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Evidence Casts Doubt on Camarena Case Trials

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twelve years after a U.S. drug agent was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in Mexico, evidence has emerged that federal prosecutors relied on perjured testimony and false information, casting a cloud over the convictions of three men now serving life sentences.

The evidence suggests that the U.S. government, in its zeal to solve the heinous killing of Enrique Camarena, induced corrupt former Mexican police to implicate top officials there in a conspiracy to plan his kidnapping.

Their statements not only were critical to winning convictions against the three, including the brother-in-law of a former president, they also have tarnished the reputations of Mexican political figures and strained relations between the two countries.

Attorneys for one of the implicated officials developed new information that prompted The Times to undertake its own examination of the Camarena case four months ago. Results of that inquiry raise questions about the integrity of the Drug Enforcement Administration investigation and prosecutions in Los Angeles:

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* A star prosecution witness says he perjured himself after U.S. law enforcement officials coached him into falsely accusing the three defendants and Mexican officials of plotting the kidnapping.

* Portions of the testimony by key witnesses appear false. For example, two witnesses said the kidnapping was plotted in a Guadalajara hotel suite, but a recent visit to the hotel indicates no such suite exists.

* Key informants received more financial and legal help than the jury was told about. Some informants were provided final lump-sum payments of thousands of dollars after the trial had ended. And records show that a DEA agent helped another witness escape prosecution on felony charges of spousal abuse.

* The DEA operative who helped investigate Camarena’s murder and bring witnesses to this country says some members of the prosecution team were so eager to build their case that they ignored warnings that certain witness statements were suspect.

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John Gavin, the former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who oversaw the early Camarena investigation, has come to believe that witnesses falsely implicated an ally of his in the drug wars, who held a top government post.

“My record in the war against illegal drugs and the corruption they engender is known,” Gavin said. “In this instance, however, I am saddened and embarrassed to note that it is officials within the U.S. Justice Department who are dead wrong. It is another example of how drugs corrupt on both sides of the border.”

Based on the allegations, the DEA recently launched an internal investigation into the Camarena probe, which was officially closed in 1995. Deputy Director James Milford said the agency could not comment about any aspect of the case until the review is completed.

Officials at the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles said that whatever new evidence has developed will be thoroughly reviewed.

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Chief Assistant U.S. Atty. Richard E. Drooyan said his office is constrained from discussing details of the case because they are likely to become issues in court.

Expressing “great confidence” in the “integrity and judgment” of the trial prosecutors, he said they would never knowingly encourage perjury and would have taken steps to ensure that all testimony was truthful.

Attorneys for the convicted men said they are preparing to seek retrials based on the new evidence.

The revelations mark the latest chapter in one of the most far-reaching murder investigations in U.S. history. From the start, it has provoked strong emotions, both for agents who wanted justice for a slain colleague and for Mexican officials who felt the integrity of their government was under attack.

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At issue now is testimony that “Kiki” Camarena’s abduction was planned at meetings attended by drug traffickers, corrupt police and high-ranking Mexican officials. Among the alleged conspirators was former Government Minister Manuel Bartlett Diaz, who held a post second only to the president. He and other officials also allegedly were present when Camarena was tortured in a drug lord’s home.

At the ex-ambassador’s urging, Bartlett hired former U.S. Justice Department attorney Michael Lightfoot, who has worked for three years to clear his client’s name. “This is a matter of honor,” said Bartlett, now governor of Puebla state. “There is no truth to these allegations. They are scandalous. They are absurd.”

When the star witness came forward this summer and alleged that U.S. authorities encouraged him to lie, Lightfoot arranged a polygraph examination, which reports say the witness passed. To further test his credibility, the attorney set up a meeting between the witness and Terrence Burke, a 20-year DEA veteran who briefly headed the agency during the Camarena case.

“Based on my interview with him and my attempt to identify what his motive was, I concluded that these allegations are extremely serious, and they appear to be credible,” Burke said. “They require a thorough investigation.”

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The Feb. 7, 1985, abduction of Camarena stirred intense passion among U.S. officials. The 37-year-old agent was walking to his car near the U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara when men grabbed him in broad daylight. Then, testimony showed, he was driven to a drug lord’s home, where he was interrogated about DEA activities, tortured with burning cigarettes and beaten to death.

