Shortly after Jose Lopez Portillo was elected president of Mexico in 1976, then-U.S. Ambassador John Joseph Jova was forced to make a delicate diplomatic visit to the new chief of state before he was even inaugurated.
The Mexican president-elect had designated as his chief of security a childhood friend named Arturo Durazo Moreno. U.S. narcotics agents had been investigating Durazo for years, and shortly before Lopez Portillo's election, Durazo had been indicted in Miami on charges of conspiracy to import cocaine. If Durazo went to the United States, Jova had to explain, he would be arrested.
"I had State Department instructions to raise the subject in a non-interventionist way," Jova said in a recent telephone interview. "It had to be raised in a delicate way. We let it be known that it was distressing to us that this man should be appointed to such a high position."
The former ambassador declined to say what Lopez Portillo told him that day. But the outcome of the meeting was clear. Lopez Portillo named Durazo chief of police of Mexico City, a job that required no international travel but gave him immense power over a virtual army of more than 20,000 men. The indictment later was dismissed.
Now, nearly nine years after that little-known diplomatic visit, Durazo presents a new dilemma. Only this time the dilemma is public and the forum is Los Angeles.
Durazo is in jail here awaiting an extradition hearing to determine if there is probable cause to return him to Mexico to stand trial on three corruption-related charges.
The hearing is scheduled to start in federal court here Wednesday. It is being held in Los Angeles because Durazo established residency in Marina del Rey briefly when he fled Mexico after Lopez Portillo's Administration ended in December, 1982. He was arrested in Puerto Rico last June 29 on a sealed warrant issued by U.S. Magistrate Volney V. Brown, who will hear the extradition case.
The charges are extortion of payments from his subordinate police officers, possession of illegal military weapons and failure to pay an estimated $250,000 in customs taxes on imported items in his opulent villa in Mexico. Durazo has denied the charges.
But the relatively narrow accusations give little hint of the political intrigue, assassination threats, blackmail potential and diplomatic dilemmas that knowledgeable sources on both sides of the border say the case presents.
For example, The Times has learned that early last year, U.S. intelligence agents uncovered what they believed to have been an assassination plot by Durazo against the man who has promised to prosecute him: current Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid.
Asked about the suspected plot, George High, State Department director of Mexican affairs, would confirm in a telephone interview only that U.S. officials did hear of such a purported plot and notified the Mexican government.
At the same time, Durazo is believed to be the target of numerous assassination plots because he was privy to the darkest secrets of some of Mexico's most powerful men.
"You can't return this man to Mexico," argued attorney Howard E. Beckler, who represented Durazo at his initial bail hearings in Los Angeles last summer. "He is a man with many enemies. He'll be executed somewhere along the line."
Although U.S. officials do not publicly agree with such predictions, they have provided Durazo with heavy security. According to court records, Durazo is held at a secret location in the 24-hour protective custody of the U.S. marshal. Visits even with his family, friends and attorneys are monitored by a video camera. The last time Durazo appeared in court, more than a dozen security officers were posted around him to scan the entrances.
"This man is profoundly sensitive," Dr. Julian Nava, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, said in an interview here last week. Nava, who held the post during Lopez Portillo's last year in office, said Durazo was Lopez Portillo's "hatchet man."
"He (Durazo) has records, photographs and documents regarding the malfeasance or corrupt or immoral activity by many prominent Mexicans that could conceivably be destabilizing of the current government," Nava said.
"He has so much of this 'insurance' that it makes me wonder whether Mexico really wants him back and whether the United States really wants to let him go back. The two governments may not be stating their real opinions in this case. The last thing the United States wants to do is to destabilize the current Mexican government."
Mexico's public position on the case is clear. Durazo has been made a living symbol of the corruption endemic in Mexico's government. And De la Madrid, who took office in 1982 amid severe economic crises and rising citizen anger over official corruption, has embarked on a "moral renovation" to clean up the government.
The United States has taken no formal position on the case.
"When the court reaches a decision, the case then comes back to the State Department for recommendation," High said. "We will not make a decision on what will be done until we see what there is to decide."
The State Department has been supportive of the anti-corruption campaign, however, and it would be regarded as highly unusual if the United States were to refuse to return a defendant to a friendly government after he is found legally extraditable.
The case is the most sensitive ever tried under the 1978 U.S. extradition treaty with Mexico and is regarded as one of the most sensitive extradition cases in modern U.S. history.
Under terms of the treaty, Mexico presents its case in federal court in the United States in much the same way a prosecutor would present evidence in a preliminary hearing.
If the magistrate finds that there is probable cause for him to stand trial in Mexico, the case goes to the State Department, which has the option of extraditing him. Historically the State Department has extradited those who have been ruled extraditable unless there are compelling diplomatic or political reasons for doing otherwise.
If Durazo is returned, Mexico could prosecute him for only those crimes he now stands accused of in the extradition case. And those charges pale by comparison to any number of far more serious crimes that he has been accused of by former associates and officials in published accounts in Mexico.
To list a few: narcotics trafficking, torture of prisoners and murder. More than a dozen security agents who worked for Durazo have been indicted in one apparent mass murder of 14 men.
