Wyatt Earp couldn't. Texas Rangers couldn't. But Enrique Mercado can and does. He chases murderers and rapists and child molesters across international lines to wherever they're hiding out.
In the past 12 years he's pursued 290 alleged criminals, murderers mostly, down into Mexico. And so far he has succeeded in persuading Mexican law enforcers to prosecute 70 of them. Think of him as an international bounty hunter with a license to incarcerate. Or, more correctly, a license to ask foreign governments to prosecute.
Mercado is the special-agent supervisor of what's known as the Foreign Prosecutions Unit of the California Department of Justice, a small office that has grown to the point where it now helps prosecutors nationwide file warrants for felons hiding south of the border. He runs his unit out of third-floor offices at the corner of Beech and India, a small corner section of the state's Bureau of Investigation.
"Most of the cases I work on are suspected murderers who flee to Mexico," he says. "Cases like -- remember the Hatfields and the McCoys? This guy, this kid, Pablo Osegura, killed a member of his own family. It was a San Mateo County Sheriff's office case, back in 1992.
"This murder was the latest in a long line. Family thing. More than 30 murders, going back years. It started back in Michoacán. One faction would murder a family member [in San Mateo], and then another family member would go back to Michoacán and murder one of their family.
"And the way I understand it, this kid was told to 'Do the right thing' for the family. I don't think he knew why. The feud had been going on so long, they forgot why they were doing it. It could be the nephew used a profane word to the uncle. Not showing respect for elders. Or over women. Most murders start that way. Staring at another guy's girlfriend. Pride, drink."
San Mateo sheriffs lost sight of Osegura, but when Mexican federal police arrested him on narcotics charges in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, a Mexican town that borders Texas, they contacted Mercado, whom they knew. "I went out. We took the case over there and filed it with the Mexican federal authorities. They prosecuted him for homicide and gave him 22 years, on top of 7 years for the narcotics charge. So 29 years total prison. Sad. I don't think he was older than 21."
That was one of Mercado's more successful cases, the result of a 40-year liaison with authorities throughout Mexico, a rapport developed by Mercado and his first boss, Ruben Landa -- who, Mercado says, single-handedly created the office for the California State Bureau of Investigation. The office has such luster that now the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., recommends Mercado's office when police in any U.S. state need help nailing a fugitive who's fled to Mexico or beyond.
When he's not traveling, chasing down felons from Mexico City to Monterrey, Mercado's here on Beech, knocking cases into shape. "We have [acted] for Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada," he says. "I've just done some cases for Oregon, Washington, Utah, and today we have this kid here from Colorado. He's a detective, he came all the way here with a homicide case. We helped him put it together. We're going to take it to Mexico. The guy he wants is in Querétaro, north of Mexico City."
The "kid" wanders in. Detective Michael Schaller, from El Paso County sheriff's office in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
"We brought the case out here and filed it yesterday with Enrique," says Schaller. "The suspect murdered a roommate in a financial deal. For money. He fled about eight months ago. He's a Mexican citizen. We were able to use close friends, so we have good leads as to where he is."
Why can't Schaller's department just ask Mexican authorities to send the suspect back to Colorado? This is the crux of the whole issue and the reason Mercado's office exists. Mexico will not allow its citizens to be extradited, even if they have committed serious crimes.
"Crimes committed in a foreign country by a Mexican citizen against a Mexican citizen or against a foreign citizen," states article IV of its penal code of procedures, "or by a foreign citizen against a Mexican citizen will be punished in Mexico, if...the accused be in the Republic of Mexico...has not been definitely tried in the country where he committed the crime, and the crime with which he is charged be a crime both in the country where it was committed and in the Republic of Mexico."
This means police authorities in the U.S. have to find where the Mexican fugitive is hiding, create evidence for a case that will stick before a Mexican court, and physically take it down to federal prosecutors in the town where they believe the fugitive is hiding.
Sometimes it's easy, as with the case of Martin Meza. "We had this suspect, a young kid who killed one person and wounded another," says Mercado. "He fled to Mexicali. They detained him there and notified us. When I went over there and talked to him, he said he was a Mexican citizen. I found out he was born in Mexico, but as a little child he was brought to Los Angeles. He was raised there. He was a U.S. citizen. And he didn't speak any Spanish. I asked him, 'You sure you're not a U.S. citizen?' He said, 'No. No.' I say, 'Okay. If you're a Mexican citizen, we'll file a case here, and you'll be prosecuted here.'
"I don't think he believed me. So we came back and we got the documents -- all the paper reports -- legalized and translated, and then we presented it to a federal prosecutor in Mexicali. And he went to trial. Over there they don't have jury trials. There's not courtrooms. They call their process 'paper trial,' because everything's done by correspondence between the prosecutor and the defense attorney. They have to submit arguments in written form."