A marijuana trafficker who allegedly oversaw operations for a major Mexican narcotics ring in Southern California was convicted Monday in the kidnaping and murder of U.S. drug agent Enrique Camarena and his pilot.
Rene Martin Verdugo-Urquidez, 36, was the second defendant found guilty in the 8-week-long Los Angeles federal court trial of three men accused in the 1985 torture-murder that allegedly stemmed from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's crackdown on a multibillion-dollar marijuana operation based in Guadalajara.
Verdugo-Urquidez, whom authorities have identified as a top lieutenant for Mexican drug lord Rafael Caro-Quintero, was the only defendant in U.S. custody who was seen at the purported torture scene on Feb. 8, 1985, the day after Camarena was abducted by a group of Mexican policemen outside the U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara.
Claimed No Involvement
Verdugo-Urquidez admitted that he had traveled to Guadalajara for meetings with Caro-Quintero but said he had no involvement in the kidnaping or murder of the agent and his pilot, Alfredo Zavala-Avelar.
"It's a black day in U.S. justice," defense attorney Michael Pancer said after the jury verdict. "They (the prosecution) trumped up evidence in this case. They lied to this jury, and they got away with it. Rene was innocent. He shouldn't have been convicted, but they flat-out fooled this jury."
Defense lawyers had accused government lawyers of exaggerating and fabricating evidence against Verdugo-Urquidez in their zeal to win a conviction in the case, one of the few instances in which a U.S. agent has been murdered in a foreign country.
"Tell the government of Mexico by your verdict that you will not accept a scapegoat while the people who are really responsible are being protected," Pancer had urged the jury in his closing argument. "And tell our government that you demand justice, not politics."
In his own closing statement, government prosecutor Roel Campos called the defense allegations "some of the most outrageous, some of the most obscene arguments that have ever been presented in this courthouse."
"I kept waiting for these counsel to attack our families, maybe even our mothers. That's how personal it got," Campos added.
Both Campos and co-prosecutor Jimmy Gurule declined comment after the verdict because the jury is still deliberating the fate of a third defendant, Jesus Felix-Gutierrez, who is charged with helping Caro-Quintero, who allegedly engineered the kidnaping and murders, to flee Mexico.
Jurors had deliberated for only one day before returning a guilty verdict last Thursday against Raul Lopez-Alvarez, a former Mexican policeman who allegedly helped kidnap Camarena and visited Caro-Quintero's house while the interrogation was under way.
Jurors deliberated nearly three more days before finding Verdugo-Urquidez guilty of two counts of committing a violent act to aid a racketeering enterprise, felony murder, kidnaping and conspiracy.
Pancer and co-counsel Juanita Brooks said they will appeal.
Verdugo-Urquidez, a Mexicali resident who allegedly supervised the transport of tons of marijuana into Southern California for Caro-Quintero's organization, was taken into custody in San Felipe, Mexico, on Jan. 24, 1986, by a team of Mexican authorities paid by the U.S. government.
The Mexican government has filed a formal protest over the circumstances of the arrest, in which Verdugo-Urquidez was blindfolded, handcuffed, placed in the back seat of an automobile and driven to the Mexican border at Calexico, where he was handed through the fence to waiting U.S. marshals who had a warrant for his arrest on drug charges.
A real estate agent testified that he saw Verdugo-Urquidez coming out of Caro-Quintero's house on the day after the abduction. The agent said Verdugo-Urquidez, accompanied by a Mexican police official, looked "tired" and talked of having taken care of "a problem."
A convicted Southern California drug trafficker whose credibility was hotly challenged by the defense testified that he overheard Verdugo-Urquidez talking later about "a narc" who had been "beaten. . . . He was begging and crying," the man quoted Verdugo-Urquidez as saying.
Government prosecutors also played audio tapes of Camarena's interrogation in which Verdugo-Urquidez's name is mentioned while his interrogator, believed to be Mexican police official Sergio Espino-Verdin, attempts to find out how much the agent knew about Caro-Quintero's drug operations in Mexico.
Verdugo-Urquidez admitted that he had come to Guadalajara at the time of the kidnaping but claimed that it was in order to explain to Caro-Quintero the circumstances of the loss of a helicopter and a load of marijuana belonging to the organization that had been seized by U.S. authorities a short time before.
The government claims that there were calls made from Caro-Quintero's house to Mexicali on the day of the kidnaping, but defense lawyers argued that those calls were made by Caro-Quintero to Verdugo-Urquidez to summon him in order to explain the seizure. That was the "problem" Verdugo-Urquidez was referring to later, Pancer said.
Defense lawyers were particularly critical of the testimony of a man presently wanted in Mexico for two murders who testified that Verdugo-Urquidez and Felix-Gutierrez had met on at least two occasions, based on a photo identification of Verdugo-Urquidez.
In the first photo lineup, the witness merely said that Verdugo-Urquidez looked "familiar." He identified him on a second lineup after a larger picture of Verdugo-Urquidez, wearing the same clothes he has often worn to court, was pasted into the book.
"If a defense lawyer did something like that, we could go to jail. It's tampering with a witness. It's obstruction of justice," Pancer told the jury.
Gurule, fuming, told the judge outside the presence of the jury that Verdugo-Urquidez's photo was no larger than many others in the book, and the government had no way of knowing what clothes he would wear to court.
"These lawyers have accused the government of probably no less than four or five federal felony offenses," he declared.
Verdugo-Urquidez faces up to life in prison on each of the five counts. U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie set sentencing for Oct. 26.
Caro-Quintero and the other alleged leader of the drug ring, Ernesto Fonseca-Carrillo, were among several traffickers convicted in Mexico last week on narcotics charges. The two men, who have also been indicted in the United States for Camarena's murder, are also facing murder charges in Mexico.