MEXICO CITY — U.S. officials call it "the window": the period for heightened cooperation against narcotics cartels between now and the end of 2012, when Mexican President Felipe Calderon leaves office.
Under his leadership, Mexico has sent 326 wanted fugitives — many of them drug-trafficking suspects — to stand trial in the United States, far more than any of his predecessors.
However, rumblings of discontent over the extradition of former Gov. Mario Villanueva Madrid last weekend highlight the possibility that if there's a change of the party in power in 2012, extradition policies are likely to roll back. Villanueva is the highest-ranking official Mexico has extradited to stand trial on U.S. cocaine-trafficking charges.
President Barrack Obama will honor Calderon at the White House next Wednesday, hosting him at a state dinner, the second of Obama's presidency. The U.S. Congress has invited the Mexican leader to appear before a joint session, a rare honor for a foreign leader.
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That could signal the high water mark of intense collaboration, counter-drug policymakers and experts say.
"Across the board, they tell you the same thing: We're so pleased with the cooperation. We're afraid it won't continue," said Andrew Selee, the director of the Mexico Institute at the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
Calderon has deployed more than 45,000 troops to combat heavily armed narcotics cartels. His campaign, begun in late 2006, has coincided with fighting among rival groups for turf and smuggling routes, leaving Mexicans stunned at the rising bloodshed. The war has taken more than 22,700 lives under Calderon.
"There are serious doubts about what will happen after Calderon, and in reality it's not just about extraditions," said Jorge Chabat, a drug war expert at Mexico City's Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.
"I think what they (U.S. officials) are worried about is a change of strategy that may be reflected in greater tolerance of the narcos . . . like what happened in the past."
U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual hailed Villanueva's extradition last Saturday as a "major milestone." Villanueva will stand trial on charges that he conspired to import more than 200 tons of cocaine into the United States while he was the governor of Quintana Roo from 1994 to 1999. U.S. prosecutors say Villanueva let traffickers use state government airplane hangars and deployed state police to escort them.
The current governor of Quintana Roo, the Yucatan Peninsula state that's home to the resort of Cancun, called Villanueva's extradition an "injustice," the Notimex news agency said. Gov. Felix Gonzalez Canto, like Villanueva, is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party — the PRI, in its Spanish initials — which ruled the country for 71 years until it lost power in 2000.
Many politicians from the PRI oppose extradition on nationalist grounds.
A poll that the GEA-ISA firm released March 18 showed that 52 percent of Mexicans would support the comeback of the PRI after 12 years of rule by the center-right National Action Party. The next presidential election is in July 2012.
The poll gave Calderon's ruling party only 27 percent support, showing a sharp erosion of electoral backing.
Worries about the 2012 election in Mexico were an undercurrent at a U.S. Senate hearing May 5 on Mexico's drug violence.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said "the clock is ticking" on U.S.-Mexican counter-narcotics cooperation.
"It's not a sure thing that we will have an ally in this fight like we have in President Calderon," Cornyn said, noting the 2012 election. "We don't know whether this new president will have the same commitment to fight the cartels that President Calderon has had."
Colombia began to speed the extradition of wanted drug-trafficking suspects to the United States in the late 1990s, and the South American nation later credited the policy with helping it get the upper hand against powerful cocaine cartels.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration praises extraditions as not only a way to bring drug lords to U.S. justice but also a psychological tool.
"There's nothing that those guys fear more than extradition to the United States," DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said.
Calderon's avid support for extradition has helped him resolve several problems, Chabat said, most notably avoiding the embarrassment of having major drug traffickers break out of Mexican prisons, as the nation's No. 1 drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman of the Sinaloa cartel, did in 2001.
"The degree to which Mexico extradites criminals also takes away ammunition from critics of Mexico within the United States," Chabat said. "It calms down public opinion to say, 'Well, Mexico is collaborating and doing what it can.' "
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