Witness in Murder Now Prime Suspect : Mexicali Land Developer Tied to Killing of Drug Agent; Defense Assails Findings

Times Staff Writer

Federal investigators now believe that Rene Martin Verdugo, a suspected drug smuggler first sought as a witness in the killing of federal drug agent Enrique Camarena, is a “prime suspect” in the brutal kidnaping-slaying last year, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official said Friday.

“We feel he’s more than a witness,” said Dick Slattery, assistant agent-in-charge of the DEA’s San Diego office. “He is a prime suspect. He may very well be one of the principals involved in the thing.”

The Times reported in February that U.S. authorities had obtained a tape recording of the torture of Camarena that placed Verdugo, a 34-year-old Mexicali land developer, at the scene. Additional information about Verdugo’s alleged role in the killing will be presented to a Washington, D.C., grand jury, Slattery said in an interview.

However, Verdugo’s attorney in San Diego, Michael Pancer, said Friday he will ask a court to dissolve the Washington grand jury because of what he called repeated violations by federal officials of rules requiring secrecy in grand jury investigations.

Pancer said the escalating allegations about Verdugo’s role in the Camarena killing are designed to pressure him to testify against others implicated in the case. Verdugo, in federal custody in San Diego, maintains that he knows nothing about the slaying.


Verdugo--who earlier this week was charged for the third time with marijuana smuggling by a federal grand jury in San Diego--has not emerged in the DEA investigation as either the “mastermind” of Camarena’s abduction or the drug agent’s actual slayer, Slattery said.

Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, notorious Mexican drug traffickers jailed in Mexico City on murder charges in the case, still are believed to have been the instigators of the killing, Slattery said. Verdugo’s post, if any, in their drug network has not been established.

“I don’t say that he personally was involved in the murder, although we’re not discounting that at all, either,” Slattery said of Verdugo. “I am saying he knows a lot about what went on down there. It’s felt he was present at least part of the time our agent was alive and in custody.”

U.S. officials went to great lengths to get Verdugo into custody. Prosecutors have acknowledged that the U.S. government paid $32,000 to six Mexicans who seized Verdugo on Jan. 24 in San Felipe, Baja California, and drove him to the U.S. border at Calexico, where he was arrested on marijuana smuggling charges.

Camarena, 37, was kidnaped from in front of the U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara on Feb. 7, 1985. Federal sources have told The Times that Camarena was driven to Caro Quintero’s house and tortured there before being beaten to death with a metal rod.

His body was buried, dug up and reburied at a ranch outside Guadalajara, where it was discovered a month later.

Alfredo Zavala Avelar, a Mexican pilot who flew missions for the DEA, was abducted the same day, tortured and killed. His body was found in the same field as Camarena’s.

Slattery said that federal investigators believe that at least six people were involved in Camarena’s kidnaping and that many more played roles in the torture and killing.

“There were a number of people who participated in trying to interrogate him,” Slattery said. “There were a number of people who participated in beating him. There were a number of people who participated in getting rid of his body.”

Many of the other suspects remain in Mexico, and U.S. authorities complain that the investigation of Camarena’s death has been sidetracked by corrupt police and judicial officials. Cooperation in the case with Mexican authorities currently is “minimal,” Slattery said.

“We have seen a lack of cooperation, and we have seen a resistance to some of our requests, and we have seen stalling, delaying tactics,” he said.