None of those charges appear in the 12 volumes of evidence that Mexico has filed with the U.S. Justice Department, which represents Mexico in court.
The evidence now on file ranges from affidavits of Mexico City police officers who say they were forced to turn over percentages of bribe money to Durazo, to lists of household items that Mexico claims Durazo imported for his home in violation of customs laws.
Durazo's Mexico City home--a villa with stables, a garage for 23 automobiles, a bullring, dog track, gymnasium, movie studio, artificial lakes and shooting range--has been designated a national museum to corruption.
'Plenty of Probable Cause'
"The evidence is substantial and carefully gathered," Assistant U.S. Atty. J. Stephen Czuleger, who will prosecute Durazo in the hearing, said in an interview Friday. "There is plenty of probable cause to extradite him on these charges."
Durazo's four attorneys have declined to say what kind of defense they will present and have turned down requests for interviews with Durazo. However, they say that he denies the charges against him and believes De la Madrid is using Durazo to divert public attention from the political and economic problems of his own regime.
"I would be willing to bet you that if you walked into the house of anyone in Mexico who could afford a TV set and demanded to see import licenses for their belongings, you would be prosecuting a whole lot of people," said Bernard Zimmerman of San Francisco, one of Durazo's lawyers. "It's simple. De la Madrid has been using Durazo as a scapegoat."
Another of Durazo's attorneys, extradition expert Jerrold Ladar of San Francisco, said his client will appeal any adverse ruling--a process that the Mexican press has speculated could postpone Durazo's return long enough for him to work out some accommodation with his political adversaries.
In the meantime, virtually every U.S. law enforcement agency involved in the case refuses to grant interviews about Durazo. Asked why the case is so sensitive, one FBI spokesman answered abruptly, "That's too sensitive."
Interviews with more than two dozen sources knowledgeable about Durazo, including some law enforcement agents, show that most of that sensitivity centers on the information Durazo accumulated in his twin roles as law enforcement officer and alleged lawbreaker.
Durazo's police career spanned three decades. During that time, he served as director of Mexico's Federal Judicial Police--a kind of FBI--and as Mexico's Interpol chief.
At the same time that some U.S. officers were working with him, however, others--particularly the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration--were investigating him. According to Jacques Kiere, former regional director of the DEA in Mexico, Durazo was indicted as a result of cocaine shipments allegedly sent to the United States under Durazo's official protection in Mexico.
Wealth of Information
Durazo is believed to have at his fingertips a wealth of information ranging from clues to the whereabouts of millions of pesos taken out of Mexico to details about U.S. Mafia figures. Reports from Mexico say Durazo has contacts in the U.S. Mafia.
Two former U.S. officials estimated that Durazo may have made $200 million to $300 million while in office. Some of that money is rumored to be invested in Los Angeles. So far, only about $10 million of that sum has turned up--in Canadian properties and bank accounts owned by Durazo's wife, Silvia, according to court records.
Meanwhile, Durazo is being held without bail in a world far different than the one he enjoyed while in office. Among the court records and albums shown to a reporter by Durazo's lawyers are memories of a time when Durazo was honored by law enforcement officials around the world.
One official photo shows Durazo accepting an honorary medal from U.S. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. Another shows Mayor Tom Bradley honoring him for his "great understanding of international friendships." Others depict him exchanging tokens of esteem with officials in Tokyo, Paris and Madrid.
Durazo also went out of his way to curry the favor of U.S. law enforcement agents, movie stars and elected officials. Nava said Durazo frequently invited Americans with power or fame to Mexico on expense-paid trips.
"Most of these people just saw Durazo on a first-date circumstance," Nava said. "He'd fly people down, put them up in a hotel somewhere, give them beautiful presents, maybe hire a mariachi or an orchestra to entertain them and always give them a photograph of themselves with him."
One such guest was a Las Vegas judge who discussed his trip on the condition that he not be named. He said that he went with a group of officials at a time when Mexican officials were considering opening a tourism office in Las Vegas.
"The entire trip was like being in the Twilight Zone," he said. "This was power, pure power. I've never seen anything like it. The food, the tips, the hotels--everything--was paid for by the Mexican government. We had armed guards with submachine guns at our doors every night."
Friendship Opened Doors
For American police officers whose jobs entailed working with Mexican officials, Durazo's friendship opened doors for them professionally and helped their agencies gain needed intelligence and cooperation.
"It was a power trip just to be around Durazo," said one U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. "He generated fear, and out of that came power. It was very seductive. Somehow being around him, it rubbed off on you. A lot of guys got respect in their agencies up here because they had his favor."
One officer who had Durazo's favor was veteran Los Angeles Police Department Detective Kenneth Hamilton. Hamilton, 43, was with Durazo's family in Puerto Rico when Durazo was arrested by the FBI last year. Hamilton was formally reprimanded by the department on two charges stemming from his association with a man who was at that time an international fugitive. He is appealing the reprimand.
"Durazo's just a nice, very warm guy," Hamilton said. "We're friends. When I went to Puerto Rico, it was as a friend, not as a police officer. Durazo has a lot of friends these days who aren't willing to stand up for him."