Mexican judges have released three U.S. gang members charged in the mysterious slaying of the Roman Catholic cardinal of Guadalajara, according to Mexican and U.S. authorities, who say two of the suspects are back in San Diego.
The gang members were accused of a politically explosive crime and extradited to Mexico to stand trial, but a federal appellate court in Guadalajara has upheld judicial orders setting them free during recent months, authorities said.
U.S. and Mexican prosecutors confirmed that three suspects have been released, including one arrested north of the border for drug dealing and another who was granted a release order in Guadalajara on Friday. Officials in both nations are looking into the reasons for the releases and say they fear that judges will grant similar orders to the remaining five suspects in Mexican custody, four of whom are also U.S. gang members.
"It's obviously a matter of great concern," said U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin. "We have made inquiries with the Mexican attorney general's office for a statement of the legal and factual grounds. Before jumping to any conclusions, we await that information."
The three freed gang members were granted judicial orders known as amparos, which are similar to a writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. legal system and are based on flaws in evidence or police conduct. But the details of the orders in this case remain unknown to the U.S. attorney's office and the office of the federal legal attache at the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles. Officials are trying to determine whether the charges have been dropped altogether.
Given the vast network of corruption already unveiled in the case, the revelation adds to suspicions surrounding the murder of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, one of seven people killed during the gunfight at the Guadalajara airport in 1993.
Mexican prosecutors called it a case of mistaken identity, insisting that gunmen working for Tijuana drug lords shot the cardinal because he drove into the middle of an ambush of a rival kingpin. The gunmen allegedly included a dozen members of the 30th Street gang of San Diego, who were reportedly recruited as bodyguards and assassins in an unprecedented cross-border alliance with the Arellano drug mafia of Tijuana. Defense lawyers said the evidence against the gang members was weak and described them as scapegoats.
Contradictions in the government's version and the failure to catch the alleged masterminds caused angry church leaders, journalists and the public in Mexico to assert that the cardinal was killed intentionally in a conflict involving politically connected drug lords and politicians with drug ties. The forces of "narco-politics" are also blamed for several assassinations in 1994 in Mexico and recent high-level scandals.
After the shootout, the Arellano brothers of Tijuana fled on a commercial plane held for them at the airport and used police and political protection to elude an international manhunt. In a sweeping corruption purge, more than 70 police commanders and prosecutors were arrested or fired for alleged links to gangsters.
Nonetheless, the three Arellano brothers continue to run their drug smuggling empire in Baja, where they and other suspects in the cardinal's slaying have been spotted recently, according to U.S. agents.
The arrests of the gang members from San Diego were seen as a minor victory for law enforcement and a sign of improving cross-border cooperation. Federal agents from Mexico and the United States worked together to round them up and prepare voluminous cases for the extradition of three suspects who are U.S. citizens. The others were deported as illegal immigrants.
But the unexpected development in Guadalajara is likely to worsen tensions over the issue of extradition. U.S prosecutors complain that Mexicans refuse to extradite their citizens; Mexicans have criticized U.S. judges for declining to extradite Mexican fugitive Mario Ruiz Massieu, a former deputy attorney general being held in New Jersey for alleged currency violations.
Moreover, the inability to keep low-ranking henchmen behind bars does not bode well for a campaign by the administration of President Ernesto Zedillo to reform the troubled Mexican justice system, a U.S. federal official said.
"It sure stinks to high heaven," said the official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the case. "Assuming that there is not reasonable grounds for the release, it is a very dangerous sign."
Predicting that judges are likely to set free the other gang members, a Mexican law enforcement official said: "We were just as surprised as our U.S. colleagues."
The release orders were apparently granted to the gang members at a phase of their case comparable to a preliminary hearing in the United States, Mexican officials said.
Jorge Garcia Villalobos, a vice consul in the Los Angeles attache's office, confirmed the releases of gang members Antonio Pena Huerta, known as Lalo, and Jesus Zamora Salas, known as Cougar. On Nov. 3, drug agents in Chula Vista, a suburb of San Diego, arrested Pena, 28, for allegedly selling half a kilo of heroin. He is in San Diego County Jail awaiting trial.
Mexican authorities ordered the release of Zamora, 22, last Friday and his whereabouts are not clear, according to Garcia and U.S. officials. In 1994, Zamora admitted in a jailhouse interview with The Times that he went to Guadalajara with other Arellano gunmen, but denied firing shots at the airport and expressed fear for his safety in Mexican custody. He said he had become a born-again Christian.
The third gang member released is Adolfo Marin Cuevas, or Nightowl, according to U.S. and Mexican officials. San Diego police have spotted Marin, a 28-year-old illegal immigrant, on the street in his old neighborhood of Logan Heights, a source said.
U.S. officials suspect that drug traffickers used their influence to liberate the gang members. But from the beginning, critics have questioned some of the evidence.
The gang members were identified largely through the confessions of four henchmen who were arrested in Mexico shortly after the cardinal's death. During extradition hearings, defense attorneys alleged that Mexican police interrogators, who were under pressure to come up with results, tortured the suspects. As a result, they gave up as many names of gang members as they could think of, lawyers asserted.
"It appears the entire package may have been fabricated," said David Cohen, who represented Zamora. "It was a politically motivated story and these guys were scapegoats. The issue is not whether they were gang members, it's whether they were involved in this particular case. It's embarrassing that the U.S. government accepted everything the Mexican government said without question."
Prosecutors countered that flight attendants and other eyewitnesses identified photos of the gang members and placed them at the airport and on the plane with the fleeing drug lords. U.S. Atty. Bersin said federal judges sent the suspects to face murder charges in Mexico based on "abundant evidence" of probable cause, the standard that is required in extradition cases.
Despite the fanfare that accompanied the hunt for the gang members, some law enforcement officials think the suspects' roles were exaggerated to distract attention from the drug lords.
"I don't think the evidence was that strong," said a San Diego police investigator familiar with the gang. "A few of these gang members are pretty smart and sophisticated, but most of them were low-level street dealers. They had to be hand-led to do this or that."
The latest twist in the case lends new significance to the curious circumstances surrounding the capture in 1993 by Mexican police in Tijuana of two of the gang members, Juan Vazcones and Ramon Torres Mendez.
Informants told the DEA at the time that the two were pressured by their bosses to return from San Diego to Tijuana and allow themselves to be caught, presumably to lessen the political heat on the Mexican federal police. The bosses reportedly offered to pay off the families of Vazcones and Torres and assured the young men they would not spend long behind bars, according to the DEA.
A few months later, Torres died in a Guadalajara prison under mysterious circumstances.
Extradition requests are still pending for two older San Diego gang members who allegedly organized and led the assassination team from Tijuana. The two are still at large.