A proposed "fast-track" system in the Americas is supposed to speed up lengthy extradition proceedings, but it is a doubled-edged sword that could permanently sideline the urgent need for reform in some countries' judicial systems.
One of the main outcomes of April's Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, was the unanimous decision to create a regional body to fight organized crime. Last week's meeting in Cancun, Mexico, which convened attorney generals and security officials from 23 countries in the Americas, was supposed to be the first step towards creating a new anti-crime action plan for the region.
Although the meeting essentially served as a talking shop, with delegates hoping to reach a concrete regional strategy by the end of the year, one significant proposal to emerge was the creation of a "fast-track" extradition mechanism. In practice, this would allow for suspected criminals to be immediately extradited upon capture to the country issuing the extradition warrant. Mexican Attorney General Marisela Morales told Vanguardia that this would help prevent legal loopholes or criminal defense lawyers from delaying the process for the months, or even years, as they are able to do now.
Due to the infancy of the proposal, there is little information on just how it would be implemented or how far-reaching its scope would be. At first glance, however, the outline looks like an adequate solution to the obstacles described by Morales.
A perfect example of how the extradition process can be used to delay legal cases is Guatemala. Defense lawyers in the country have frequently utilized a legal tool known as the "amparo," enabling the accused to indefinitely delay extradition, often to the US, based on tenuous legal technicalities and the grounds that such a move violates their constitutional rights.
In late February, Guatemala surprisingly managed to overcome these problems in two high-profile cases, ruling that Elio Lorenzana and one of Guatemala's alleged top criminals Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez, alias "Juan Chamale," could be extradited to the US on drug trafficking charges. Like many of Guatemala's high-profile criminals, neither man faced charges in Guatemala. This made the time between arrest and extradition -- over three months with Lorenzana and almost a year with Juan Chamale -- particularly frustrating for US prosecutors as their extradition was the only way to ensure they be brought to justice. Fast-track extradition would undoubtedly have been the ideal tool in these cases to circumvent there lengthy and seemingly unnecessary delays.
Despite these advantages of expedited proceedings, extradition is already an inherently controversial process, and agreeing to speed it up sidesteps some of the more pressing problems that it creates.
First among these concerns is the effect extradition in its current form has on the region's judicial systems. Impunity levels are notoriously high in certain Latin American and Caribbean countries, running at or above 90 percent for many -- Mexico, Honduras, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador -- where transnational criminal organizations are most entrenched. Extradition to the US, therefore, is often deemed the best way to combat impunity, and avoid the prospect that top-level criminals exert their influence over a trial in their home countries.
However, the circumvention of domestic proceedings also helps maintain the region's judicial systems in a state of continual underdevelopment. With extradition seen as the safer option to fall back on, there is less incentive to tackle the problems of impunity and corruption. This leads to diminished prospects that future cases dealing with organized crime eventually be tried in their own countries. As Jago Russell of Fair Trials International points out, fast-track extradition "is based on the principle of 'mutual recognition' -- if one country demands a person's extradition, others must recognize that decision without asking too many questions." This would seemingly confer a disproportionate amount of power to the country seeking the accused and significantly limit the scope for the other country to block the extradition attempt if it so wished.
The case of Daniel Rendon Herrera, alias "Don Mario," former paramilitary warlord and founder of the Colombian Urabeños, highlights this dilemma. Although he was sought by the US on drug trafficking charges following his arrest in 2009, Colombia's Supreme Court successfully blocked his extradition in 2010, arguing that Colombia needed his testimony more than the US in order to bring justice to the victims of paramilitary violence. Had the fast-track system been in place, the Supreme Court's protestations may have been nullified on the mutual recognition principle outlined by Russell.
Don Mario's case, and that of his brother Freddy Rendon Herrera, alias "El Aleman," whose extradition was also blocked, draws attention to another issue that fast-track extradition would similarly amplify: which country's request for the criminal gains precedence. More often than not, extradition warrants for major criminals are based on an indictment for international drug trafficking charges. This ignores the number of other charges, including torture and homicide, often levelled against the accused in their home countries. If and when they are ultimately extradited, victims' families lose any possibility for recourse through judicial proceedings.
The extradition of 14 top commanders from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) in 2008 exemplifies this, since their delivery to the US ensured either partial or no involvement in Colombia's Justice and Peace process. The complaints of thousands of their victims simply went unaddressed. What's more, as a result of the sealed testimony of some of the 14 warlords in the US, speculation remains that many have been granted a level of impunity in exchange for information on their former drug trafficking networks.
Colombia Justice Minister Juan Carlos Esguerra acknowledged in March that some of the sentences handed down in the US to Colombian criminals are "too short," adding that they should face domestic charges before extradition. Were fast-track extradition installed on a regional basis, however, it remains to be seen just how far Esguerra could carry out his reassessment of extradition proceedings. Would his concerns be rendered worthless in the face of a "more pressing" fast-track extradition request?
Extradition can be a vital tool for combating organized crime in the region, helping bring key criminals to justice when they otherwise would face little reprimand in their home countries. Fast-tracking the process will certainly magnify these gains. But at what cost? By instituting the fast-track system, extradition may become more of a go-to legal mechanism than it is already, making any domestic charges redundant. In another scenario, those issuing the extradition warrant could abuse the disproportionate amount of power granted by the fast-track mechanism.
Extradition may well be the only effective legal tool if suspects don't face charges in their home countries. Strengthening it with express proceedings, however, sets a dangerous precedent that it remains the only way to try high-profile criminals. If this is done, it would be at the expense of domestic victims and the urgent need for reform and institution building in the region's legal systems, leaving them perpetually broken.
Image above shows Sergio "El Grande" Villarreal Barragan, alleged former member of the Mexican Beltran Leyva Organization, who was extradited to the US on May 23 2012.