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Inside Mexico’s ‘Gringo Hunters’ as they track down, capture foreign fugitives

ABC News

(NEW YORK) — It’s an old Hollywood story: some criminal suspects believe they can outrun the law, and escape their charges, by fleeing to Mexico.

But when fugitives who commit a crime in the United States cross the southern border, the U.S. government requires some external help in tracking them down.

“No nation is just going into another nation to put handcuffs on somebody,” John Muffler, a former U.S. Marshal, told “Impact x Nightline.”

Oftentimes, help comes in the form of a specialized Mexican state police unit nicknamed the “Gringo Hunters.”

The nickname isn’t particularly popular with the unit’s officers but it fits, as their mission is to find and detain foreign fugitives, mostly Americans, who cross the border into Mexico, hoping to escape the U.S. legal system. Officially, the group is called the International Liaison Unit in Baja California, the northwesternmost region of Mexico.

“Whoever comes to our country to either seek refuge for a crime he committed or to prepare to commit a crime here, that person is our job,” Hugo, one of the members of the unit who asked not to use his real name for his protection, told “Impact” in Spanish.

The specialized team has been in operation since 2002 and is tasked with not only apprehending foreign fugitives but also deporting them to the U.S. where they re-enter the American justice system. The unit’s leaders say they catch and deport about 10 suspects a month, the vast majority of them are from the U.S.

Many of the unit’s members, who spoke to “Impact” in Spanish, said they go to great lengths to apprehend the suspected fugitives.

“We handle all types of cases, but specifically our focus is on high-impact crimes: homicide, kidnapping, violent assault, drug trafficking, and sexual offenses,” the leader of the unit, who Impact is calling “Jefe” told “Impact.”

“Impact x Nightline’s” Matt Rivers embedded with the specialized law enforcement unit for an episode now streaming on Hulu.

The U.S. government often works with the Mexican unit and provides them with information for cases from various agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the US Marshals, and the FBI.

“If you’re receiving information on a murderer, a rapist, or a pedophile, you have to address it immediately — it’s an urgent case. This person could do the same thing here. And our job is to protect our citizens,” Hugo said.

During “Impact’s” time embedding with the unit, they were on a mission to track down a fugitive whom they had detained in the past: a suspect named Terry Sakamoto. He has prior convictions in the U.S. for several crimes including robbery, assault, and making criminal threats.

In 2014, while he was facing felony charges for a domestic violence incident, Sakamoto cut off an ankle bracelet and fled to Mexico, the authorities said. The unit apprehended Sakamoto a year later. He pleaded guilty to two of the three charges and served time behind bars.

Fast forward to April of 2022, when Sakamoto was charged with four new felonies: attempted murder, false imprisonment, mayhem, and corporal spouse injury. Again he fled to Mexico.

After surveillance and intelligence work, the specialized police unit tracked Sakamoto to an address in the border city of Mexicali and staked out the home for a week.

While preparing to move in for an arrest, the officers took precautions, including wearing bulletproof vests, using multiple patrol cars, and being extremely careful to not let the suspect know he was in their crosshairs.

“Since the man has a record, is violent, and could be armed, we’re not dealing with just anyone, he’s a dangerous person,” one of the officers said.

Ultimately, the unit spotted Sakamoto outside a home that belonged to his rumored girlfriend’s mother, and they rushed to the scene. When officers detained Sakamoto, he gave them a fake name and a fake driver’s license. However, Sakamoto was peaceful during the arrest and did not resist.

“He did the opposite of what we thought he would do. We had him as an aggressive, fearless type,” Hugo said in Spanish.

After the unit processed him, Sakamoto agreed to speak with “Impact.” Despite being cuffed inside a police headquarters, he was relaxed while describing his arrest. Even though Sakamoto didn’t admit that he was a fugitive, he did acknowledge the appeal for Mexico as a destination for criminals fleeing American law enforcement.

“I think it’s an ideology. All these movies from back in the day, it’s like, run to Mexico, you’ll be good,” he said.

Sakamoto also said he was confident that, eventually, he would be free.

Just hours after his arrest, Sakamoto was deported back to the U.S. at the Calexico border crossing. After Sakamoto was handed over to U.S. authorities, members of the unit were already preparing for their next mission the following day in Tijuana.

“I believe the job of a police officer comes with great responsibility. You leave your house every day and you don’t know what could happen to you,” Hugo said.

A short time after Sakamoto was deported to the United States, the four felony domestic violence charges against him were dropped. Sakamoto continues to walk free.

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