Camarena Trial Told of Payoffs : Drugs: Corrupt Mexican officials often helped traffickers, a DEA informant testifies.
An informant for the U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration testified Wednesday that law enforcement officials in Mexico regularly aided drug traffickers, taking payoffs to serve as lookouts, helping to transport drugs and delivering rifles used to protect sprawling marijuana ranches.
Juan Fernandez, who said he has been paid more than $200,000 as a DEA informant over the past nine years, told a federal court jury in Los Angeles that in 1984 he helped manage a string of marijuana ranches for drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero and handed out bribes to officials from four Mexican law enforcement agencies.
In return, he said, the Mexican authorities agreed “that they should not interfere with the planting, that they should look after the roads where we had the fields, that people who had nothing to do with this business didn’t come about.”
Two federal comandantes even invested in the marijuana fields, he said.
Fernandez was the first of what is expected to be a series of informant witnesses at the trial of four men accused in the 1985 torture and murder of DEA agent Enrique (Kiki) Camarena. Prosecutors have alleged that Camarena was killed in retaliation for raids on marijuana fields that cost the Mexican traffickers $5 billion.
The case has strained relations between the U. S. and Mexico, whose officials have been enraged by the broad allegations of corruption that were much in evidence Wednesday, the first full day of testimony.
Fernandez, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter, said he helped the DEA on “more than 80 investigations,” usually under the name Guadalupe Games.
At one point, he said, he helped Camarena go undercover to purchase heroin from Manuel Chavez, an associate of Caro Quintero. When Chavez offered Fernandez a job as a helper in running the marijuana ranches, Fernandez said he conferred with Camarena, who instructed him to take the job.
Fernandez recalled that Camarena told him he “should find out where the ranches are located . . . (and) try to locate all the associates.”
He said an alliance of drug traffickers led by Caro Quintero maintained about 40 marijuana ranches around the state of Zacatecas and used 400 to 500 laborers, who lived in the marijuana fields under armed guard.
Chavez kept in touch by radio with officials of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police and federal security directorate, Mexico’s equivalent of the FBI, as well as state and local police, and made payoffs “on a particular day . . . the end of the month,” Fernandez said.
Chavez would buy food for the laborers from government markets “on credit,” Fernandez testified. The federal security directorate also helped with “transportation of the marijuana” and its agents once delivered 60 rifles to the drug ring, he added.
In May, 1985, the information obtained by Camarena led to the seizure of more than 10 tons of marijuana during raids conducted with Mexican federales. But none of the drug ring’s higher-ups were found at the scene and DEA officials concluded that they had been tipped off.
Former DEA agent James Kuykendall, who was in charge of the Guadalajara office where Camarena was assigned, testified earlier Wednesday that suspicion of law enforcement counterparts in Mexico prompted the U. S. agents to occasionally violate ground rules that said they “could take no unilateral action.”
“We had no authority to make arrests, conduct searches or make seizures,” he noted, so the DEA agents in Mexico had to work with local authorities to a large degree.
But Kuykendall, now retired, said DEA agents nevertheless took independent actions such as Camarena’s undercover venture and surveillance flights over suspected marijuana plantations, designed to convince officials in Washington that “the problem was bigger than they believed it was.”
The agents also did not tell Mexican counterparts who their informants were because “we were concerned that they would be compromised,” Kuykendall said.
The former agent said that the efforts of the Guadalajara DEA office apparently angered one of the wealthiest Mexican drug lords, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, because he sent a former federal police comandante to warn them in March, 1984, “to leave Mr. Gallardo alone.”
Among the four men now on trial is Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, 45, a convicted Honduran drug kingpin reputed to be an emissary between Colombian cocaine growers and Mexican traffickers. Matta is accused of helping plot Camarena’s kidnaping and murder.
Prosecutors allege that another defendant, Ruben Zuno Arce, the brother-in-law of former Mexican President Luis Echeverria Alvarez, acted as a link between the drug cartel and the highest levels of the Mexican government.
Also on trial are Juan Bernabe Ramirez, a former Mexican policeman who allegedly acted as a guard at the house where Camarena was tortured, and Javier Vasquez Velasco, who is charged with killing two U. S. tourists who were mistaken for DEA agents after they stumbled into a restaurant meeting of Guadalajara drug traffickers one week before Camarena was slain.
Defense attorneys are expected to challenge the credibility of the prosecution’s informant witnesses by claiming they are motivated by financial gain or a desire to avoid criminal charges.
The initial prosecution witnesses have not yet linked the defendants directly to the conspiracy against Camarena, but have largely described the background of the DEA’s work in Mexico and the nature of the drug trade.
As testimony concluded Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie, the president of a Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., aviation company related how he sold a $1.3-million aircraft in Guadalajara to a company that apparently was a front for Felix and Matta.
The executive, Walter Schumaker, said he was expecting a check in payment but was startled to be told “they intended to pay in cash.”
Schumaker said he was given two heavy suitcases at the Guadalajara airport and did not dare even look inside until he and a salesman were flying their own plane home to Florida. Then, “I put the craft on autopilot and, very frankly, peeked,” he said.
He immediately alerted U.S. authorities to the suspicious transaction, he said.