Monday, August 28, 2017
How Far Can the Extraterritorial
Jurisdiction of the USA Reach?
By Parker Asmann
• The sentencing of a Zetas cartel assassin in Texas is the latest example of US prosecutors applying extraterritorial jurisdiction to foreign nationals
for crimes they committed abroad, and which on the surface do not directly affect the United States. But what are the limitations
to the application of this powerful legal tool?
Marciano Millán Vásquez, alias "Chano," may have been one of the most brutal assassins employed
by Mexico's renowned Zetas organization. A former plaza boss for the Zetas criminal group in the Mexican border town of Piedras Negras, Vásquez was arrested in Texas in 2015 and indicted by US authorities for conspiring to import and distribute illegal drugs into the United States, among other crimes.
In a later indictment, he was also charged with various murders he committed while engaged in drug trafficking activities. A US courtroom
heard of how he laughed as he murdered and then dismembered a young girl in front of her parents, "so you'll remember
me," he had said.
Typically, extraterritorial jurisdiction is applied in crimes committed against US
citizens abroad, or in cases that have some other direct connection to the United States. Vásquez argued that all of the victims were murdered in Mexico. But US prosecutors say that these murders helped further his drug trafficking to the United States, thus giving them a legal
basis for pursuing the charges.
Vásquez was found guilty in July 2016 of murdering at least 29 individuals, among other charges, and was subsequently sentenced to seven life terms in June 2017 by a US district court in Texas for murder, drug trafficking, and arms trafficking.
US prosecutors have increasingly used extraterritorial jurisdiction to levy charges against foreigners accused of terrorism or organized crime-related offenses,
for example by linking suspects to the influx of drugs to the country or to illegal money passing through US financial institutions. But they have rarely targeted foreigners for the murder of non-US nationals abroad.
And when they have,
they have not always been successful. In 2016, federal prosecutors in New York filed charges against former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán for the murder of Mexican nationals, on Mexican soil. A few months later, however, those murder charges
against Guzmán were quietly dropped amid speculation that prosecutors may have been concerned about proving their claim to US jurisdiction over those crimes.
(Guzmán is currently on trial in the United States on drug charges)
According to Dan Schneider, an assistant professor at
American University's School of International Service, whether extraterritorial jurisdiction applies depends on the
prosecution's ability to prove the charges are linked to crimes affecting the United States.
"Under US case law involving conspiracy, one is liable for any crimes committed in furtherance of the conspiracy,"
Schneider told InSight Crime. "If you're conspiring to traffic narcotics, it is reasonably foreseeable that violence,
including murder, will result after you join the conspiracy."
also: Coverage of Extradition
In Vásquez's case, prosecutors were able to prove that Vásquez was
guilty of "killing while engaged in drug trafficking" – drugs that he knew would reach the United States.
Richard Gregorie, a prosecutor in the US Attorney's Office in Miami who wrote the indictment for deceased former
Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, has prosecuted a number of drug trafficking and money laundering cases using extraterritorial jurisdiction. He echoed Schneider's comments, emphasizing that extraterritorial jurisdiction
can be motivated by national security considerations.
jurisdiction comes from protecting US laws and interests," Gregorie told InSight Crime. "If crimes are committed
in furtherance of an enterprise whose object is to get [drugs] into the United States, we [US prosecutors] have jurisdiction."
Still, the former Zetas boss may mount an appeal against his hefty sentence. David Shirk, the director of the Justice in Mexico research project, told InSight Crime that if Vásquez does appeal to a higher US court, its verdict could end up setting
a sturdier precedent for the application of extraterritorial jurisdiction in murder or other criminal cases.
"One thing that remains to be seen is if [the charges] hold up against scrutiny against higher court appeals,"
Shirk said. "An appeal to this particular charge and sentence could have very interesting implications."
If Vásquez’s case is the first of many, the United States will be strengthening its role in prosecuting
international crimes – a powerful position that may help prop up weaker judicial systems abroad, or undermine them.
This commentary was first published in InSight Crime and reposted per a Creative Commons authorization. InSight Crime's objective is to increase
the level of research, analysis and investigation on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean. Parker Asmann
graduated from DePaul University in Chicago with degrees in Journalism and Spanish, and a minor in Latin American studies.
He was a freelance reporter for various publications before joining InSight Crime in June 2017.