track record for returning fugitives. In the case of American citizens who flee to Mexico, it can take U.S. officials months or even years to get a fugitive returned if they have a good lawyer.

That is, unless Mexican authorities don't care to keep a particular fugitive. Andrew Luster was deported within hours, but Mexico's bureaucracy could have drawn out the process -- forcing a deportation hearing or a formal extradition request -- if officials saw a reason to do so.

In the case of Mexican nationals who flee to their homeland, U.S. officials have a tougher time bringing them to justice. But it can be done.

"We've had a pretty good track record the past few years," said Ken Lane, a deputy attorney general for Colorado.

Lane's office has an entire unit devoted to prosecuting crimes committed in Colorado through Mexican courts. Using a provision of the Mexican penal code that more U.S. prosecutors are employing, Colorado builds a case against Mexican nationals who flee from crimes perpetrated in the state and sends translated documents to Mexican prosecutors.

"The trials are basically done on paper," Lane explained.

According to Lane, the process is an acceptable alternative to not prosecuting Mexican citizens who flee Colorado after committing murders.

"Twenty or 25 years in a Mexican prison is no picnic," Lane said.

If the U.S. really, really wants to get its hands on someone hiding in Mexico, authorities will just go in and take them. That's what happened in 1990 in a case involving a Mexican national and a crime committed in Mexico.

Humberto Alvarez-Machain, an obstetrician from Guadalajara, was accused by the U.S. of being present when American Drug Enforcement Agency investigator Enrique Camarena was tortured and murdered in 1985 while investigating links between Mexican officials and major drug cartels. When diplomatic efforts to bring Alvarez-Machain to justice failed, the U.S. recruited Mexican nationals to kidnap him and fly him to the U.S. for prosecution. (The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the prosecution as lawful in 1992, noting that official kidnappings are not addressed in any treaty.)

Although some fugitives select Mexico because they know the law, others pick it because they don't know any better.

Christian Longo, the murderer from Oregon who is now appealing his death sentence, did not know about Mexico's extradition policy when he decided to hide out there, according to his lawyer, Ken Hadley.

Longo claims that an FBI agent told him that if he returned to the U.S. he probably wouldn't face the death penalty, and that if he didn't return voluntarily he could sit in a Mexican jail for a few months before being extradited anyway.

Hadley said that if Longo hadn't been "tricked" into returning, U.S. authorities probably would have been forced to remove capital punishment as a possible sentence in order to get Mexico to give Longo up.

"From a death penalty perspective, going to Mexico is pretty smart," Hadley said.

So if Longo didn't do his homework before packing his bags as police closed in, why did he go to Mexico?

"He said he was debating going to Canada or Mexico," Hadley said, "but he thought Canada was too cold."

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