By Gabriel Stargardter
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The United States has asked Mexico to detain freed drug kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero to face charges brought decades ago by a U.S. court, the Mexican attorney general's office said on Wednesday, setting the stage for a formal extradition request.
Caro Quintero, one of the infamous godfathers of Mexican drug trafficking, was freed last week from the Puente Grande prison after serving nearly three decades of a 40-year sentence for ordering the 1985 murder of undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique Camarena.
The ruling was a bitter blow to the DEA, and the United States said it would not cease in its efforts to bring Caro Quintero to justice on home soil.
The request for Mexico to detain Caro Quintero marks the first stage of a formal extradition process riddled with complex legal potholes.
A source from the Mexican attorney general's office said that Caro Quintero could not be extradited to the United States because a decision by Mexico's Supreme Court bars extradition of Mexicans to countries that may impose the death penalty or life imprisonment - punishments excluded by Mexican law.
It is also unclear where Caro Quintero is and how authorities would find a figure with deep links to Mexico's criminal underworld and who is widely believed to have gone into hiding.
"Once the detention order against Rafael Caro Quintero is effected, the United States government will have 60 days to present its formal extradition request," Mexico's attorney general's office said in a statement.
Caro Quintero, who is believed to be 60, holds a special place in Mexican drug lore. He was one of the leaders of the Guadalajara cartel, a forerunner of the Sinaloa cartel now led by Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, the country's most-wanted drug lord.
Camarena was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in retaliation for his involvement in a number of successful drug busts.
At the time, the United States was furious at a perceived lackluster effort to catch Camarena's killer, and the episode marked a low point in relations between the two countries.
Top Mexican officials including Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Meade have expressed their outrage at the court's decision to free Caro Quintero.
But Mexico's judiciary is independent of the executive branch and it is unclear what powers politicians have to reverse the court's decision.
To make matters worse, the United States may also have to face the galling prospect of watching Caro Quintero's accomplices in the Camarena murder walk free.
Caro Quintero's lawyer said last week he was seeking the release of Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, who ran the Guadalajara cartel alongside Caro Quintero, and was convicted and imprisoned for planning Camarena's abduction and murder with fellow Guadalajara drug lord Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo.
Felix Gallardo's lawyers are widely expected to follow suit, in a potential headache for President Enrique Pena Nieto's dealings with his northern neighbor.
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Simon Gardner and Philip Barbara)