The outrage was heightened because the DEA concluded that Mexican police were withholding evidence and actively helping the traffickers who killed Camarena. Such concerns caused the U.S. to embark on its own investigation.

Mexico eventually convicted more than two dozen people, including drug lords Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo and Rafael Caro Quintero, who now are serving 40-year sentences. Three U.S. trials between 1988 and 1992 resulted in convictions of six men in connection with Camarena’s death.

Although Bartlett has not been charged, his attorney has been urging the government to clear him based on the new information.

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The Times independently reexamined that evidence and developed additional information as well. Dozens of interviews were conducted in Mexico and the United States, and more than 30,000 pages of internal DEA reports, court records and other documents were studied.

The reexamination demonstrated the difficulty in establishing who is telling the truth. But what emerged is the story of a complex case built largely on the word of several paid informants with unsavory backgrounds, questionable credibility and much to gain from cooperating.

The DEA Operative

DEA agents had long suspected that Camarena’s kidnapping involved top officials of the Mexican government. But, records and interviews show, evidence of a broad conspiracy did not develop until after the first U.S. trial when Antonio Garate Bustamante joined the 10-member DEA team assigned to the case in Los Angeles.

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Garate, 61, a former Mexican police commander with ties to drug cartel members, said he knew people who were privy to what had happened to Camarena. Soon the investigation focused on prominent Mexicans, including Bartlett and Ruben Zuno Arce, the brother-in-law of Luis Echeverria, who was president of Mexico in the early 1970s.

Bartlett oversaw an agency that employed several corrupt police officers implicated in the Camarena case. And Zuno, a wealthy businessman and rancher, once owned the house where the DEA agent was tortured.

Garate said he had his own reasons to distrust both men: He believed that Bartlett was behind the murder of a journalist and that Zuno was behind the slaying of two police officers years earlier. And he said he once saw the drug lord Caro Quintero--a diamond-studded pistol on his hip--dismount a dancing horse and embrace Zuno during a party.

While Zuno was in the U.S. on business in August 1986, DEA agents surrounded him, told him he was needed as a grand jury witness and whisked him to Los Angeles.

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Zuno was asked the question that would deepen his troubles: Did he know Caro Quintero?

“I don’t think that I ever met him,” he responded.

Zuno would be indicted for perjury after a man known as Lawrence Victor Harrison told the grand jury that he too had seen the drug lord dismount the horse and hug Zuno.

There were reasons to question Harrison’s reliability: The mysterious 6-foot-8 DEA informant had used several names and birth dates. By his own account, he also practiced law without a license for several years before developing radio communications systems, first for Garate and then for drug lords.

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After Zuno was released on bail, he went home to Mexico. Then, as he returned to the U.S. for trial three months later, the businessman was arrested again. This time, the charge was murder.

The Star Witness

A crucial new informant had come to the DEA. He was Hector Cervantes Santos, who worked for one of the drug barons as a sort of butler-with-bullets. It was his job to guard the house, admit visitors and make sure a pet lion got fed.

In 1989, Cervantes contacted Garate, his former boss on the state police riot squad, and agreed to cooperate with the Camarena probe. Soon he became the key witness against Zuno and two other men.

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His testimony depicted Zuno as a Guadalajara drug cartel member who conspired with drug lords to kill Camarena and later was notified by telephone that the DEA agent was dead.

To attack the witness’ credibility, defense attorneys produced phone company statements that there was no service in the neighborhood where the call allegedly was made.

But the jury was not persuaded. Zuno and two other defendants were convicted of conspiracy based on Cervantes’ testimony.

One was Juan Bernabe Ramirez, a bodyguard for a drug trafficker. Bernabe was sentenced to life after Cervantes placed him at one planning meeting; he received two 10-year concurrent sentences based on other testimony.

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Also sentenced to life was Honduran drug kingpin Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, who also received life for a separate drug conviction. Cervantes quoted him as saying during a planning meeting: “A closed mouth catches no flies.” In addition, the prosecution alleged that hair consistent with Matta’s was found at the Camarena murder scene and that agents saw him leave Guadalajara a few days after the killing.

