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Evidence in DEA Agent's Murder Case May Be Tainted


November-December 1997

Over a decade after the highly publicized kidnapping, torture and killing of DEA agent Enrique Camarena, and the prosecution of a number of the participants in the killing, an inquiry into the case has uncovered evidence that federal prosecutors may have relied on perjured testimony and corrupt information to convict three top Mexican officials of conspiracy to plan Camarena's kidnapping (Frederic N. Tulsky, "Evidence Casts Doubt on Camarena Case Trials," Los Angeles Times, October 25, 1997, p. A1; Frederic N. Tulsky, "Doubt on verdicts in DEA agent's death," San Francisco Examiner, October 26, 1997, p. A9).

At issue is whether Camarena's abduction on February 7, 1985 was planned at meetings attended by drug dealers, corrupt police and high-ranking Mexican officials. His grisly murder in Guadalajara justifiably stirred intense anger and resolve among U.S. anti-drug agents and prosecutors. Mexican officials also became intensely angry because they felt their integrity was unjustifiably under attack.

Prompted by new information from the attorney for former Government Minister Manuel Bartlett Diaz, who was implicated in the case, the Los Angeles Times undertook a four-month investigation. The star prosecution witness, Hector Cervantes Santos, a drug dealer's butler and security guard, said he perjured himself and was coached by U.S. law enforcement officials, including the prosecutor in the case, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Manuel Medrano (Central District of California), into falsely accusing the three officials. Terrence Burke, a 20-year DEA veteran who briefly headed the DEA during the Camarena investigation, met recently with the Cervantes to discuss the allegations. "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 credible," said Burke.

The Times inquiry also found that the jury in the case was not fully informed about the extent of financial and legal help provided to prosecution witnesses. Cervantes said he falsely told the jury that he was receiving $3,000 a month, plus expenses, from the U.S. government. He now claims that he and his family received more than $500,000 over six years, which he said prosecutors told him not to reveal to defense attorneys. Medrano's co-counsel, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Carlton, said witnesses did receive large lump-sum payments in 1995, but were told earlier such payments would be made. Records show that the chief investigator, Hector Berrellez, a 17-year DEA veteran, helped arrange immunity in five murder cases for a prosecution witness, Rene Lopez Romero, and assisted him in avoiding prosecution on spousal abuse charges.

Portions of testimony by other key witnesses appear false. John Gavin, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico at the time, said prosecutors eager to win convictions ignored warnings that some witness testimony may be suspect. "My record in the war against illegal drugs and the corruption they engender is known. 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."

One of the convicted officials, Mexican businessman Ruben Zuno Arce, was convicted in 1990, but a retrial was ordered in 1991 due to prosecutorial error. In 1992, Zuno was retried and convicted in Los Angeles and is currently serving a life term. Ramon Lira, an informant who helped build the case against Zuno, contended that Mexico's president at the time of the slaying, Miguel de la Madrid, and a former Mexican president, Jose Lopez Portillo, discussed Camarena with a drug lord who allegedly ordered Camarena's slaying two months later. The Los Angeles Times inquiry produced documents that show prosecutors withheld these allegations from defense lawyers during Zuno's retrial. Richard Droyan, who is chief assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles said "there was nothing sinister" about the deletion (Frederic N. Tulsky, "Allegation Was Excised in Camarena Case," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), October 29, 1997, p. A2).

Zuno has petitioned for another trial on grounds that his conviction was based on government misconduct and perjured testimony. "The government's behavior in this matter has been outrageous, and its conduct has compromised its entire prosecution of Zuno and, most certainly, the jury's verdict," said Zuno's attorney, Edward M. Medvene (Frederic N. Tulsky, "New Trial Sought for Man Convicted in Enrique Camarena Killing," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), October 30, 1997, p. A4).

Zuno's codefendant in the 1992 trial, Humberto Alvarez Machain, a Guadalajara gynecologist who was abducted by DEA agents in Mexico and brought to the U.S., was acquitted of charges of injecting Camarena with lidocaine, an anesthetic, during his torture and interrogation. Dr. Alvarez sued the U.S. government and U.S. drug agents, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in 1996 that his suit will be allowed to go forward (See "Mexican Doctor Can Sue in DEA Case, Says 9th Circuit Court of Appeals," NewsBriefs, October 1996).

U.S. Attorney's office, Los Angles, CA: (213) 894-2434.

Attorney Edward Medvene: (310) 312-3115.