A U.S. District judge Monday closely questioned federal prosecutors about their knowledge of the government's involvement in the alleged kidnaping of an accused Mexican drug trafficker, and then told them he planned to order them to preserve all evidence in the case.
The prosecutor told Judge J. Lawrence Irving that he had no knowledge of government involvement in the alleged abduction of Rene Martin Verdugo, who was wanted on a federal warrant that accused him of smuggling about a ton of marijuana from Mexico to Tucson, Ariz., and then to Vista in 1983.
Verdugo's case raised considerable controversy over the weekend on both sides of the border when allegations were reported in newspapers about the circumstances surrounding his capture. The reports suggest that his kidnapers were paid by U.S. agencies eager to question Verdugo, whom U.S. officials have said may have information about the murder of Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Enrique Camarena. DEA officials believe Camarena was ordered killed by Mexican drug traffickers in Guadalajara, Mexico, last February.
Verdugo claimed at a hearing last month that he was kidnaped on Jan. 24 near San Felipe, Baja California, by six men who handcuffed and blindfolded him before driving him to Mexicali. At Mexicali, they allegedly shoved him through a hole in the border fence into the arms of waiting U.S. marshals, who placed him under arrest and took him to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego.
Irving asked defense attorney Howard Frank to draft an order stipulating that documents and other evidence in the possession of the government pertaining to Verdugo's alleged kidnaping be preserved. Irving also said that he would consider signing a second order to keep the six alleged kidnapers, including four Baja California State Judicial Police officers, under his jurisdiction if, in fact, they are in the United States.
Frank said that at a future discovery hearing he would ask Irving to order prosecutors to reveal the men's whereabouts so he can interview them about their involvement in the case.
Initially, the six men were believed to be in the protective custody of the U.S. Marshals Service. But several federal law enforcement sources have told The Times that the six are "in the control" of the DEA. A source familiar with the case who did not want to be identified said that the six "are not presently in San Diego or Imperial counties." Other government sources said that a Spanish-speaking U.S. Customs agent has been temporarily assigned to DEA to help communicate with the men and their families.
During the hearing, Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael E. Lasater told Irving that he did not know if the six men were in the custody of the U.S. Marshal's Service. Irving then suggested that Lasater "take a minute" and ask the Marshal's Service if it was protecting several Mexican nationals believed to have been involved in the abduction.
Lasater stepped outside for a moment and conferred with an official from the Marshal's Service. When Lasater returned to the courtroom, he said:
"We really don't know yet. We're unable to confirm that information. . . . I have no information at all that anyone is in (protective) custody."
At that point, Irving ended the morning hearing and scheduled a second one in the afternoon, where Frank presented a draft asking the judge to order the government to preserve the documents and evidence in the case. But before adjourning, Frank asked for assurances from Lasater that in the interim U.S. officials would not deport the six Mexicans if they were in the government's custody.
"I would certainly urge you, Mr. Lasater," Irving said, "to suggest (to the various federal law enforcement agencies) that nothing occur between now and this afternoon."
Frank is also representing another drug smuggling defendant who turned government informant and reportedly implicated Verdugo in a marijuana smuggling scheme. Irving asked Verdugo if he was aware of this Monday and Verdugo responded "yes," indicating he saw no conflict of interest.
It was also learned Monday from a source close to the investigation that the Immigration and Naturalization Service has issued temporary visas to the six and their families. These sources say that a decision was made to bring the men into the United States after they received death threats from Mexican drug traffickers upset over their involvement with U.S. officials in the abduction. INS officials would not confirm this.
While Lasater insisted Monday that he does not know anything about the alleged abduction, his Mexican counterpart in Mexicali said that allegations of Mexican police involvement conform with information he received from other Mexican authorities after Verdugo was arrested by U.S. marshals Jan. 24 in Calexico.