updated 9/16/2006 8:44:26 PM ET 2006-09-17T00:44:26

Mexico extradited accused drug kingpin Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix to the United States on Saturday, making him the first major Mexican drug lord to be sent north to face trial on drug charges.

Mexico’s extradition of the man who once ran the Arellano Felix drug clan was a victory for U.S. officials who have been pushing Mexico to send them more drug lords.

After serving a 10-year sentence in Mexico, Arellano Felix was loaded into a helicopter to the Mexican border town of Matamoros, then flown across and handed over to Texas officials in Brownsville. He will be taken to California to face trial on charges stemming from a 1980 case in which he allegedly sold cocaine to an undercover police officer in the United States.

U.S. authorities requested Arellano Felix’s extradition on June 2, 2003. A federal judge approved that request in 2004, but it took two years for the Foreign Relations Department approve the extradition.

Francisco Rafael was arrested in December 1993 in Tijuana and was convicted under Mexico’s tough weapons laws rather than for drug offenses. He was the oldest of seven brothers in a family accused of running what was throughout the 1990s one of Mexico’s largest and most-violent drug smuggling gangs.

Most of the Arellano Felix brothers have been arrested or killed, weakening the cartel. But Mexican and U.S. officials said the gang still moves tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States from its operations base in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego.

Family affair
One brother, Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, was captured on a fishing boat last month by the U.S. Coast Guard in international waters off the coast of La Paz, Mexico.

Benjamin Arellano Felix, reputedly the planning chief of the gang, was arrested in March 2002 in Puebla, east of Mexico City. He is still being held in a Mexican jail.

Another brother, Ramon Arellano Felix, was shot to death a month earlier in the Pacific tourist port of Mazatlan. Police say he had been the group’s feared enforcer, in charge of killing to settle scores.

Eduardo Arellano Felix is still at large, and not much is known of the gang’s other brothers and sisters.

Mexico has fought many extraditions in the past, arguing that suspects must face justice here first. It also refuses to extradite suspects who face the death penalty in other countries.

Death penalty issue
Capital punishment is illegal here, and a 1978 extradition treaty with the United States allows Mexico to deny extradition if a person faces the death penalty in another country.

In November, Mexico’s Supreme Court removed an obstacle that had prevented many of the country’s most notorious criminals from facing U.S. justice when it overturned a 4-year ban on the extradition of suspects facing life in prison.

Mexico last year extradited 41 suspected criminals to the United States, up from 34 in 2004; 31 in 2003; 25 in 2002; 17 in 2001; and 12 in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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