Camarena Defendant's Boasts Replayed


A former Mexican policeman indicted in the murder of U.S. drug agent Enrique Camarena told undercover DEA agents that he had been present at the Guadalajara house where Camarena was tortured in February, 1985, according to tapes introduced Thursday in federal court.

The admission was recorded on secretly made videotapes and audiotapes in an Arcadia motel and a car. On the tapes, the defendant also could be heard boasting in Spanish how he had helped a Mexican drug lord escape the day after Camarena was killed.

Juan Jose Bernabe Ramirez, a former Jalisco state judicial policeman now on trial with three other defendants in U.S. District Court, made the admissions last July after he had been lured to Los Angeles at the behest of the Drug Enforcement Administration by a former Mexican law enforcement official.

The purported reason for the trip to Los Angeles had been to obtain equipment for a private security company which employed Bernabe at the time.

A few days after arriving in Los Angeles, Bernabe, 31, told DEA agent Hector Berrellez, who was posing as a drug trafficker, that he had accompanied Mexican drug kingpin Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo to the house where Camarena was being interrogated. In the July 25 conversation, Bernabe said that Fonseca entered the house and was surprised to discover that Camarena was near death.

Fonseca came out of the house, Bernabe said, and in extremely foul language chastised fellow drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero for botching the interrogation and then told him: "Now we have to go all the way because the bastard was already dying."

Then Fonseca gathered up Bernabe and his other aides and they departed. Camarena died on Feb. 8, 1985, and his mutilated body was found more than a month later about 65 miles from Guadalajara. Bernabe was arrested in Puerta Vallarta with Fonseca and 30 other men two months later.

On the videotape, Bernabe said that Fonseca paid his bail. He boasts about securing his freedom by conning his Mexican police interrogators, telling them he was simply Fonseca's "servant."

Bernabe faces a life sentence if convicted of several charges.

Bernabe, on one of the videotapes, expresses his admiration for drug lords Caro and Fonseca, who employed him for a time as a bodyguard. Both men are serving long prison terms in Mexico after being tried there on charges stemming from Camarena's murder.

The defendant is particularly animated in one tape as he describes how he and several other heavily armed men stood off Mexican police and DEA agents at the Guadalajara airport and helped Caro escape from Mexico the day after Camarena was killed at a house owned by Caro. Earlier in the trial, a DEA agent had testified that Bernabe pointed an AK-47 rifle at him during the Guadalajara airport incident.

Berrellez, the DEA agent who heads the investigation into Camarena's murder, was on the witness stand all day Thursday as the tapes were introduced. He and Bernabe's defense lawyer, Mary Kelly, sparred continually over what Bernabe had said. She contended that some of the English translations of what Bernabe had said in Spanish were inaccurate.

In particular, she disputed Berrellez's statement that Bernabe had said he had been in the house where Camarena was tortured. Under cross-examination, Berrellez acknowledged that during one conversation Bernabe had said he had been left outside when his boss went into the house where Camarena was held.

Kelly attempted through her questions to show the jury that Bernabe may have been exaggerating what he knew in an attempt to prove he was more important than he was. Berrellez conceded that the controversial remarks were made after both men and another DEA agent had had several beers at a Covina restaurant.

The videotape could easily leave a devastating impact on the jury, but some of the subtitled translation of the Spanish conversation went by so fast that it was hard to follow. Still, the tapes clearly were sufficiently potent that a lawyer for one of the other defendants moved for a mistrial after the tapes were shown, contending that they would unduly prejudice the jury against all four defendants.

U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie denied the motion.

The prosecutors indicated they may rest their case today after cross-examination of Berrellez is concluded or they may call one more witness.

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