Cervantes’ explosive allegations went beyond the defendants, implicating the heads of the Mexico City Police Department, Interpol and the country’s anti-drug agency, as well as the police commander initially responsible for solving Camarena’s murder.

Although he stopped short of naming Bartlett as a conspirator, the witness quoted another Mexican official as saying DEA operations were “causing trouble for Bartlett Diaz--a stop should be put to the trouble.”

While the drug dealers began serving life terms, the judge threw out Zuno’s conviction, ruling that Assistant U.S. Atty. Manuel Medrano had mischaracterized evidence against him during closing arguments.

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An Accuser Recants

In a startling twist, the DEA informant came forward this June to charge that his testimony was a lie devised by the prosecution. Medrano and the chief investigator wanted him to implicate Zuno and Bartlett in a conspiracy with drug dealers, he said in interviews with The Times and in a sworn declaration for Bartlett’s attorney.

Cervantes, 37, said he told investigator Hector Berrellez “that I had never seen either Zuno or Bartlett in person in my life.”

“Berrellez repeated that I had to have seen them, but I just didn’t remember. They told me that they would give me a few days so that I could remember.”

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Cervantes said that the investigator and prosecutor wrote a script for him to follow at trial and that Medrano jokingly told him to sleep with a photograph of Zuno under his pillow “so that I would not forget his face.”

In interviews with The Times, Cervantes said he also had falsely implicated Zuno’s co-defendants, Matta and Bernabe, at the instructions of the U.S. government.

Medrano, now a television reporter, said last week that what Cervantes described never happened: “The allegation is absolutely false.” The investigation, he said, “was conducted in an ethical and professional manner. I am absolutely fully confident of that. If [the allegation] is a subject of any motion, I am confident a judge will find the allegation incredible.”

Berrellez, who is now retired, said through a DEA spokesman that he did not wish to comment.

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Cervantes also said he lied when he testified that he was receiving only $3,000 a month, plus expenses, from the government.

As a reward for his cooperation, Cervantes said, he and his family actually were paid more than $500,000 over six years.

In addition to $6,000 monthly payments, he said the government promised $200,000 upon completion of the trial. But he said Medrano told him not to reveal that unusual arrangement if asked by defense attorneys.

One reason he recently came forward, Cervantes said, is that he received only half of his final payment.

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Medrano denied promising Cervantes in advance that he would get a final payment or telling him to withhold any details of his government remuneration from the jury.

Medrano’s co-counsel, Assistant U.S. Atty. John Carlton, said witnesses were promised monthly payments for an indefinite period and received lump sums in 1995 when the monthly support ended. But he said he is not aware of any witnesses who were promised the final payments in advance.

Not everything Cervantes says squares with the defense case. Cervantes now denies knowing a defense witness who had testified at trial that they used to deal drugs together.

To test Cervantes’ recantation, defense attorneys had him take a polygraph test administered by Edward Gelb, a former Los Angeles Police Department lieutenant who has taught an FBI polygraph course.

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Gelb asked whether Cervantes had seen Zuno with drug dealers, whether he had seen Bartlett with drug dealers, and whether the prosecutor and investigator encouraged him to falsely implicate the two men. He concluded that Cervantes showed no deception in his answers.

Chances are remote, Gelb said, that Cervantes could have beaten the test three times. “I am as confident as the scores indicate,” he said.

Former DEA chief Burke, who spent hours talking to Cervantes, said the recantation is troublesome whether he is telling the truth now or not. It raises questions, he said, about whether the prosecution should have relied so heavily upon him.

New Trial, New Witness

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Three new witnesses had surfaced by the time Zuno was retried in December 1992. Like Cervantes, they were former Mexican policemen who had worked as bodyguards for drug lords before becoming paid DEA informants.

But they implicated even more government officials as well as a Guadalajara gynecologist who was arrested after Garate directed a DEA-funded team to abduct him and bring him to the U.S.

When Dr. Humberto Alvarez Machain and Zuno went on trial together, the government did not call Cervantes or another informant.

But one who did testify was Rene Lopez Romero. He was wanted by Mexico, court records show, and had admitted helping kidnap Camarena and being present during his torture. He also had admitted being present when four Jehovah’s Witnesses, who made the mistake of knocking on a drug lord’s door, were tortured and shot to death.

