By Alexandra Olson
The Associated Press
MEXICO CITY — Mexico agreed Tuesday to extradite a top leader of a Tijuana-based drug cartel to the U.S., dismissing a judge's opinion that it would mean trying him on the same charges twice.
The attorney general's office said Benjamin Arellano Felix could be sent to the United States for trial at any time. But his defense attorney, Americo Delgado, said he has 15 days to appeal the decision in federal court.
Arellano Felix was arrested in 2002 and has already been sentenced to 22 years in prison in Mexico on drug-trafficking and organized crime charges. He also was sentenced to more than five years for weapons possession.
The Arellano Felix cartel emerged as a drug-trafficking powerhouse in the 1980s in Tijuana, across the U.S. border from San Diego. But the gang began to weaken after Arellano Felix's arrest and the killing of his brother Ramon in 2002 in a shootout with police.
A judge recommended in May that Benjamin Arellano Felix not be extradited because he should not be tried for the same crimes twice. The opinion was not binding, although the government was required to take it into account.
The government argued that the charges against Arellano Felix in the United States are different from the ones he was tried for in Mexico, the attorney general's office said.
Arellano Felix was tried in Mexico for drug trafficking and other crimes committed before 1997, the office said. In the United States, he is wanted for trafficking that occurred in years afterward, the office said.
He is also wanted for money laundering, which he never was tried for in Mexico.
Arellano Felix faces trial in U.S. federal court in California on five charges, including drug trafficking, money laundering, racketeering and organized crime.
Delgado, the defense attorney, criticized the Mexican government for defying the judge's recommendation and said he would appeal the extradition order within 15 days.
"This is totally undue and illegal considering the judge's decision," he said.
Mexico was once reticent to send its citizens for trial in the U.S., but has recently stepped up the pace of extradition. Some convicted drug lords have reportedly continued to run their gangs from behind bars in Mexico, something that presumably would be harder to do from U.S. prisons.
Once operated by several brothers of the same name, the Tijuana cartel recruited dozens of police into its ranks as it grew and paid millions of dollars in bribes to law enforcement and military personnel.
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Another of the brothers, Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, was sentenced to life in prison in the U.S. in November on charges that he led the cartel.