What are Mexico's legal prospects regarding the El Paso shooting?

Eight Mexican nationals were victims of the El Paso mass shooting. But what can Mexico really do?
Image: Mourners release balloons during a mass remembering the victims of an El Paso mass shooting that left 22 dead in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Aug. 10, 2019.
Mourners release balloons during a mass remembering the victims of an El Paso mass shooting that left 22 dead in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Aug. 10, 2019.Christian Chavez / AP file

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By Raul A. Reyes

Amid funerals and community memorial services, the city of El Paso, Texas is mourning the loss of 22 people from the mass shooting at the Cielo Vista Wal-Mart, the deadliest attack on Hispanics in modern U.S. history — and a crime that struck two countries.

Across the border, Mexico is grieving eight Mexican nationals who were gunned down in the shooting. The Mexican government has signaled that it intends to take action on their behalf, to help ensure justice for its citizens. In a statement, Mexico’s foreign ministry called the mass shooting a “terrorist act against innocent Mexicans.”

Mexico expects to participate in the investigation of the suspect, who has confessed to targeting Mexicans. In a press conference on August 4, Mexico’s foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard said that Mexico was considering legal action against the seller and manufacturer of the weapon used in the attack, as well as possible extradition of the suspect to Mexico.

However, some foreign affairs experts say that Mexico’s legal avenues may be constrained by political and practical realities.

Scott R. Anderson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that Mexico will likely be involved, in some way, in the investigation of the mass shooting.

“The U.S. and Mexico have a mutual legal assistance treaty, which basically means that there are mechanisms for sharing information and evidence," Anderson said. "For the sake of good relations, the U.S. government will probably find ways to keep Mexico apprised of the investigation.”

Beyond the exchange of information, Anderson does not foresee Mexico being able to sue the seller or manufacturer of the weapon used in the mass shooting.

“It would be more plausible if Mexican nationals who were injured, or the estates of the deceased, brought a lawsuit. In the case of Mexico itself as a plaintiff, the legal standing you need is harder to justify,” said Anderson. These types of lawsuits have not had much success when brought by American plaintiffs, Anderson noted, so there is little reason to expect that the results would be different if Mexico pursued such action.

The possibility of Mexico extraditing the shooting suspect appears even more unlikely.

“There is a legal framework that Mexico could use if they wanted to extradite him (the suspect) but the chances that the U.S. would honor the request are zero to none,” said Emily Edmonds-Poli, associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of San Diego. “The U.S. has strong interests for political and legal reasons for justice to be meted out here.”

The U.S. has extradited Mexican criminal suspects, the most prominent being Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera in 2017. He faced charges, including allegations of money-laundering and drug trafficking, that were transnational – meaning that they spanned the U.S and Mexico.

In contrast, the El Paso shooting occurred on U.S. territory, and the suspect and a majority of the victims are Americans. So Mexico would seem to have little leverage in demanding to try the El Paso suspect.

Edmonds-Poli believes that any extradition attempts would be futile. “The U.S./Mexico extradition treaty could technically be the basis for this kind of request, so legally it is one hundred percent possible. Politically and practically, extradition is not going to happen; Mexico would not be bargaining from a position of strength relative to the Trump administration.”

To some observers, it has been notable that Mexico’s foreign minister Ebrard has spoken forcefully about Mexico’s interest in the El Paso mass shooting, rather than Mexican President Lopez Obrador. Ebrard said that Mexico is considering extradition, rather than demanding it. This strategy could be seen as an attempt not to rile the Trump administration during a time of strained relations between the two countries over migration and tariffs.

“I think Mexican authorities are trying to tow a fine line, between generating political support at home while trying not to antagonize Trump while trying to help those who are affected by this tragedy,” said Gustavo A. Flores-Macias, associate professor of government at Cornell University.

Ebrard speaking about potential lawsuits or extradition is symbolically valuable to the Mexican government, especially since Lopez Obrador has been criticized at home for seeming too accommodating to Trump. “It looks good domestically, that the government is standing up for Mexicans abroad.”

According to Flores-Macias, the Mexican government could take other steps, such as filing to become an “interested party” in any case against the El Paso shooter or becoming another voice in the larger movement to bring about gun legislation in the U.S.

Scott R. Anderson of the Brookings Institution takes a pragmatic view of Mexico’s situation in the wake of the El Paso shooting.

“The Mexican government knows that the world’s attention is on this issue. Mexico wants to seize this moment and put pressure on the U.S.; the ability to threaten legal action satisfies both the domestic audience and puts pressure on the U.S. to fully address this tragedy.”

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