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It is unclear how and why Lopez became a witness rather than a defendant. The chief investigator, DEA agent Berrellez, had once assured grand jurors he took steps to ensure that witnesses had not themselves been involved in Camarena’s abduction.

Berrellez later helped arrange Lopez’s immunity in all five murders, plus tens of thousands of dollars in government support.

Records show that the agent also came to his assistance when Lopez was charged with wife beating: Days before Zuno’s 1992 trial, Lopez was released without bail after Berrellez intervened. Later prosecutors dropped the abuse charges altogether after the agent wrote them seeking their help in “Mr. Lopez’s current situation.”

Another new government witness was Jorge Godoy Lopez, who had spent 28 months in Mexican jail for his involvement in Fonseca’s drug ring.

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Although Godoy was not present during Camarena’s kidnapping, records show he has offered various versions about what he did know: Originally, he did not mention Zuno or Bartlett when he told Mexican authorities the names of the conspirators. Later, he recanted his allegations, saying he was a mere rug cleaner, not a bodyguard.

Finally, he contended that Zuno and Bartlett attended several meetings with drug traffickers, the defense minister, an army general and others.

The first, the witnesses said, unfolded in the fall of 1984 at Las Americas Hotel in Guadalajara. In a suite stocked with cocaine-laced cigarettes, the dealers allegedly complained about losing too many marijuana fields to the DEA. And Zuno, according to Godoy, suggested that the agent who was responsible should be kidnapped and killed, if he could not be bought.

Several months later Camarena was tortured inside a walled Spanish-style compound in Guadalajara. Lopez testified that he saw gynecologist Alvarez washing out syringes in the kitchen area and drug lords meeting for four hours with Zuno and 21 officials--including Bartlett--elsewhere in the house.

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Once again Zuno was convicted. But the judge ruled that the case against Alvarez was speculative and dismissed charges against the doctor, who is now suing the DEA and those who abducted him in Mexico.

The trial brought condemnation from the Mexican attorney general, who said the U.S. had acted “irresponsibly and immorally” in building false accusations through offers of money, immunity and protection to unreliable witnesses.

Zuno, 67, interviewed at a prison in Texas where he is serving a life sentence, insisted that he was not connected to the Guadalajara drug dealers and was wrongly convicted. “I do not want a pardon,” he said. “I want justice.”

Evidence Contradicted

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The recent reexaminations by Bartlett’s attorney and The Times cast doubt on some portions of the informant testimony, including accounts that numerous people had gathered in a suite at Las Americas Hotel.

Godoy described it as a first-floor suite with two bedrooms, a living room, reception area, bar and patios. But the manager recently permitted a reporter to see the largest first-floor rooms, and none fit that description.

In addition, Bartlett maintains that he was not in Guadalajara at all in late 1984 or early 1985 when witnesses said the conspirators met. He insists he was attending meetings in Mexico City, about 300 miles away, the entire day that Camarena was tortured--an assertion supported by Mexican officials.

Prosecutors said that they had made every effort to corroborate the testimony of witnesses but that they were unable to obtain many records readily available in the United States, such as credit card receipts.

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Medrano said it was a “very difficult prosecution under very difficult circumstances, with very little assistance from the Mexican government.”

Since the trial, Bartlett’s two accusers have purchased new tract homes in Southern California. Contacted recently, Lopez declined to talk, and Godoy did not respond to messages left at his home.

Now Garate, the key DEA operative, expresses concerns that the agency was too quick to believe whatever they said. DEA officials, he said, chastised him for aggressively challenging potential witnesses.

During hours of interviews, Garate stopped short of contending that Bartlett and Zuno are innocent. But he identified several portions of testimony that he said are not credible. When he raised concerns, said Garate, DEA agents challenged him: “How do you know? Were you there?”

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Former Ambassador Gavin is convinced that Bartlett and other high officials never attended meetings to plan the kidnapping or interrogation. “That high government officials, members of the president’s Cabinet, would attend a torture session of an American agent in a drug baron’s house at a moment’s notice hundreds of miles from Mexico City is preposterous on its face,” said Gavin, who served from 1983 through 1986.

