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Mexico rules criminals facing life in prison can be extradited

Associated Press Writer

MEXICO CITY- Mexico's Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that suspects facing life in prison can be extradited, overturning a 4-year-old ban that had prevented many of the country's most notorious criminals from being sent to the United States.

A 1978 treaty with the United States allows Mexico to deny extradition if a person faces the death penalty. In 2001, the Supreme Court also blocked extradition of suspects facing life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Capital punishment has been banned by Mexico's constitution since June and was almost never applied for decades before that. Life sentences are also extremely rare.

But the high court weighed the issue after the government of the northern state of Chihuahua modified its penal code to include life sentences in convictions involving homicide and kidnapping.

Tuesday's ruling also declared Chihuahua's state law constitutional, setting a precedent that could allow for more life sentences.

Judges ruled 6-5 to throw out the life without parole restriction, but their ruling will not ease extradition restrictions for suspects who could face the death penalty, a court spokesman said.

He said the ruling will apply to all suspects captured here _ including U.S. citizens who commit crimes, then flee south of the border.

During a full high court session, 10 judges normally vote. In the case of a tie, chief justice Mariano Azuela is called upon to cast the deciding vote.

The 2001 ban kept many of the country's top drug lords and other notorious suspects in Mexico when U.S. authorities were desperate to try them in their territory.

In one of the latest cases, Raul Gomez-Garcia was caught in Mexico in June after being accused of killing a Denver police officer. Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey brought second-degree murder charges against Gomez-Garcia because a first-degree charge could have blocked the extradition by allowing life imprisonment or the death penalty.

The U.S. Embassy had no comment on Tuesday's ruling.

The federal attorney general's office is considering U.S. extradition requests for Benjamin Arellano Felix, the reputed head of the Tijuana-based cocaine- and marijuana-smuggling syndicate bearing his family's name.

U.S. prosecutors are also seeking to try Osiel Cardenas, who authorities say ran the Gulf cartel and was responsible for moving thousands of tons of cocaine and other narcotics across the Texas border.

Despite Tuesday's ruling, Mexican law still requires that suspects be tried first in this country before being sent abroad for new trials.

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