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Mexican Drug Cartel Chief Convicted in U.S.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Juan Garcia Abrego, who headed one of Mexico’s largest and most ruthless narcotics cartels, was convicted Wednesday of smuggling more than $1 billion worth of cocaine and marijuana into the United States.

After 10 years of investigation, a monthlong trial and 11 hours of deliberation, a federal jury here convicted Garcia Abrego, 52, on all 22 counts of drug-trafficking and money laundering--parts of a criminal conspiracy that witnesses said protected itself with millions of dollars in monthly bribes to officials on both sides of the border.

Jurors also ordered the seizure of up to $350 million of Garcia Abrego’s assets--$75 million more than the prosecution requested.

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After the verdict, prosecutors and defense attorneys indicated that Garcia Abrego--who fought back emotion as he listened through headphones to the Spanish translation of a verdict that could result in a maximum sentence of life in prison--has no plans to cooperate with U.S. and Mexican officials. They are investigating widespread corruption that they say continues to aid the drug trade in Mexico.

The trial drew wide attention from many in the U.S. and Mexico who believed that evidence might link Garcia Abrego to high-level corruption under former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

U.S. and Mexican officials have said they suspect ties between the drug lord and Raul Salinas de Gortari, the former president’s elder brother.

Raul Salinas was charged with murder and illegal enrichment in Mexico after investigators traced to him more than $100 million in Swiss and other European bank accounts.

Garcia Abrego’s former friends and associates testified that his cartel was paying one former Salinas deputy attorney general $1.5 million a month in bribes for protection.

The cartel was said to have paid off U.S. immigration officials, Border Patrol agents and even U.S. National Guard troops to escort their tons of cocaine across the border.

Asked whether the government could have introduced evidence linking the drug kingpin to top officials in the Salinas administration, chief prosecutor Melissa Annis said, “That is not something this government was investigating.”

Future interrogation of Garcia Abrego on that subject also appeared doubtful, as Annis added, “I don’t know that we’ll ever have an opportunity to talk to Mr. Garcia Abrego.”

Tony Canales, a defense attorney and a former U.S. attorney who said he will appeal Wednesday’s verdict, said he knows of nothing his client could tell the government about high-level corruption to lessen his sentence, which will be imposed Jan. 31 by U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr.

“There’s nothing on Carlos [Salinas] or Raul [Salinas] or anyone else, that I know of,” he said. “Besides, I don’t think it’s going to happen. I don’t think our government is interested in corruption in Mexico.”

In rejecting Canales’ defense that the U.S. government used Garcia Abrego to stage “a show trial” based on the “bought” testimony of other drug dealers, the jury also handed the Clinton administration a clear--if symbolic--victory in its war on drugs just weeks before the U.S. presidential election.

The burly, ashen-faced Garcia Abrego became a symbol of President Clinton’s crackdown on the multibillion-dollar illicit border drug trade last year when Atty. Gen. Janet Reno placed the Mexican on the FBI’s most-wanted list.

Gaynelle Griffin Jones, the U.S. attorney in Houston, stressed that Wednesday’s verdict also serves as a model of “combined, coordinated cooperation” between the U.S. government and the government of Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo.

Zedillo was sharply criticized in Mexico when he expelled Garcia Abrego and ordered him flown to Houston within 24 hours of his arrest near Monterrey in January.

Other senior U.S. law enforcement officials asserted that the verdict against Garcia Abrego, the leader of the Matamoros-based Gulf cartel, would help curtail Mexico’s three other large drug operations, which the Drug Enforcement Administration says continue to supply up to 75% of the South American cocaine sold in the United States.

“This is going to send a chill through the trafficking community in Mexico,” said Don Ferrarone, chief of the DEA’s operations in Texas. “I look at this as a major victory. . . . You’ve got one of the top criminals in the world in jail in the United States for a long time.”

As for Garcia Abrego’s Gulf cartel, Ferrarone called Wednesday’s verdict its “final chapter,” though he acknowledged that the organization had been largely dismantled through prosecutions of more than 60 of its members before its leader’s arrest.

But Ferrarone noted that the giant smuggling organizations--which his agency calls “the Mexican federation” of drug cartels--have regrouped since Garcia Abrego’s January arrest and that another alleged drug lord has already taken his place along the porous, 1,200-mile Texas border.

“Amado Carrillo Fuentes is clearly the leader out there right now,” he said, referring to the alleged head of the Juarez cartel.

Among the obstacles to halting the huge cross-border trade, Ferrarone and other officials said, is the mid-level Mexican police corruption that several witnesses close to Garcia Abrego described in detail during his trial.

Carlos Resendez, a friend and top Garcia Abrego aide, testified that his boss paid $1.5 million monthly to bribe Javier Coello Trejo, then the deputy attorney general in charge of Mexico’s anti-narcotics efforts.

Coello Trejo, now in private practice in Mexico City, denies this claim.

After serving time in a Mexican jail in 1994, Resendez led Mexican police to Garcia Abrego--whom he said he “loved like a brother"--and helped set up his capture.

In return for his testimony, U.S. prosecutors dismissed a federal drug indictment against Resendez; he is among potential candidates to receive a $2-million U.S. reward for his aid in convicting Garcia Abrego.

Francisco Perez, a cousin of Garcia Abrego, testified that Garcia Abrego routinely spent up to $80,000 on expensive suits and watches for Mexican police and prosecutors during frequent shopping trips in Texas.

Perez added that Garcia Abrego gave one police commander a twin-engine plane from his cartel’s private fleet.


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