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Killers in U.S. rely on mercy of Mexico

by Russell Working

LOS ANGELES — Anabella Vara was pregnant at 14 and married at 15, and by the time she was 21 she was living in fear. On Valentine’s Day 1999 her husband, Daniel Perez, looped a rope around her neck and tried to strangle her. She and her 5-year-old son fled to her parents’ house, but two months later he kidnapped her at gunpoint and shot her in the head.

Vara survived, almost miraculously, with little more than a slight hearing loss. Behind the left ear is a dent where a 9 mm slug entered her head. On her right temple another scar marks the spot where the slug exited.

“I woke up in the hospital, and my sister said, ‘You were shot,’ ” she recalls. “I said, ‘Where?’ She told me, ‘In the head. But you’ll be fine.’ “

But everything wouldn’t be fine. During the trial, a judge released Perez on bail. He broke into the home of Vara’s parents, and allegedly shot her father to death (she was in a safe house that night). Her 5-year-old son witnessed his grandfather’s murder. Then Perez fled, as bad guys do in movies, to Mexico. And the Mexican government refuses to extradite criminals who face capital charges or life sentences.

Today Vara is one of hundreds of crime victims and district attorneys who are demanding that the United States increase pressure on Mexico to hand over criminals.

There have been hundreds of such cases across the U.S., particularly in the Southwest, said Janice Maurizi, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office. The exact number nationwide is impossible to know because many district attorneys have stopped seeking extraditions, she said. This is because a refusal from Mexico will eliminate any hope of ever getting the suspect back.

Los Angeles County alone has issued 150 warrants for criminals thought to be in Mexico, Maurizi said. Of those, 23 have resulted in trials, and most of those cases (held in secret without juries or witnesses) have served up sentences that victims’ families consider ludicrously lenient. A multiple murderer received three years in prison, and he apparently didn’t even serve that. A man accused of 19 counts of child rape has been serving time on weekends.

During a recent interview in a Denny’s restaurant in East Los Angeles, a hush fell over one corner of the room as people eavesdropped on Vara. She has retold her story so many times to cops and courtrooms, she no longer cries when she relates it.

“It is unbelievable to me that we are actually at the mercy of Mexico,” said Vara, whose parents were Mexican immigrants. “It’s incredible that our government cannot do the right thing and get the criminal, and help the victim’s family close the case.”

Mexico negotiated an extradition treaty with the United States under Jimmy Carter in 1978, but it later unilaterally banned extradition in death penalty cases. Then in October 2001 the Mexican Supreme Court upped the ante, ruling that a life sentence is a cruel and unusual punishment. The government stopped extraditing prisoners in these cases, too.

Mexico insists that, despite the ruling, it is among the best partners of U.S. law enforcement. Miguel Monterrubio, press attache for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, said in a phone interview, “No government has provided as many criminals to the United States as Mexico. The cooperation between these governments has been extraordinary.”

Mexico has asked that U.S. prosecutors press lesser charges or seek lighter penalties, something most American authorities refuse to do. California could not meet Mexican requirements even if it wanted to “downsize the sentence,” said Tom Sneddon, district attorney for California’s Santa Barbara County, which is seeking five suspects from Mexico. The trouble is, by law most California sentences are indeterminate, meaning they could run, say, from 15 years to life. Mexico has refused to extradite in such cases.

Santa Barbara’s most notorious case is that of murder suspect Jesse James Hollywood, thought to be on the run in Mexico. Hollywood and four other accomplices set out to settle a marijuana debt, and they kidnapped the debtor’s 15-year-old stepbrother, Nicholas Markowitz, in the Los Angeles area. After holding the boy for five days, they bound and gagged him, shot him to death and buried him in a shallow grave.

While the four accomplices have been arrested, Jesse was believed to be in Mexico.

Those who try to raise the issue with the Justice Department say they are rebuffed. Sneddon, who is a board member of a national organization of district attorneys, said the federal government believes that there are bigger issues to worry about. Earlier this year, the federal government was urging him not to rock the boat because Mexico’s support was needed on the Iraq war at the U.N. Security Council, and the Justice Department apparently did not wish to jeopardize longer-term cooperation with Mexico on drug enforcement matters.

“They pat you on the head and tell you to go away,” Sneddon said.

Other cases are equally disturbing, say law enforcement officials. On June 8, 1999, Olivia Zavala and her cousin Jessica Munguia were walking to high school in a Los Angeles suburb when a 24-year-old man named Juan Casillas pulled up in his car, according to news accounts. Casillas was searching for Munguia, his 17-year-old former girlfriend, because she had broken up with him, and he allegedly drew a pistol and shot her repeatedly. She staggered into a utility pole and collapsed. He turned his gun on Zavala, who was 15, and shot her, too, authorities contend. The girls died in the hospital.

Casillas fled to Mexico, said Maurizi, the Los Angeles county spokeswoman. When Los Angeles County sought his extradition, Mexico instead tried Casillas based on documents shipped from California, she said. There are no witnesses in Mexico’s closed courts, and the victims’ families did not have the opportunity to testify. The court sentenced Casillas to three years in prison, and it appears he did not even serve that, Maurizi said.

Later, Olivia’s father, Saul Zavala, headed across the border after he learned that his daughter’s killer was free. He planned to hunt down Casillas and kill him, Maurizi said. Zavala found Casillas’ home, but the murderer was away. That night Zavala’s wife talked him out of going back.

In Vara’s case, Perez was convicted in California. After he absconded, he was found guilty in absentia for shooting his wife under a provision of California law that allows such convictions if the accused was present for most of the trial. Though he received a sentence of from 35 years to life, Mexico doesn’t recognize trials in absentia and won’t extradite him.

“If we even seek extradition, if we even seek to put a warrant in the system on this guy, Mexico will dismiss the case,” Maurizi said.

Meanwhile, Vara has changed her address and phone number. “She is in fear every day of her life,” Maurizi said.