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United States v. Alvarez-Machain

Court United States Court Of Appeals For The Ninth Circuit, United States
Case number 90-50459
Decision title Judgment
Decision date 18 October 1991
  • United States
  • Humberto Alvarez-Machain
Categories Human rights violations, Torture
Keywords murder, torture, abduction, extradition, kidnapping
Other countries involved
  • Mexico
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What happens if a country suspects a national of another country of being involved in the murder of one of its officials? In many cases, the former country will request an extradition of the suspect. But what happens if the latter country refuses?

In this case, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, having lost one of its own at the hands of a Mexican drug cartel, took matters in its own hands and forcibly abducted one of the suspects, Humberto Alvarez—Machain. In the United States, he was indicted for participation in kidnapping and murder. The District Court established that the forcible abduction stood in the way of Alvarez-Machain’s trial in the United States. The Court of Appeals, relying on previous case law, agreed. It established that forcible abduction violated the extradition treaty between the US and Mexico. According to the Court of Appeals, this conclusion was substantiated by official Mexican protests against the abduction.

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Procedural history

Humberto Alvarez-Machain, a Mexican citizen and resident, was forcibly kidnapped from his home and flown to Texas, where he was arrested for his participation in the kidnapping and murder of a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent and the agent's pilot. After concluding that DEA agents were responsible for the abduction, the District Court dismissed the indictment on the ground that it violated the extradition treaty between the United States and Mexico and ordered respondent's repatriation. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Based on one of its prior decisions, the Court found that, since the United States had authorised the abduction and since the Mexican government had protested against the treaty violation, jurisdiction was improper. The Supreme Court held that the trial court's jurisdiction was not affected by the manner in which the accused was brought before it.

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Related developments

On remand, Alvarez-Machain was tried in federal court. The District Court acquitted him. Alvarez-Machain returned to Mexico and brought a lawsuit against the United States for false arrest and against Mexican national Sosa for violating the law of nations.  The District Court and Court of Appeal (also en banc) confirmed his claim in part. The Supreme Court reversed this decision, ruling that neither Sosa not the US could be found liable of violation of the law of nations.

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Legally relevant facts

After investigating the kidnapping and murder of a US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) special agent, the DEA concluded that physician Humberto Alvarez-Machain had participated in the murder. It was alleged that he had prolonged the agent’s life so that others could further torture and interrogate him.   An arrest warrant was issued and the United States negotiated with the Mexican government without any formal extradition request. On 2 April 1990, Alvarez-Machain was forcibly kidnapped and flown to El Paso, Texas, where he was arrested by DEA officials and indicted. Alvarez-Machain moved to dismiss the indictment, claiming that his abduction constituted outrageous governmental conduct, and that the District Court lacked jurisdiction to try him because he was abducted in violation of the extradition treaty between the United States and Mexico. 

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Core legal questions

The United States appealed the District Court’s judgment of dismissal. The Court of Appeals had to assess whether a criminal defendant, abducted to the United States from a nation with which it has an extradition treaty, thereby acquires a defence to the jurisdiction of United States courts? Therefore, the Court had to assess whether forcible abduction violated the extradition treaty between the United States and Mexico.

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Specific legal rules and provisions

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Court's holding and analysis

The Court solely relied on United States v. Verdugo Urquidez to establish that the District Court’s judgment should be confirmed. In that case, the Court of Appeals had held that forcible abduction violated the Extradition Treaty between the US and Mexico, that protests by the Mexican government provided standing for the accused to assert rights under the treaty in US courts and that the proper remedy for such a violation is repatriation of the Mexican nationals seized by US agents. The Court held that Verdugo applied a fortiri to the facts of this case. The Court established that Alvarez-Machain was abducted by paid agents of the DEA, upon the DEA’s request. Also, Mexico made unequivocal and specific diplomatic protests against this abduction, which also satisfies a requirement set by a separate opinion of Judge Browning in Verdugo that an official and unequivocal protest against the abduction and a request to return the accused is necessary to claim a breach of international law. The Court of Appeals concluded that the Verdugo case requires the dismissal of the indictment and the repatriation.

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Further analysis

The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Alvarez-Machain case gave rise to much academic discussion. The ruling was both criticised and defended. In 2003, Costi published an overview and analysis of case law regarding extraterritorial abductions.

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Instruments cited

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Additional materials