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Witness Contradicts Self in Camarena Murder Trial

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A key prosecution witness in the trial of four men accused of involvement in the murder of U.S. drug agent Enrique Camarena was caught in several significant contradictions Tuesday while under cross-examination by defense attorneys.

Hector Cervantes Santos, a former Mexican police officer who said he once served as the security chief at a drug baron’s “safe house” in Guadalajara, testified that he saw defendant Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros at one meeting in 1984 where Camarena’s abduction was planned.

However, defense attorney Martin R. Stolar pointed out during cross-examination that Cervantes had at various times told Drug Enforcement Administration agents that Matta was present at three meetings where drug traffickers and Mexican law enforcement officials planned Camarena’s 1985 kidnaping.

On the witness stand Tuesday in federal court here, Cervantes said that Matta, a convicted Honduran drug kingpin, attended a meeting in October, 1984, to discuss the Camarena kidnaping but the witness contradicted his earlier statements to DEA agents by saying Matta was not at two other meetings.

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In another apparent contradiction, Cervantes, while on the witness stand, said there were four meetings where the kidnaping was planned. However, in interviews with DEA agents and in grand jury testimony, he referred to a total of six planning meetings.

Camarena was abducted off a Guadalajara street in February, 1985, and then tortured and murdered. His mutilated body was found at a ranch 65 miles from Guadalajara a month later.

This is the third week of what is expected to be a two-month trial before U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie. The DEA has conducted an unprecedented five-year investigation in an attempt to get to the bottom of Camarena’s murder. Their aggressive tactics have come under fire from the Mexican government.

The DEA has made payments to 17 individuals in return for their testimony at the trial, according to U.S. government documents.

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Among them is Cervantes, 30, who has been paid more than $36,000 since he decided to become a government informant last November. Cervantes and his family have been relocated to the United States for their safety, he testified.

Defense lawyers have tried to discredit Cervantes by repeatedly pressing him about his contradictory accounts of the meetings.

A jury of six men and six women have had to keep track of a lengthy list of Spanish-surnamed individuals who Cervantes said attended the various meetings. His testimony, through an interpreter, has been complicated and frequently confusing.

Cervantes said he worked for Javier Barba Hernandez, a Guadalajara lawyer turned drug trafficker, from 1982 to 1985. Barba was killed in a shoot-out with Mexican police in 1986.

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Cervantes said that he had been present at all the meetings where Camarena’s kidnaping was planned and that he never left Barba’s side during the meetings.

However, Cervantes had earlier told a federal grand jury in Los Angeles that there were times that he had to leave the meetings to get refreshments for people at the gatherings, which were held in the living room of Barba’s house.

Cervantes also acknowledged on cross-examination that Camarena’s name was never mentioned during any of the meetings. What was stated, he said, was that there was a troublesome DEA agent, who participants in the meetings wanted to “pick up” and question.

Questions were also raised by defense lawyers about the manner in which Cervantes identified the defendants in court. They asserted Tuesday that he only had been able to identify the defendants because he had been shown photos of them shortly before the trial by prosecutors and DEA agents.

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Cervantes, however, said that he had been able to identify the defendants through his own recollection, but he acknowledged Tuesday that he had been shown photographs on numerous occasions over the last six months. However, last Friday, he denied that he ever had been shown any photographs.

Defense lawyers expressed dismay that they had not been given information earlier about what photos Cervantes had been shown and when.

Rafeedie criticized the government for not disclosing such information earlier.

“This caginess that has occurred is what is causing all these problems,” Rafeedie said. “The defendants should know what photos this witness has seen and when.”

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The witness’s testimony has ranged from complicated to, at times, bizarre. He said that his boss, Barba, walked around his mansion carrying a hand grenade on his belt and also kept a lion in his house.

Cervantes also described parties where a Mexican police commander, Federico Castel del Oro, “got loaded” on cocaine. Castel del Oro is now serving as a government informant in the case, according to court documents, but he is not expected to testify.

Cervantes is scheduled to return to the witness stand today.


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