Nine men, including drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero and the Mexican police commander who headed the original murder investigation, were indicted Wednesday in the torture and death of U.S. drug agent Enrique Camarena and his pilot in 1985.
The indictments returned by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles represent a significant breakthrough in a case that for nearly three years has frustrated federal law enforcement officials and strained U.S. relations with Mexico.
The indictments target some of those believed to have been present at Caro Quintero's home outside Guadalajara, where authorities say Camarena was tortured for two days.
Among those named are three former Mexican police officials. They are Armando Pavon Reyes, a commander with the Mexican Federal Judicial Police who originally headed the Mexican government probe into the Camarena murder; Sergio Espino Verdin, a police officer identified by federal authorities as one of Camarena's "interrogators," and Raul Lopez Alvarez, a former homicide investigator.
Three of the nine men indicted Wednesday are in U.S. custody. Four others, including Caro Quintero, are in custody in Mexico. Pavon Reyes and Ines Calderone Quintero, Caro Quintero's cousin, are fugitives.
While some U.S. officials privately were skeptical about the prospects of bringing the suspects in Mexican custody to trial in American courts, the Justice Department announced that it will begin extradition proceedings by the end of this week.
"Our first concern is that justice be done," said Robert C. Bonner, U.S. attorney in Los Angeles. "If justice is done in Mexico with respect to Caro Quintero and other individuals they have down there, then so be it."
Bonner said the three defendants already in U.S. custody may be brought to trial in Los Angeles within two months. He said he could not say how long extradition proceedings on the other defendants may take--if they are ever extradited.
"We pledged that Kiki Camarena would not die in vain, and he did not. Today's indictment graphically reinforces our determination that this never be allowed to happen (again)," Drug Enforcement Administrator John C. Lawn said at news conference in Los Angeles where the indictments were announced.
"Agent Camarena was a DEA agent," Bonner added. "For 14 years, he served his country well. We will not let his brutal murder go unnoticed. The government of the United States will not let the murder of one of its own by a terrorist narcotics organization go unavenged."
'Only a Handful'
Federal prosecutors said the nine men indicted Wednesday represent "only a handful" of those believed responsible for Camarena's murder and pledged to seek additional indictments as the investigation continues.
Five of the suspects, Caro Quintero, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, Rene Martin Verdugo Urquidez, Espino Verdin and Lopez Alvarez, are named in counts directly related to the kidnaping and murder. They are charged with committing violent crimes in aid of racketeering, conspiracy to kidnap a federal agent and murder of a federal agent. They face life in prison if convicted on the charges.
The other four, Calderone Quintero, Jesus Felix Gutierrez, Pavon Reyes and Albino Bazan Padilla, are accused of being accessories-after-the-fact. They face a maximum of 30 years in prison.
Caro Quintero is also charged under the federal "drug kingpin" statute, which carries a minimum 15-year prison term without parole.
Caro Quintero, 35, has been identified as the head of one of Mexico's five largest drug families, shepherding a narcotics empire that employs more than 5,000 workers and is believed to have netted him more than $434 million in 1985 alone.
Federal authorities say Camarena and his pilot, Alfredo Zavala Avelar, had been ferreting out some of Caro Quintero's most lucrative marijuana plantations.
One raid at a plantation allegedly owned by Caro Quintero north of Chihuahua resulted in the seizure of more than $50 million worth of marijuana. A number of Mexican nationals arrested by Mexican authorities in the case say Caro Quintero had repeatedly sworn revenge against Camarena.
Lawn said DEA officials believe that Camarena may have been lured into a car near the U.S. Consulate by Mexican law enforcement agents he had worked with previously. The suspicion that police cooperated in the abduction and slaying has been a particular source of consternation for federal drug agents, whose lives may depend on the cooperation of foreign authorities.
"In what we do for a living, we depend on the integrity of our law enforcement counterparts," Land said. "In the case of Kiki Camarena, that mutual trust failed. It is very important to note that of nine individuals in this indictment, three are former police officers in Mexico."
Pavon Reyes has already been convicted in Mexico for taking a bribe to allow Caro Quintero to flee Mexico immediately after the Camarena murder. The bribe, which was to be distributed among a variety of Mexican officials, was said to total about $300,000.
Held in Mexico
Espino Verdin is being held in Mexico.
Lopez Alvarez is in custody in Los Angeles, awaiting trial on charges of attempting to arrange the murder and torture of a U.S. Customs agent.
Only one of the other defendants identified as a key suspect in the actual murder and kidnaping is in U.S. custody. The suspect is Verdugo Urquidez, a San Felipe land developer awaiting trial in San Diego on narcotics charges.
Verdugo Urquidez was arrested Jan. 24, 1986. He claimed that he had been taken into custody by six masked men on the streets of San Felipe, blindfolded and driven to the U.S. border at Calexico, where he was pushed through a hole in the fence into the arms of U.S. marshals.
U.S. officials have admitted paying four former Mexican police officials $32,000 to apprehend Verdugo Urquidez, who has filed a $110-million lawsuit against the Justice Department challenging the arrest. Verdugo has denied any role in the Camarena case.
Caro Quintero and the man identified as the "enforcer" for his organization, Fonseca Carrillo--also named in Wednesday's indictments--have been in custody in Mexico City since 1985 awaiting trial in the Camarena case.
Caro Quintero had originally sought refuge at a Costa Rica hacienda owned by a West Covina seafood company owner, Felix Gutierrez, who was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison in Los Angeles for operating Caro Quintero's drug network in Southern California.
Felix Gutierrez and three others, Calderone Quintero, Pavon Reyes and Bazan Padilla, are named as accessories-after-the-fact for their alleged role in aiding Caro Quintero's escape.
Arrested in Costa Rica
Caro Quintero was arrested in Costa Rica by a 40-man SWAT team that took the drug chieftain and his four bodyguards into custody after a brief confrontation.
Wednesday's indictment replaces a set of charges returned secretly in May that was limited to only three of the suspects, Caro Quintero, Pavon Reyes and Calderon Quintero.
Federal prosecutors never unsealed that indictment, Bonner said, in part because none of the suspects named were in U.S. custody and because investigators were still trying to develop evidence against additional defendants.
Sources close to the case say there was another reason for the delay: a turf war between prosecutors in Los Angeles and San Diego over who would prosecute the case. Authorities in San Diego had Verdugo Urquidez in custody, while their counterparts in Los Angeles had Felix Gutierrez and Lopez Alvarez in custody on charges unrelated to the killings.
Peter K. Nunez, U.S. attorney in San Diego, said Wednesday that Justice Department lawyers in San Diego "were sitting down here thinking it was their case."
"Then it disappeared into the mist. Or I guess I should say, disappeared up the freeway," he said.
Bonner said Los Angeles officials had begun investigating the Camarena murder as early as April, 1986.
"The natural evolution of things was that our investigation here gathered momentum, and it was decided through the Department of Justice (in Washington) that this was to be the appropriate venue to bring the case," Bonner said.
Once it had been resolved that the prosecution would be based in Los Angeles, federal officials were held up again in October when they prepared to announce the indictments. That delay reportedly was at the behest of Associate Atty. Gen. Stephen S. Trott, who was concerned about how the indictments would affect a proposed U.S. Mexico treaty to facilitate exchange of evidence.
Times staff writer Jane Fritsch contributed to this article.