By Rocío Gallegos, Gabriela Minjares and Blanca Carmona / La Verdad
In collaboration with Ramón Bracamontes / El Paso Matters

Read in Spanish here.

Along the South Texas border, less than 250 miles from the place where he was initially detained to be extradited to the United States, Óscar Alonso Candelaria Escajeda, the Mexican drug trafficker who was once one of the most wanted criminals by American authorities, was released.

The leader of the Los Escajeda, the criminal organization responsible for subjugating residents of the Juárez Valley to drug trafficking, and causing severe political conflict between Mexico and the U.S., was freed before completing half of his 27-year sentence, on March 4, 2021, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The U.S. justice system reduced his time in prison without releasing him back to Mexico, as established in the Extradition Treaty between Mexico and the U.S., ignoring his criminal history in Chihuahua, where he was persecuted and detained by the Mexican National Secretary of Defense with the help of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. No U.S. authority was willing to answer questions about his release.

An investigation by La Verdad in collaboration with El Paso Matters examined the judicial process of the arrest and extradition to the U.S. of Candelaria Escajeda, “La Gata,” his brother, José Rodolfo Escajeda Escajeda, “Riquín,” and José Antonio Acosta Hernández, “El Diego.”

For years, these three drug lords ordered massacres, forced disappearances, and displacement in Ciudad Juárez and the Juárez Valley in Chihuahua. The three cases, which exhibit the waiving of punishment and banishment of justice for their victims, were analyzed through interviews, information obtained from transparency requests, and official documents from Mexico and the U.S. 

“We expect justice,” said a man whose brother and his family were murdered by Óscar Alonso in the Juárez Valley. His extradition did not serve justice for all the murderers he committed.

“There is a false idea that extraditions bring justice,” said Adriana Muro Polo, executive director of Elementa DDHH. The regional human rights multidisciplinary group which follows extradition cases for drug crimes committed in Mexico and Colombia. 

There is a belief that this international legal proceeding brings justice, truth, and reparations to the victims, which cannot be performed by the judicial system, and this will stop criminals from doing more harm, said Muro Polo.

However, some of the victims of these criminal organizations understand extraditions are false claims of justice.

Official records show Mexico extradited 1,389 people to the U.S. from 2000 until June 1, 2022. Two out of every five cases occurred during the Mexican Drug War under the administration of former President Felipe Calderón.

“The objective of the U.S. judicial system, specifically that of criminal law proceedings on the war on drugs, is not to bring justice, but to capture the biggest drug lord, and then negotiate these anticipated discharges,” said Renata Demichelis Ávila, director for Elementa DDHH in Mexico. 

Forgotten Victims  

Oratory built in honor of the 15 people murdered in the Villas de Salvárcar neighborhood in Ciudad Juárez in 2010. Rey R. Jáuregui / La Verdad

“How could one be satisfied with this? I know I am not satisfied,” said a man who lost four family members at the hands of Óscar Alonso’s criminal organization in the town of Guadalupe. “I heard he was released from jail… he was named a protected witness.”

The man, who asked not to reveal his identity for fear of La Gata being out, said now that the crime leader accepted a settlement for his discharge, he “hopes there is justice [done]” for the murder of his family.

Obtaining justice is rare for the families of those whose lives were taken by the extradited murderers, as agreements between the U.S. and the detainees, such as the one alleged by Óscar Alonso, consider returning them to their country. Additionally, Mexican authorities do not enforce following up on subsequent proceedings of their liberation.

“Governments make agreements among themselves. Yes, at the end of the day, their last concern is victims – they forget about the human aspect of crime,” said Blanca Martínez, wife of Armando Rodríguez Carreón, a journalist whose murder was ordered on November 2008 by José Antonio Acosta Hernández. The investigation linking Acosta Hernández, the leader of the drug trafficking organization La Línea, to Rodríguez Carreón’s homicide was led by Mexico’s Prosecutor’s Office for Special Crimes against Freedom of Speech Division. 

Acosta Hernández, also known as El Diego, was extradited to the U.S. in 2012, despite this ongoing investigation and criminal charges still open in Mexico. He was also named the intellectual author of Rodríguez Carreón’s murder by the Prosecutor’s Office.

The former member of the Mexican Federal Ministerial Police was already imprisoned for three years in the U.S., where he was extradited and sentenced for the homicide of an American official from the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez, her husband, and the husband of another diplomatic employee as they left a children’s party.

El Diego’s legal status prompted the Mexican Prosecutor’s Office to inform that the apprehension order for the homicide of Armando Rodríguez was still “open and to be carried out – through extradition.”

The legal complexity of justice proceedings is overwhelming for Blanca and other victims that La Verdad spoke to. “The extradited criminals may be imprisoned [in the U.S.] but for other crimes. In my husband’s case, justice was never realized or fell through the cracks,” said Blanca.

