The Long Arm of US Law Enforcement


The front page of today’s NY Times reports on yesterday’s arrest of the notorious drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, aka “El Chapo.” Although the raid was carried out by Mexican forces, the Times reports that they were “aided by information from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, immigration and customs officials and the United States Marshalls Service . . . .”  It is unclear whether Guzmán will be extradited to the United States.

The raid brings back memories of when the US took a more direct route to capturing fugitives in Mexico: the 1990 capture and transfer to the United States of Humberto Álvarez-Machaín by Mexican nationals at the behest of the US Government. Álvarez-Machaín sued the United States for false arrest under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which case eventually reached the Supreme Court.  Although the Court held that the forcible abduction did not bar Álvarez-Machaín’s trial, the district court found him not guilty. Álvarez-Machaín next sued the United States under the Alien Tort Statute, a case he eventually lost in the Supreme Court in 2004.

The US Government of course remains active outside American soil in pursuing high-value targets connected to al Queda. Less well-publicized is United States assistance in locating and building cases against people facing charges before the International Criminal Court. The United States is not a party to the ICC—a point that Congress made clear in the American Service-Members’ Protection Act. That said, the Obama Administration has found ways to support the ICC’s efforts, for example by “protecting crucial witnesses, sharing DNA data and providing forensic assistance . . . .”

The US Government’s extraterritorial efforts to capture fugitives made me recall a conversation with a young guide at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s site in the Panama Canal during a nature walk over a decade ago (if you have the chance, definitely go). When I sheepishly asked whether she and other Panamanians were upset when the United States nabbed Noriega following the 1989 invasion. She paused briefly and replied, “Well, a lot of people I know wanted to hang him ourselves.” After 22 years outside of Panama, Noriega was finally returned to his home country and is currently behind bars.

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