Cold, calculated hot pursuit: Stung by the murder of one of their own, a US anti-drug squad kidnapped from Mexico the man it holds responsible. No laws, no extradition treaties, will stop this crusade, says Keith Botsford

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The Independent Online
Enrique Camarena - better known as 'Kiki' - was an undercover agent of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). He disappeared on 7 February 1985, and a month later his body, together with that of his DEA pilot, Alfredo Zavala Avelar, was found in a slit-trench grave outside Guadalajara, Mexico.

The profession of undercover agent is a risky one; to act for the DEA, one of half a dozen agencies competing for budgets in President Bush's 'drug war', is even riskier. One is just as likely to be sold out by agents working for another agency as by members of the underworld.

But for some reason, perhaps the brutal nature of their murders, allegedly after prolonged interrogation under torture, the killing of Camarena caused the DEA to react in a spectacular way. When the agency and the Bush administration thought that Mexico was dragging its feet (despite the fact that several members of the Guadalajara drugs mafia had been tried and convicted for the crime) they put out a contract on those who had participated in his murder and not yet been arrested.

Particularly, they targeted Humberto Alvarez Machain, a gynaecologist who, the DEA alleged, had 'observed' the torture of Camarena and used drugs to keep him alive for further torture.

In April 1990 Dr Alvarez Machain was seeing patients in his office when six armed kidnappers broke in, put a gun to the back of his head, bundled him into a car, held him captive for 21 hours, and flew him in a private plane to El Paso, Texas, where DEA agents awaited him. The price of the seizure was allegedly dollars 50,000 plus


An almighty fracas then broke out, as Mexico vigorously protested against the kidnapping, claiming on three successive occasions that the US had violated its extradition treaty with Mexico, 'invaded' a sovereign state and violated 'all the norms of international law'.

A month ago, the US Supreme Court decided that argument was nonsense and overthrew decisions both at District and Appeal Court levels which would have returned Dr Alvarez Machain to Mexico, there to stand trial as the extradition treaty requires.

For the Supreme Court to have ruled otherwise would clearly have jeopardised the official US position on the 'hot pursuit' of those who violate US laws, regardless of whether those crimes are committed on foreign soil and by citizens of sovereign nations. If Bush invaded Panama just to seize Manuel Noriega, why should kidnappers acting on behalf of the government not seize Dr Alvarez Machain? Once international law had been weakened by the seizure of Adolf Eichmann in 1960 by Israeli agents, and his subsequent trial and execution, why should less important vengeances not be executed by governments or their agents?

None the less, the incident, and the Supreme Court decision, left a sour taste in Mexican mouths; and it is unlikely that President Bush's promise on Monday 'not to do it again' will be particularly placating - especially given the signs that Bush's re-election is far from assured.

It was not only Mexicans who were bothered, but much of Latin America, where the famed drug war has impinged severely on the national sovereignty of many countries: Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela, just to mention a few. It is a 'war' largely unperceived by American or international opinion, but it involves the US armed forces as well as the various competing drug agencies: in defoliation, satellite detection, overflights, interdiction of air space and the high seas.

Given the high priority attached to the crusade - which in fact does nothing more than raise the price of drugs and increase the profit to dealers - one can understand some of the US administration's impatience. Many of these governments at least appear to be corrupt; no one has ever held up Latin American courts as symbols of quick or impartial justice; and despite some spectacular arrests and extraditions, a fair number of high-ranking drug

wholesalers continue their activities


For all that, extradition treaties with most of these nations do exist, so that offenders charged with a specific crime may be tried with due process. So what reasons did the Supreme Court find for maintaining that Dr Alvarez Machain should be tried in Los Angeles and that his kidnapping was no violation of due process nor of the extradition treaty with Mexico (a document first signed in the last century and regularly updated)?

The court's reasoning (by a 6-3 decision, with Justices Stevens, Blackmun and O'Connor dissenting) was, basically, that the extradition treaty with Mexico does not specifically bar the seizure of an alleged criminal on foreign soil, and that what is not prohibited is licit: 'The decision of whether the respondent should be returned to Mexico, as a matter outside the treaty, is a matter for the executive branch.'

The dissenting justices made a far more powerful and reasoned statement than this judicial abdication to executive power. The idea that what is not mentioned in a treaty allows one government to act towards another in violation of international law would, they noted, 'transform (its) provisions into little more than verbiage'. They went on to argue that if this doctrine held, it would hold equally for other acts: 'If the United States, for example, thought it more expedient to torture or simply execute a person rather than to attempt extradition, these options would be equally available, because they, too, were not explicitly prohibited by the treaty . . . the court has, in effect, written . . . a new provision . . . (that) either contracting party can, without the consent of the other, abduct nationals from the territory of one party to be tried in the territory of the other.'

The legal argument has tended to obscure the arbitrariness of the kidnapping itself. The DEA claims it has ample evidence of Dr Alvarez Machain's 'participation' in the murder of Camarena; not unnaturally, the Guadalajara gynaecologist is equally vehement in his denials. He claims he was called in by another doctor because Kiki, the undercover agent, was poorly. This other doctor, Juan Mejia Monge, had allegedly been assigned to 'checking his (Camarena's) pupils and vital signs'. And what else could Dr Alvarez Machain have done once summoned, but treat a sick person?

The DEA's case is put with some fervour by John C Lawn, who headed the DEA at the time of the kidnapping and is now in a less demanding job as chief operating officer of the New York Yankees baseball club. He has acknowledged that 'getting Alvarez' was a top priority for the agency, despite the fact that he was not directly responsible for Kiki's death.

The background to this is part of American legal folklore. Because proving drug crimes is singularly difficult, in 1970 Congress enacted the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (Rico), a blunt instrument by which anyone connected in any way with any alleged crime can be prosecuted under rules of evidence and proof that would not stand up in an individual prosecution.

But Dr Alvarez Machain's kidnapping and his forthcoming trial, courtesy of the Supreme Court, are not about law at all, but rather about war and a crusade. If you want a taste of what is involved, listen to Mr Lawn: 'We talk about the Hippocratic oath, the role of a doctor to maintain the wellbeing of a person, and then we learn about a doctor who keeps a person alive so that he can be tortured and killed. That is just horrifying. It reminds me of something that happened a few decades ago,' - presumably in Nazi Germany.

As cynics have observed, all it would take to persuade the Supreme Court that government-sponsored kidnapping of foreign nationals for crimes committed abroad is not a good idea would be for General Gaddafi of Libya to kidnap an American or two on US soil. But, given the realities of American politics, where visible signs of action, whether wise or unwise, are what counts, the smart money is not on the abandonment of further such kidnappings.

Noriega, who was, after all, a head of state, has just been sentenced to 40 years in a Florida court, to the plaudits of the administration; Humberto Alvarez Machain is not likely to be given a more favourable verdict.

(Photograph omitted)