Figure in Murder of DEA Agent Now 'Prime Suspect'

Times Staff Writer

Rene Martin Verdugo, an accused drug smuggler first sought as a witness in the investigation of the Mexico murder of U.S. drug agent Enrique (Kiki) S. Camarena, now is considered a "prime suspect" in the brutal kidnap-slaying, a Drug Enforcement Agency 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 1985 killing will be presented to a Washington grand jury probing the case, Slattery said.

Claims Secrecy Breached

However, Verdugo's attorney in San Diego, Michael Pancer, said 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 allegations about Verdugo's role in the Camarena killing are designed to pressure him to testify against others implicated in the case. Verdugo, in custody in federal jail in San Diego, has maintained that he knows nothing about the slaying.

Verdugo--who last 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, Mexican drug traffickers jailed in Mexico City on murder charges in the case, still are believed to have been the instigators of Camarena's murder, he said. Verdugo's position, 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."

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