Beyond Bandits and Bounty Hunters

Is Mexico facilitating the flight of American fugitives — and their subsequent capture by bounty hunters?

August 15, 2003

Is Mexico facilitating the flight of American fugitives — and their subsequent capture by bounty hunters?

Many Americans have never visited Mexico in person, so it is little wonder that their opinions are often shaped by Hollywood movies.

"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (with Humphrey Bogart in 1948) was one of the greatest American films ever made south of the border. It firmly planted the cliché of "lawless Mexico" in the collective mind of Americans.

In the film, two down-and-out Americans seek their fortune in Mexico. They meet with an aging gringo prospector who takes them to the mountains of central Mexico — where they successfully pan for gold.

As the trio leads a mule train down from the hills to cash in their fortune, a gang of Mexican bandidos — posing as the police — shows up to rob them.

In a memorable confrontation, Bogart's character challenges the obviously lying bandits to prove their identity as policemen. The gang leader, pointing out that his bandit group is larger and can outlast the three gringos, replies "We don't gotta show you no stinkin' badges."

This line is enshrined in the myth that says, in Mexico, you may not be able to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

Bounty hunters and mercenaries have long considered Mexico fair game. Another great American film classic, "The Magnificent Seven," immortalized the hiring of seven gringo warriors by a small Mexican town to protect it from marauding bandidos.

But uncertainty about the rule of law in Mexico has always had an upside: Here was a place where you could skirt the authorities — and maybe get yourself rich, quickly.

In the 19th century, gringo "freebooters" and adventurers thought nothing of taking gold out of Mexico — or even acquiring its territory under the guise of the Manifest Destiny.

One of the more outrageous examples was William Walker — a 5-foot-2-inch, 120-pound, fiery, tough-nosed adventurer from Tennessee.

Walker decided to conquer Baja, California, in 1854. He hired a rag-tag team of mercenaries, sailed to the southern port of La Paz — and briefly held the town under siege, declaring himself President of Lower California. He was later defeated at Ensenada — and fled to the United States.

Walker eventually died in front of a firing squad in Honduras — for trying the same stunt yet again.

Perhaps not surprisingly today, the myth that an American hero can cross the border and bring some justice into lawless Mexico remains strong.

In a post-NAFTA world, trade and economics are merging Mexican and U.S. societies. As this process deepens, it begs the question: How do you handle situations where a wanted criminal in one nation flees to another?

Crossing the border is the oldest trick in the book for a criminal wanting to hide from the authorities. Obviously, some kind of bi-national legal structure is needed to return law-breakers to the jurisdiction where the crime occurred.

But, the two bordering nations have vastly different legal cultures. Mexican law is derived from Napoleonic legal philosophy, while U.S. law is based on English juridical principles.

These differences end up creating huge inconsistencies in law enforcement — thus paving the way for bounty hunters and other adventurers to take the law into their own hands.

Duane "Dog" (God spelled backwards) Chapman is blonde, muscular and bearded — a 50-year-old global bounty hunter from Hawaii who claims he is the modern-day "Billy the Kid."

The macho surfer, professional-tracker and tough guy boasts 6,000 captures in his career.

Mr. Chapman believed he could march into Mexico and track down a high-profile criminal on the run — the millionaire heir to the Max Factor fortune, Andrew Luster — who is wanted in California on rape charges.

Luster was convicted in absentia on rape charges by a court in Ventura County, California — and sentenced to 124 years in prison.

Once he retrieved Mr. Luster, Chapman expected to collect 10% of more than a million dollars of the bail money posted for his release from jail in California.

Chapman and two associates, acting on a tip, tracked Luster to Puerto Vallarta. On June 18, 2003 "God" and his "posse" spotted Luster at a taco stand. A violent scuffle on a street corner ensued. Luster was promptly maced, subdued, handcuffed — and driven off.

Bystanders reported the incident to Puerta Vallarta police, who chased down the two vehicles along the highway to the Gustavo Diaz International Airport. The police then apprehended the Americans.

The three bounty hunters were arrested and are awaiting charges — though they have left Mexico. Chapman may soon have a bounty on his own head.

"In the past, hundreds of Americans have been caught by bounty hunters in Mexico and returned to the United States," said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute — a think-tank at the University of San Diego. "This is the first time, to my knowledge, that there was an attempt by Mexican police to step in — and intercept the bounty hunters."

Could this be a post-9/11 backlash by Mexican officials against the somewhat draconian and even confusing — e.g. color-coded security designations — U.S. homeland security policies?

Or is it simply a sign that Mexico is finally becoming a more stable nation that seeks to enforce the laws within its boundaries?

In the United States, fugitives are typically apprehended by bail bondsmen — or hired "bounty hunters" — working on behalf of the bail bond companies.

Bounty hunters usually get 10-15% of the bail amount. Offering that bounty is a good deal to bail companies, since they stand to lose the entire bail payment to the court if the fugitive fails to show up for 6 months.

Capturing fugitives and returning them to the county of jurisdiction is considered legal within the United States.

However, in Mexico — as in most of the world — such actions constitute a violation of the law if they are not carried out by Mexican police or judicial officials. And yet, Mexico's "lawless" history is not easily forgotten. There is still a temptation to celebrate the American bounty hunter.

"Dog performed an invaluable public service by arresting this fugitive," wrote one observer on a web site shortly after the incident.

Television producer Jeff Sells, who was with Chapman's group, voiced an opinion that was widely heard across the border. "They took a rapist off the streets — and to me that's a big deal," he told the press.

But the question remains: Is it OK to apprehend a criminal in Mexico by any means? No — according to Mel Barth, the executive director of the 3,200-member National Association of Bail Enforcement Agents.

"This Chapman is a disgrace to humanity. He's an idiot," said Barth. "In my schools, we tell them cross-border stuff is a no-no… You don't go into a foreign country and try to kidnap."

"He represents all of the things that bail agents are trying to get away from — the cowboy image, the renegade, bring 'em home dead or alive. That's just not the way it works," said Penny Harding, executive director of the California Bail Agents Association —which represents 500 bail bondsmen.

Maybe that's not the way it works, but this August, a new retail comic book series, called "Hellhounds," will hit the stands throughout the United States.

It features a pair of elite bounty hunters — King and Shock — who are hired to track down criminals all over planet Earth. They are the new superheroes of the 21st century.

Duane Chapman is a real-life model for this kind of superhero. But he could also end up reading these comic books — in a cold, damp Mexican jail.