Two badly decomposed bodies almost certain to be those of a kidnaped American drug enforcement agent and a Mexican pilot were discovered near a ranch that was the site of a recent shootout between Mexican police and alleged drug dealers, American and Mexican officials said Wednesday.
U.S. Ambassador John Gavin told reporters in Mexico City that the Drug Enforcement Administration's top official in Mexico had "tentatively identified" the bodies of DEA special agent Enrique S. Camarena and of Mexican pilot Alfredo Zavala Avelar, a friend of Camarena's who occasionally flew for the U.S. drug agency.
The two men were abducted within hours of each other Feb. 7 and had not been heard from since. Camarena, the father of three, was kidnaped near the U.S. Consulate General in Guadalajara on his way to meet his wife at a nearby restaurant.
Forensic Tests Due
Gavin said positive identification could not be made until forensic examinations are conducted on the bodies in Guadalajara. Consular officials in Guadalajara said there will be joint U.S.-Mexican forensic examinations.
The bodies were on their way to the Civil Hospital in Guadalajara by pickup truck late Wednesday. The ranch where they were found is about 100 miles southeast of Guadalajara.
Gavin said he will travel to Guadalajara today if positive identification is made.
"We have some preliminary identification that would indicate that they are the bodies or may be the bodies of Camarena and of Zavala, the Mexican pilot," Gavin said. He added that he hoped the bodies are not those of Camarena and Zavala Avelar but said that is "a frail and flimsy hope."
In Washington, the acting administrator of the DEA, John C. Lawn, said that even though positive identifications have not yet been made, the agency assumes that the bodies are those of Camarena and Zavala Avelar. He predicted that positive identifications will be made this morning.
Lawn also said that investigation by Mexican officials has been "too little, too late" and criticized them for "a period of inactivity . . . considerable inertia." He declared, "As a professional law enforcement officer, I know the critical time for an investigation is the first 48-hour period."
The agency declined to comment on the investigation further but indicated that the Mexican government has been cooperating.
Earlier in the day, the coroner of the state of Michoacan, where the bodies were found, said one of the bodies was missing eight teeth and that the dental pattern matched that of Zavala Avelar.
"There is no doubt," Dr. Enrique Montoya Gutierrez told United Press International, "that is Zavala Avelar."
In Mexico City, Gavin and embassy spokesmen said that reports of the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the bodies were "conflicting and confusing."
Vince Hovanec, an embassy spokesman, said the embassy was informed by the Mexican attorney general's office that the bodies were found at 5 a.m. Wednesday, buried in plastic bags in a lemon orchard near a ranch named La Angostura.
Mexican television, however, reported that the bodies were discovered by a peasant Tuesday night lying on the ground by the side of a road near La Angostura, where six people died in a shootout last Saturday. Other reports said the ranch's name is El Mareno.
U.S. sources said Mexican police originally went to the ranch after receiving an anonymous letter saying that Camarena and Zavala Avelar were buried there. The investigation resulted in a shootout that left one Mexican federal police officer and five alleged drug dealers dead.
Mexican newspapers reported Wednesday that five people who were detained after the shootout have been released without charges. Two of those released, the widows of two of the victims, were quoted in a Mexico City newspaper as saying that their families were not involved in the drug traffic and that police had arrested them by mistake.
Gavin said the two victims found at the ranch had been dead at least 15 days. Hovanec, the embassy spokesman, said that one of the bodies had been badly beaten and one of the bodies was nude. Both were said to be badly decomposed. Officials said they did not know the cause of death.
"There are still a great many unanswered questions--how the bodies were found, whether they were deposited there (at the ranch) or murdered there, how they were murdered and how they were found," Hovanec said. "We will try to resolve the inconsistencies with Mexican police and authorities who, we are sure, want to come out with one straight version of the events."
Camarena, a native of Mexicali, Mexico, was a naturalized U.S. citizen who was graduated in 1972 from Imperial Valley College in Imperial, Calif. He had worked for the DEA since 1974 and had been due to be transferred to San Diego this month.
Zavala Avelar was a Mexican citizen and a pilot for the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture.
Large Reward Posted
The U.S. government had posted a $50,000 reward for information leading to their whereabouts.
A week after they were abducted, the U.S. government launched "Operation Intercept," a 10-day intensified search of cars entering the United States at the Mexican border. U.S. officials said the operation was meant to search for clues to the kidnaping and was an attempt to put pressure on the Mexican government to step up efforts to search for Camarena.
Last Saturday, the U.S. Customs Service closed nine minor border gates after they received threats that an agent of either the Immigration and Naturalization Service or U.S. Customs Service would be kidnaped at the border. Two of the gates in California were reopened Tuesday.
The U.S. government also has stepped up security measures at the embassy in Mexico City where officials have received an increase in threats on their lives.
Times reporter Zack Nauth in Washington contributed to this story.