Why Do Fugitives Flee to Mexico?

Whatever their crimes, fugitives David Sweat and Richard Matt pulled off an ingenious prison break. So why was their plan to evade authorities so cliché? Continue reading →

After breaking out of Clinton Correctional Facility in New York more than three weeks ago, fugitives David Sweat and Richard Matt intended to spend the rest of their days as free men in Mexico.

Their scheme, which involved murdering the husband of an accomplice and taking his car south of the border, fell apart as a result of weak planning and a strong police response. Matt died in a shootout with police, and Sweat is currently recovering from injuries in a state hospital before he is sent back to prison.

Criminal actions of these men aside, no doubt their prison break showed a high level of ingenuity. So why was their plan for after their escape, hiding away in Mexico, so cliché?

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One possible explanation is the common mistaken belief that the United States and Mexico do not have an extradition treaty. Under that assumption, any American felon who manages to step across the border would not have to worry about setting foot in prison ever again.

In truth, the United States and Mexico do have a bilateral extradition treaty, first signed in 1978. Since the early 2000s, the number of fugitives that Mexico has sent back to U.S. authorities has increased at a steady pace. Between 2003 and 2011, more than 2,000 criminals were captured and returned to the United States for prosecution, according to U.S. Marshals data.

Once criminals cross the border successfully, they may think themselves in the clear, but the federal government has means of tracking them to determine where they've been and where they might be going. Cameras, face-detection technology and license plate readers along the border can identify fugitives and their vehicles. Most non-Mexican criminals tend to stay close to the border after all, as they're more likely to stand out as they travel deeper into Mexican territory.

Criminals also may sabotage their own efforts at escape by using technology, particularly when their devices give away their whereabouts. In 2013 for example, Wanda Lee Ann Podgurski, convicted of disability and insurance fraud earlier that year, was apprehended in Mexico after tweeting "Catch me if you can." Although U.S. Marshals declined to disclose how exactly they tracked down Podgurski, the district attorney involved in the case hinted that the tweet played a role. The most likely explanation is that authorities used the tweet to access her IP address, allowing law enforcement to pinpoint her real-world location.

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U.S. and Mexican authorities also engage in cross-border cooperation on law enforcement matters. The U.S. Marshals Service, which has a task force dedicated to finding and capturing criminals on the lam, leads efforts on this side of the border to capture felons fleeing south. They even have a field office in Mexico to assist in coordination with Mexican authorities.

Even if a criminal manages to elude authorities for a week, a month, a year or more, U.S. law enforcement continues to pursue fugitives even when the trail has gone cold. Earlier this year, FBI agents, who were in Guadalajara seeking information on another fugitive, received a tip on Robert Woodring, who had been on the lam in Mexico for 37 years. Even though Woodring managed to avoid capture for nearly five times longer than his original sentence, his arrest must certainly cause discomfort for any fugitive in Mexico who thought him/herself home free.

As with fugitives who remain in the United States, not every one that crosses the border will get picked up by police of course. In 2010, federal estimates suggested about 1,000 fugitives wanted for crimes in the United States were believed to be hiding out in Mexico.

Even criminals who are caught won't necessarily face justice in the United States. Mexico, like many European countries and Canada, will not extradite a felon unless the government has a guarantee that individual will not face the death penalty upon return to the United States. Mexico will extradite if the maximum penalty is a life sentence, however. U.S. prosecutors are loath to make such concessions, but as one attorney told USA Today in 2008, "The option we have is absolutely no justice, or partial justice."

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Extradition is also a potentially costly proposition in terms of time, money and political capital.

The more time it takes to secure extradition, the less likely it is to happen, particularly with the ever-growing caseloads law enforcement find themselves coping with. When money is involved, prosecutors often prioritize which cases they want expedited and which they may have to let go. This decision is typically made depending on the severity of the crime committed. Diplomatic or political priorities can also interfere with the extradition process. The Mexican government, for example, can be reluctant to send away one of its own citizens.

Mexico is by no means the safe haven it's reputed to be. Given where Sweat and Matt ended up, they probably would have been better off just staying put.

Criminals can manage to sneak across the border, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be picked up and brought back to the United States.

Mexico's 'Smoking Mountain,' Popocatepetl Volcano, is living up to its Aztec name. On May 22, 2013, an explosive column of ash and gas reached higher than a kilometer. Three hours of spasmodic tremors accompanied two volcanotectonic earthquakes of magnitude 2.1 and 1.8 as well.

Here, a cloud of ash belches out of the volcano, as seen from Paso de Cortes, in the Mexican central state of Puebla, on May 20, 2013.

A cloud of ash belches out of Mexico's Popocatepetl volcano, some 55 km from Mexico City, as seen from Paso de Cortes, in the Mexican central state of Puebla, on May 20, 2013.

Two members of the Federal Police talk with the Popocatepetl volcano in the background in Paso de Cortez, at the Popocatepetl-Iztaccíhuatl National Park, Puebla state, on May 19, 2013.

People are seen at the main square of San Nicolas de los Ranchos, Puebla state.

A farmer tends his field as Popocatepetl Volcano -- seen from Santiago Xalitxintla, in Puebla, on May 18, 2013 -- spews a cloud of ash and smoke.

People observe Popocatepetl Volcano from Santiago Xalitxintla, in Puebla, on May 18, 2013.

Lava pours out of Mexico's Popocatepetl volcano, as seen from Cholula, in the Mexican central state of Puebla, on May 15, 2013.

A cloud of ash belches out of Mexico's Popocatepetl volcano, as seen from Cholula, in the Mexican central state of Puebla, on May 15, 2013.

Popocatepetl Volcano is seen from Santiago Xalitxintla, in Puebla, on May 14, 2013 spewing a cloud of ash and smoke.