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Mexico last week extradited 15 refuted drug lords and violent criminals to the United States. Mexico's attorney general says he's planning to send more suspects to the U.S. Mexican leaders had been reluctant to allow extradition. They were concerned about Mexico's sovereignty and that Mexicans may face the death penalty. But after the U.S. promised no suspects would face capital punishment, cooperation improved.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: The United States and Mexico have often had a rocky relationship. But the noises coming out of U.S. administration officials couldn't be more glowing regarding Mexico's new president, Felipe Calderon, and his recent move to tackle the drug gangs.
Here's Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this week.
Mr. THOMAS SHANNON (U.S. Assistant Secretary of State): I believe that there really has been a dramatic, almost a radical change in the relationship between Mexico and the United States. President Fox really took steps that were historic and unprecedented. And President Calderon has made it very clear that he's prepared to go even further.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the past, U.S. drug czar John Walters had been critical of Mexico's drug-fighting efforts, particularly on the question of extradition. Now he sounds a bit different.
Mr. JOHN WALTERS (Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy): I think the obvious courage and leadership of President Calderon is striking to everyone who has dealt with this problem.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Extraditions of drug figures really began in earnest in 2006 under previous President Vicente Fox, when he sent drug kingpin Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix to face U.S. justice. Now, though, Felipe Calderon is making it a central part of his presidency to combat the spiraling levels of drug violence.
He sent thousands of troops to the states of Michoacán, Guerrero and to the city of Tijuana. Extraditions are important because up until now, many of those held in Mexican prisons have continued to engage in illegal activity while behind bars.
And the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin El Chapo Guzman, escaped in a laundry basket from a Mexican prison in 2001. And he's still at large.
Ana Maria Salazar is an expert on the drug trade in Mexico and a former U.S. adviser on drug policy.
Ms. ANA MARIA SALAZAR (Former U.S. Adviser on Drug Policy): I think it sends a very interesting message not only to the United States that at least this president, as he begins his administration, he's going to be very strong against these criminal organizations. And it's also set a precedent that these types of criminals can be extradited to the United States. It's very important.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, extradition is only one step in a fight that has many pitfalls. Salazar says Fox also launched a large campaign against the drug barons here. And it was the reason in part that unchecked drug violence surged, power vacuums meant struggles for territory and trading routes.
Ms. SALAZAR: There's a lot of expectations that there's going to be a kind of regrouping and reorganization of the trade. And I guess the big question is how do you stop the violence that could ensue from that? And two, once you've reduced the capacity of these organizations to threaten to kill and to traffic, then the question is: What do you do to make sure that they don't come back.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Speaking to Congress here this week, Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora said the landscape for drug traffickers has also been changing. Cocaine prices are falling because there's the growing preference for methamphetamine in the U.S. market. Less money has translated into rising violence to corner the market in meth. Of course, there's also now a growing drug market inside Mexico too, adding to the challenge of getting Mexican drug cartels under control
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Mexico City.