Two U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents testified Tuesday that their efforts to raid enormous desert marijuana ranches in Mexico in late 1984 were stymied by law enforcement officials in that country.
The agents, appearing at the U.S. District Court trial of four men charged in the murder of DEA colleague Enrique Camarena, said Mexican officials at first denied reports of the vast marijuana fields, tried to delay the raids and then apparently tipped off the drug kingpins who ran the ranches.
When the raids were carried out despite those obstacles, the agents said, they uncovered scenes beyond the imagination of even the most veteran drug investigators: acres of desert turned into pot-growing oases through use of deep underground wells, about 9,000 workers who had been kept under armed guard to tend the fields, and mounds of harvested marijuana stretching along a road for a quarter mile.
Prosecutors allege that the destruction of more than 10,000 tons of marijuana enraged Mexican drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero and other members of his Guadalajara-based cartel, prompting them to seek revenge against the DEA and Camarena, who was abducted and killed in February, 1985.
"What was the wholesale value?" a federal prosecutor asked DEA agent Charles A. Lugo, who supervised the marijuana raids.
"About $5 billion," Lugo replied, drawing gasps from the jury.
The drug seizure is still a record for anywhere in the world.
The prosecution in the week-old trial before U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie has introduced evidence of a series of drug seizures in the United States and Mexico to show "the DEA was having an effect," said Assistant U.S. Atty. John L. Carlton.
The result, he said, was "a series of retaliatory acts."
As court adjourned Tuesday, one of the key informants used by Camarena--who was stationed in Guadalajara--was about to tell the jury how he was shot by a member of the cartel in September, 1984. Prosecutors said the informant, a Mexican attorney, was told as he lay wounded on the floor of a Guadalajara restaurant: "You're dying because you're a snitch."
The attorney now is confined to a wheelchair.
Lugo, along with a now retired DEA agent named Antonio Celaya, testified that tips from other informants led to the record-setting marijuana raids in November, 1984.
Lugo said they experienced a "lack of cooperation on the part of the Mexican government."
When he related the DEA's tip about the desert marijuana fields to the director of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police and the country's deputy attorney general, Lugo said, they "did not fathom that much could be grown openly," and alleged "our intelligence was probably overemphasized."
Lugo said he suggested an immediate raid, but was told by the deputy attorney general that they'd have to wait "from seven to 10 days." When he insisted the raids be conducted quickly, he said, he was told there were not enough helicopters to carry out the raid, not enough manpower and not enough fuel.
Each of those excuses was unfounded, he said, and the raids finally went forth on his insistance.
American and Mexican authorities flying over the suspected growing areas in the state of Chihuahua then found "what could properly be described as an oasis in the middle of the desert," he said.
But the people who ran the ranches apparently had been tipped off, because they had abandoned their headquarters and told their armies of workers to flee.
"I observed what appeared to be thousands of people in the desert area, waving and running about," Celaya said.