US Drug Trial Sparks Mexican Officials' Ire

Prosecutors at Camarena murder trial allege links between drug kingpins and former top Mexican officials

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE Enrique Camarena murder case is again making a shambles of Mexico-United States relations.

In the third US trial relating to the 1985 killing of "Kiki" Camarena, an agent with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), prosecutors for the first time have alleged that former high-level Mexican officials directly collaborated with Mexico's biggest narcotraffickers in planning the murder.

During the trial, which got under way last week, witnesses have testified that the top politicians - some still in office - took payoffs and protected known drug lords.

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The Mexican attorney general's office angrily denounced the US prosecutors on Monday for defaming Mexican public servants and being "irresponsible and immoral" for relying on the "testimony of delinquents and criminals." The office also issued a press release documenting Mexican criminal charges and convictions against six witnesses testifying in the case.

"It's a smoke screen. In any kind of criminal trial, the witnesses generally are closely associated with the accused criminals," says Roderic Camp, a Mexico specialist at Tulane University. "It reflects a government pattern of damage control to protect Mexico's image. This can spill over into other areas, affecting approval of the free trade agreement, for example." Accomplice to murder

The allegations arise from the federal trial in Los Angeles of two Mexicans accused of participating in Camarena's torture and death. Dr. Humberto Alvarez Machain allegedly injected Camarena with drugs to keep him conscious while being tortured. Ruben Zuno Arce, a businessman and brother-in-law of former Mexican President Luis Echeverria, is also accused of being an accomplice. About one-third of the 60 witnesses expected to be called are confidential informants.

Accused officials include: Manuel Bartlett Diaz, Interior Minister when Camarena was slain and now governor-elect of Puebla state; Enrique Alvarez del Castillo, ex-governor of Jalisco (the state where Camarena died), attorney general under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and now head of the National Bank of Public Works; former Defense Minister Juan Arevalo Gardoqui; and Javier Garcia Paniagua, former president of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Former Mexican policeman and drug cartel bodyguard Jorge Godoy Lopez testified Tuesday that Interior Minister Bartlett and Defense Minister Arevalo attended four meetings with members of the Guadalajara drug cartel to plan Camarena's murder. Bartlett held a news conference Tuesday to deny the charges.

US prosecutors claim that in 1984, US DEA agents were successfully disrupting the distribution of cocaine and marijuana as well as uncovering the links between drug kingpins and Mexican government officials. The kidnapping and killing of Camarena was one of a series of retaliatory actions planned by narcotraffickers and corrupt government officials, they say.

In 1989, the Salinas administration arrested Jose Antonio Zorrilla Perez, former director of the Federal Security Directorate, as "intellectual author" of the 1984 murder of journalist Manuel Buendia. Buendia was investigating links between officials and the Guadalajara drug cartel - just as Camarena had been doing. Opposition raises questions

But then, as now, opposition parties in Mexico wonder how Mr. Zorrilla, the No. 2 man under Interior Minister Bartlett could be so deeply involved in narcotrafficking without his boss knowing. Questions are now being raised here as to whether Bartlett will take office as governor of Puebla.

"It all depends on the quality of evidence we see in the next few weeks. If it's solid, you could expect to see a political hailstorm against Bartlett," says Federico Estevez, political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, a leading university. "If the case is weak or the political spin being put on the case by the government works - that this is just a witch hunt or Mexico-bashing - then these officials will sit tight and ride it out."

George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., predicts a short political squall with little damage. "After six years as interior minister, Bartlett knows where too many bodies are buried. He ran the equivalent of the FBI and the CIA together. He's had access to too much sensitive information to be removed without taking a lot of people with him," Professor Grayson says.

With the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement on Dec. 18 and the arrival of a new US president, Mexico probably will quietly dispose of this issue as quickly as possible, Grayson says.

Rather than respond directly to individual accusations, the Mexican government will likely continue to brand the trial as "illegal." Dr. Machain was kidnapped from Mexico by US agents in order to stand trial in the US. Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court ruled the kidnapping was not a violation of the US-Mexico extradition treaty. Mexico and most international law specialists were appalled by the ruling, calling it a gross violation of sovereignty.

In previous trials, 19 people have been convicted in the killing of Camarena and his pilot, Alfredo Zavala. Rafael Caro Quintero, the Mexican drug boss believed to have ordered the killing, was sentenced in Guadalajara in December 1989 to 40 years in prison.

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