Not recognizing the truth behind the blood-shed crimes is the direct consequence of political injustice, according to Renata Demichelis, director of Elementa DDHH in Mexico. Not indicating the specific role of those indicted, the reason behind the murders and disappearances they ordered or committed also does away with avoiding further crime and establishing legal precedents. 

There is evidence that the possibility that extradited criminals are thoroughly investigated in another country and sanctioned in Mexico is voided, according to Demichelis.

“We must accept that the chances of accessing justice in Mexico are empty at the moment, and this is probably the most frustrating out of everything,” she said. 

The three extradition cases analyzed in this investigation occurred during the Mexican “War on Drugs” under the Calderón administration and the United States anti-drug policies, intending to capture drug cartel leaders to stop the trafficking of drugs and the violence related to it. 

The findings show one of the cases reached a sentence reduction to be included under a program operating under an automatic selection of cases, which according to authorities, does not take into consideration if the beneficiaries were part of the country’s most wanted criminals and a drug trafficking leader. It also established that another extradited criminal applied for a reduced sentence twice, the last request being in March 2022, which was declined. Only one of the capos was given life imprisonment.

When the sentences assigned to an extradited criminal are completed in the U.S., they are deported to Mexico. The Mexican Ministries at general and state levels are notified of the transportation of these criminals by the U.S. Department of Justice when accusations against these are official, according to Michael S. Vigil, former Chief of International Operations in charge of all Drug Enforcement (DEA.)

“It all depends on the accusations and criminal records of the person being extradited,” said Vigil. “If there are no accusations, you cannot take action. They are simply deported to Mexico.”

It is common for defense attorneys to come to agreements with U.S. federal prosecutors and have their clients contribute valuable information for other trials and investigations.

“If extradited criminals decide to collaborate with the federal government in giving testimony in the trial of another drug trafficker in the United States, they can be protected as witnesses,” said Vigil. 

This was the case in Óscar Alonso’s trial, and his brother seeks the same agreement. The siblings, like Acosta Hernández, were surrendered to the U.S. Government as if they were people without any criminal history in Mexico.

“This isn’t fair for anyone,” said María Guadalupe Ortiz Collazo, sister of physician José Guillermo Ortiz Collazo. He was a fatal victim of the car bomb set off in Ciudad Juárez in 2010 and was publicly attributed to José Antonio Acosta Hernández by authorities.

Calderón Hinojosa’s Administration publicly denounced Acosta Hernández as the mastermind of that blast, which gathered international attention because of the 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of Tovex explosives used. 

Yet, La Verdad could not find any files on investigating this incident through public information requests to the Attorney General’s Office and Chihuahua General State Ministry. The negligence of how the attack was handled feels as if the case was already archived by authorities, said the victims.

“I ponder how he was extradited because it was so quick. I believe he simply surrendered without due process,” said María Guadalupe.  “That is the ultimate law. There is justice for no one.” 

This feeling is shared by Luz María Dávila, mother to Jorge Luis and Marcos Piña Dávila, two of the 15 victims of the massacre that occurred on January 30, 2010, at a house in the neighborhood Villas de Salvárcar in Ciudad Juárez, and for which was Acosta Hernández named the mastermind.

“I don’t agree that he was sent to the U.S.,” she said about Acosta Hernández. “Authorities chose to send him so they would not have to process his case here.”

Throughout his imprisonment in Mexico, Diego was never tried by state or federal courts as they declined due to concerns of jurisdiction and security. The case was “fortunately” discreetly handled and resulted in extradition, according to the then judge and former 2018 Chihuahua State Judge, Pablo Héctor González Villalobos. 

“If live information of the judicial proceedings had reached the media outlets, even the life of the judge becomes at risk, as it happens in Colombia, where every time there was a case of extradition, the first person to be murdered was the judge,” said González Villalobos.

“The best way to stop them [criminals] from harming others is to send them over to the other side [of the border.]”

This deceiving image of power and politics makes the survivors of these crimes question the country’s pursuit of justice. 

“Justice in our country is merely a myth,” said Julián LeBarón, a crime survivor turned activist who continues to seek justice for what happened to his family. He suffered the bloody crime wave at the peak of the drug war while living in the northwest part of Chihuahua, where he lost his brother Benjamín and his brother-in-law, Luis Carlos Whitman Stubbs, to murder in July 2009. 

The crimes against the LeBarón family were attributed to José Rodolfo Escajeda Escajeda, “El Riquín,” who was extradited to the U.S.

LeBarón traveled through Mexico advocating for the acknowledgment of the victims of the Mexican War on Drugs with the activist group Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity. 

“The truth behind the facts in my family’s case was never established, and all the players involved went unpunished,” she said. “Only the truth can bring justice to the facts.”  

