U.S. paid millions to witnesses in drug-agent killing Some recipients have criminal pasts

November 08, 1992|By Jim Newton | Jim Newton,Los Angeles Times

The federal government has paid $2.7 million to witnesses - including some with serious criminal histories -- in its case against two Mexican nationals who are charged with participating in the 1985 torture-murder of Enrique Camarena, a U.S. drug agent, according to documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

The documents, produced by the government for a trial, indicate that some informants have received hundreds of thousands of dollars. One key witness, Hector Cervantes Santos, testified in a previous trial that he used to make less than $1,000 a year in Mexico; since late 1989, the Drug Enforcement Administration has paid him more than $178,000 for information, expenses and security related to the Camarena case.

In addition, the documents show that the Justice Department has promised to request American residency or work permits for several witnesses, some of whom have criminal histories.

Rene Lopez Romero, for instance, was involved in the 1984 kidnapping and murder of four American missionaries in Guadalajara, Mexico, according to the government. Despite his link to that unsolved crime, the government is paying him a $3,000 monthly stipend, and prosecutors intend to call him as a witness in this case.

Payments, rewards, protection and favors are considered essential facts of life in fighting drugs. But the amounts in this case -- coupled with the other benefits promised to informants -- have raised concerns among some legal experts about how far the government will go to gather testimony in its case against two men accused in Camarena's murder.

"At some point, somebody has to start asking: 'What's the limit?' " said Gerald Uelmen, dean of the law school at Santa Clara University in California.

"At what point do these people become willing to tell the government whatever it wants to hear?"

Ruben Zuno Arce and Humberto Alvarez Machain are accused of conspiracy to kidnap and murder Camarena and his DEA pilot, a crime that is among the most vicious in the annals of American drug enforcement. It also has become one of the most vigorously investigated and prosecuted.

Mr. Alvarez, for instance, was kidnapped in 1990 at the behest of American drug agents and was brought to the United States.

Defense lawyers -- who are legally barred from paying their witnesses -- say that the government's payments and favors in this case have made it nearly impossible for Mr. Zuno and Mr. Alvarez to get a fair trial.

"It's outrageous. It's disgusting," said Barry Tarlow, a criminal defense lawyer who represented one of the other defendants in the Camarena case. "It really is shameful what is going on in this case."

Prosecutors and some legal scholars respond by noting that witnesses in high-level drug cases are rarely model citizens and that they are rarely inclined to testify out of a sense of civic obligation.

"You know the old saw," said one lawyer, " 'Conspiracies hatched in hell do not have angels as their witnesses.' "

The result is that drug cases, particularly grisly ones like the Camarena murder, often feature testimony from unsavory characters. It is up to the jury to evaluate the witnesses and determine whether they are truthful.

"Giglio material"

Prosecutors note that the disclosure of the government's relationships with witnesses allows jurors to consider that information and make an informed judgment on it. Information about witnesses' criminal histories and relationships with the government is known as "Giglio material," because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 1972 case, Giglio vs. U.S., that all potentially impeaching evidence about prosecution witnesses must be turned over to defense lawyers before a trial.

The government has complied with that requirement in this case, and prosecutors stress that just because a person has a criminal record or receives payments from the government does not mean that he or she is lying.

Most of the government's informants in this case have received less than $100,000 each, but many have received more than that, according to a Los Angeles Times study of the payment sheets. One informant, Frank Retamoza Gallardo, has been paid $909,862 since 1989. That money was paid for expenses in another major drug case, but Mr. Retamoza will be called upon to testify in this one as well.

Several other witnesses have received more than $150,000, most of it doled out over years. Many of the witnesses have received such large sums because this case has dragged on for so long, officials said.

Beyond the size of the payments, the other benefits that prosecutors have promised witnesses in this and other cases trouble some legal observers. In this case, prosecutors on several occasions have interceded with immigration officials on behalf of potential witnesses in this case, urging the Immigration and Naturalization Service to halt deportation proceedings.

Some of the witnesses have minor criminal records. But two, Ramon Lira and Rene Lopez Romero, were involved in the deaths of American citizens.

4 Americans vanish

On Dec. 2, 1984, four young Americans -- Benjamin and Pat Mascarenas, and Dennis and Rose Carlson -- disappeared while selling Bibles and proselytizing for the Jehovah's Witnesses in a well-to-do Guadalajara neighborhood, never to be heard from again.

That crime remains unsolved, and no arrests have been made. But the government's documents in the Camarena case show that Mr. Lopez and Mr. Lira took part in the 1984 abduction of the missionaries. The government does not explain their role beyond saying that they were involved, but authorities say the two men were low-level employees of Ernesto Fonseca, a Guadalajara drug lord in the 1980s who authorities say had the four killed.

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