Shortly after Jose Lopez Portillo was elected president of Mexico in 1976, then-U.S. Ambassador John Joseph Jova was forced to make a delicate diplomatic visit to the new chief of state before he was even inaugurated.
The Mexican president-elect had designated as his chief of security a childhood friend named Arturo Durazo Moreno. U.S. narcotics agents had been investigating Durazo for years, and shortly before Lopez Portillo's election, Durazo had been indicted in Miami on charges of conspiracy to import cocaine. If Durazo went to the United States, Jova had to explain, he would be arrested.
"I had State Department instructions to raise the subject in a non-interventionist way," Jova said in a recent telephone interview. "It had to be raised in a delicate way. We let it be known that it was distressing to us that this man should be appointed to such a high position."
The former ambassador declined to say what Lopez Portillo told him that day. But the outcome of the meeting was clear. Lopez Portillo named Durazo chief of police of Mexico City, a job that required no international travel but gave him immense power over a virtual army of more than 20,000 men. The indictment later was dismissed.
Now, nearly nine years after that little-known diplomatic visit, Durazo presents a new dilemma. Only this time the dilemma is public and the forum is Los Angeles.
Durazo is in jail here awaiting an extradition hearing to determine if there is probable cause to return him to Mexico to stand trial on three corruption-related charges.
The hearing is scheduled to start in federal court here Wednesday. It is being held in Los Angeles because Durazo established residency in Marina del Rey briefly when he fled Mexico after Lopez Portillo's Administration ended in December, 1982. He was arrested in Puerto Rico last June 29 on a sealed warrant issued by U.S. Magistrate Volney V. Brown, who will hear the extradition case.
The charges are extortion of payments from his subordinate police officers, possession of illegal military weapons and failure to pay an estimated $250,000 in customs taxes on imported items in his opulent villa in Mexico. Durazo has denied the charges.
But the relatively narrow accusations give little hint of the political intrigue, assassination threats, blackmail potential and diplomatic dilemmas that knowledgeable sources on both sides of the border say the case presents.
For example, The Times has learned that early last year, U.S. intelligence agents uncovered what they believed to have been an assassination plot by Durazo against the man who has promised to prosecute him: current Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid.
Asked about the suspected plot, George High, State Department director of Mexican affairs, would confirm in a telephone interview only that U.S. officials did hear of such a purported plot and notified the Mexican government.
At the same time, Durazo is believed to be the target of numerous assassination plots because he was privy to the darkest secrets of some of Mexico's most powerful men.
"You can't return this man to Mexico," argued attorney Howard E. Beckler, who represented Durazo at his initial bail hearings in Los Angeles last summer. "He is a man with many enemies. He'll be executed somewhere along the line."
Although U.S. officials do not publicly agree with such predictions, they have provided Durazo with heavy security. According to court records, Durazo is held at a secret location in the 24-hour protective custody of the U.S. marshal. Visits even with his family, friends and attorneys are monitored by a video camera. The last time Durazo appeared in court, more than a dozen security officers were posted around him to scan the entrances.
"This man is profoundly sensitive," Dr. Julian Nava, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, said in an interview here last week. Nava, who held the post during Lopez Portillo's last year in office, said Durazo was Lopez Portillo's "hatchet man."
"He (Durazo) has records, photographs and documents regarding the malfeasance or corrupt or immoral activity by many prominent Mexicans that could conceivably be destabilizing of the current government," Nava said.
"He has so much of this 'insurance' that it makes me wonder whether Mexico really wants him back and whether the United States really wants to let him go back. The two governments may not be stating their real opinions in this case. The last thing the United States wants to do is to destabilize the current Mexican government."
Mexico's public position on the case is clear. Durazo has been made a living symbol of the corruption endemic in Mexico's government. And De la Madrid, who took office in 1982 amid severe economic crises and rising citizen anger over official corruption, has embarked on a "moral renovation" to clean up the government.
The United States has taken no formal position on the case.