A weapon against drugs

The surrendering of a fugitive to the United States authorities in El Paso del Norte International Bridge in Ciudad Juárez. Fiscalía de Chihuahua

The extradition relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, which is more than 160 years old, gained relevance during the Mexican Drug War. Documents from 2000 analyzed by this investigation prove Mexico used this proceeding as a weapon.

During this period, the Mexican government turned in the most people requested by the U.S. government, according to files obtained from a public information request to the Mexican Foreign Affairs Ministry.

There were 1,389 people extradited from Mexico to the U.S. from 2000 to June 1st, 2022. Some of the extraditions occurred expeditiously, while others took 16 years. Most of the crimes for which their detainment was requested include those linked to drug trafficking and some to the homicide of American citizens.

From 2000 to 2006, the Vicente Fox administration had 216 extraditions, the lowest number since the last two presidential terms and the highest number of denied extradition requests from the U.S. All the cases involved Americans, according to the Mexican Exterior Relations Ministry. 

The average number of extraditions during the Felipe Calderón administration was 97, almost three times the number during Fox’s administration. However, this number decreased to an average of 66 extraditions during the Enrique Peña Nieto administration, which recorded 396 extraditions during his six years as president (2012-2018,) according to the Mexican Exterior Relations Ministry.

President Calderón declared war on organized crime during his administration. Thousands of troops were sent to all the streets across the country as a form of militarization through the Coordinated Operation Chihuahua plan. During his term (2006-2012,) 583 drug traffickers were extradited to the U.S., and most were Mexican citizens. This included the Escajeda brothers and Acosta Hernández, detained in Chihuahua.

During his first month in office, there were six extraditions. This number significantly increased in 2007 as a response to the Mérida Initiative, a security cooperation agreement to combat organized crime and drug trafficking between the U.S., Mexico, and several other Central American countries.

The international plan failed to meet its objective of protecting U.S. territory from drug trafficking or ending cartel-generated violence in Mexico, according to a report from the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission.

From 2012 to 2018, during the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, there were 396 extradited people, and the average number of extraditions per year fell to 66. 

Current Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has had a total of 194 extraditions under his term, from its beginning in December 2018 until June 1, 2022. The number of extraditions per year has fluctuated, with 58 extraditions in 2019, 60 in 2020, 43 in 2021, and 29 during the first six months of 2022, a noticed decrease after the Mérida Initiative was replaced with the Mexico-U.S. Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities.

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, explains that there is a priority given to extraditions requested by the U.S.

“We are working closely with the Mexican Government to ensure that people we want on this side of the border, who were involved in crimes that affect the U.S., end up on this side. Once they are here, they will serve their time. It is a joint effort,” said Salazar early this year during a visit to Santa Teresa, New Mexico, a city neighboring Ciudad Juárez.

Protections presented by the defense attorneys of the criminals requested by the U.S. have slowed down Extraditions in Mexico in the past months, such are the cases of Rafael Caro Quintero, who was recaptured by Mexican authorities in October 2022, and that of Ovidio Guzmán López, son of drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who was detained in Sinaloa in January of this year.

Criminal law specialist attorney José Irving Arellano Regino explains that if a person requested for extradition has an open criminal case in Mexico, they must first finish this legal process to be turned in to another country.

This can usually become protection material, generating an obstacle for extradition.

However, he cautions that the decision to turn in criminals is sometimes dictated by political indecency. 

There are occasions where the Foreign Affairs Ministry instructs the Attorney General’s Office to solicit a judge to interrupt the judicial process or to dictate the measures to avoid this from happening. Even though this should not occur, it is how extradition requests are approved or denied. 

Adriana Muro, executive director of Elementa, concurs and points out that extraditions are not only based on a judicial decision but are also used as political weapons by governments. 

After the judicial process, the final decision is taken in a discretionary manner by the executive branch or a politician, explained Muro. 

Through an information request from La Verdad, the Mexican Foreign Affairs said there are occasions when even though the extradition is definite, the surrendering of the subject cannot be done because they have pending criminal claims on national territory. In these cases, the release is deferred until the Ministry calls for action.

“The right thing to do is for the person to meet their sentence in that country and to be transported to the country requesting the extradition after,” said Arellano Regino. This does not always happen.

At least 77 people extradited from Mexico since 2008 still have pending criminal processes back in the country. These charges include crime against health, money laundering, organized crime, homicide, gun possession, abduction, and theft, according to the Mexican Ministry. 

In response to an information request, Attorney General’s Office explained that when extradited criminals from Mexico have a pending criminal case in the country, these are suspended after sentencing.

“Once the extradited individuals complete their sentencing in the U.S., they will be repatriated to Mexican territory to continue the criminal proceedings that were suspended,” said Arellano Regino. This was not the case for La Gata.

This story was produced as part of the Puente News Collaborative, a binational partnership of news organizations in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.