The most recent U.S. ambassador, James Jones, said he had asked DEA agents assigned to the embassy in Mexico to assess testimony that Bartlett attended the torture session. “They advised me they did not believe it,” he said.

Bartlett attorney Lightfoot wrote to a top Los Angeles prosecutor last year, complaining that the government’s 10-year investigation “produced not one conviction of any of the actual kidnappers or masterminds of the plot.”

Instead of prosecuting the one person in U.S. custody who admitted a role, Lightfoot wrote, officials gave him immunity and used him to provide testimony that served only “to ruin the reputation of Gov. Bartlett.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Camarena Murder Case

After U.S. drug agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was kidnapped and murdered in Guadalajara, the Mexican government successfully prosecuted drug lords Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo and Rafael Caro Quintero and numerous others. But the U.S. government, fearing corruption in Mexico’s judicial system, had embarked on a parallel probe. The following chronicles the investigations and aftermath:

February 1985--Camarena is kidnapped near the U.S. consulate in Guadalajara, along with his pilot, and tortured and killed.

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November 1987--The first U.S. indictments are issued in Los Angeles.

December 1989--In Mexico, Caro Quintero and 20 others are convicted. In the United States, Ruben Zuno Arce, former owner of the house where Camarena was tortured, is charged with murder.

August 1990--Based largely on testimony from Hector Cervantes, Zuno is convicted of murder along with Honduran drug trafficker Juan Ramon Matta-Ballasteros and Juan Bernabe Ramirez, bodyguard for drug lord Fonseca Carrillo. Zuno’s codefendants get life sentences.

May 1991--Zuno’s conviction is overturned because of prosecutorial error, and a retrial is ordered.

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August 1991-September 1992--Three new witnesses--all former Mexican policemen--come forward, alleging that Zuno, former interior secretary Manuel Bartlett Diaz and others were present for meetings regarding the murder. One of the witnesses himself had participated in Camarena’s abduction.

December 1992--Zuno is retried, but charges are dismissed against his codefendant, Humberto Alvarez Machain, a Guadalajara gynecologist who was abducted by the DEA in Mexico and brought to the United States. Zuno is convicted and later sentenced to life in prison.

October 1997--The DEA is investigating allegations that the prosecutions were marred by perjury and false information from paid informants with serious credibility problems. Defense attorneys plan to challenge the conviction.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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A Witness Recants

Hector Cervantes Santos, a drug dealer’s butler and security guard, came forward this summer and recanted his testimony against defendants in the 1985 murder of U.S. drug agent Enrique Camarena. In this portion of his sworn declaration, he accuses a prosecutor, Manuel Medrano, and the chief investigator, Hector Berrellez, of coaching him to falsely implicate Mexican businessman Ruben Zuno Arce and Mexican politician Manuel Bartlett Diaz in the murder conspiracy. Medrano has denied the allegations and Berrellez could not be reached.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Key Players

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THE VICTIMS: Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, agent of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and his pilot, Alfred Zavalla

THE DRUG DEALERS: Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, who allegedly plotted the murder with others.

THE CHIEF INVESTIGATOR: Hector Berrellez, a 17-year DEA veteran who was decorated for heroism

THE PROSECUTOR: As co-counsel, Assistant U.S. Atty. Manny Medrano, now a television reporter, worked closely with key witnesses.

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THE DEA OPERATIVE: Antonio Garate Bustamante, who retrieved witnesses from Mexico and now believes the government ignored danger signals in building its case.

THE WITNESS: Hector Cervantes, who has recanted testimony that politicians, police and others plotted with drug lords to kill Camarena.

OTHER WITNESSES: Rene Lopez Romero and Jorge Godoy Lopez, policemen turned bodyguards for drug dealers, who testified that planning meetings preceded the Camarena kidnapping.

THE POLITICIAN: Manuel Bartlett Diaz, once a rising political star in Mexico and now governor of Puebla, who says his name was heavily damaged by an irresponsible U.S. prosecution.

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THE CRITICS: Terrence Berke, former DEA chief who says his own agency’s investigation went seriously awry and alleged perjury should be examined. John Gavin, former U.S. ambassador who said the allegations against Bartlett Diaz are absurd, casting doubt on the rest of the government’s case.


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