A federal prosecutor conceded Friday in U.S. District Court that six Mexicans who have been granted safekeeping in the United States turned over to U.S. authorities last month a man linked to the torture of slain American drug agent Enrique S. Camarena.
At a court hearing, U.S. District Judge J. Lawrence Irving said he was inclined to order the men--four of whom until recently were officers with the Baja California State Judicial Police--to meet with him at a secret location to answer questions about their role in the alleged kidnaping of Rene Martin Verdugo, an accused Mexican drug smuggler who U.S. officials say observed Camarena's torture last year.
But Irving delayed a decision on ordering the interviews for a week, after Assistant U.S. Atty. Stephen G. Nelson requested time to gather evidence that the judge, the Mexicans and the government's ongoing investigation of the Camarena slaying could be harmed by such a meeting.
Verdugo's defense lawyer, Howard Frank, wants drug smuggling charges against the 34-year-old Mexicali land developer dropped, alleging his arrest was illegal and that U.S. courts have no authority to try him. Verdugo claims he was kidnaped Jan. 24 by six masked men in San Felipe, Baja California, blindfolded, driven to the U.S. border at Calexico and pushed through a fence into the hands of U.S. marshals.
Frank has said his client was not present during Camarena's torture.
U.S. authorities officially have denied knowledge of any kidnaping of Verdugo. But the Immigration and Naturalization Service confirmed earlier this week that the six alleged abductors and their families had been granted special permission to remain in the United States. Federal sources said the men had received threats from Mexican drug traffickers upset at their supposed role in Verdugo's capture.
In court Friday, Nelson became the first U.S. official to acknowledge the men's participation in the arrest. "The government will readily concede that the United States acquired physical possession of Mr. Verdugo as a result of the activities of these five or six individuals who are now, for their own safety, being maintained somewhere in the United States," he said.
Nelson argued that the admission eliminated any necessity for Irving or defense attorneys to question the men. Even a private hearing at a secret location, with only the judge and a court reporter present, would risk compromising federal investigations and invite foul play against Irving, the six Mexicans and federal agents, Nelson said.
"In order to logistically and mechanically set up these interviews, it requires additional people," he said. "There's always the possibility for exposure, given the sophistication of the people on the other side."
When Irving asked for details of the possible dangers, Nelson said: "The threat assessment is a problem, and there are a number of people working on it now. It's in somewhat of an inchoate condition, but we'll attempt to articulate that . . . "
Irving said he was not concerned about a risk to his safety. "I guess that's the way things are in these days and times," he said. "I have to do what I have to do." But he agreed to give prosecutors a week to gather evidence of the pitfalls of the proposed interviews.
The judge, who in a series of hearings this week repeatedly expressed his exasperation with prosecutors' inability to respond to allegations about the circumstances of Verdugo's arrest, said he hoped to learn from the Mexicans whether the U.S. government had any knowledge of or role in the alleged kidnaping.
Frank has argued that government involvement would be cause to drop the charges against Verdugo. Prosecutors say that short of torture, the circumstances by which an overseas fugitive comes into the hands of U.S. authorities are irrelevant under federal law.
Irving also asked if prosecutors had studied whether an American official who was demonstrated to have paid for or participated in Verdugo's kidnaping would be guilty of violating U.S. law.
Nelson said he would review the question. "If something wrong has occurred, certainly this U.S. attorney's office is not going to intend to obfuscate that information or ignore it," he said.
Camarena, 37, and Alfredo Zavala Avelar, a Mexican pilot who often worked with the DEA, were kidnaped last February in Guadalajara. Their decomposed bodies were found on a ranch there a month later.
The Times reported Friday that U.S. authorities had obtained a tape recording of Camarena's torture and identified the man supervising it as a highly-placed official of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police. The tape, which sources said also names Verdugo, contains information that Camarena's abductors coerced from him during a two-day torture session.
Several Mexican police officers and two kingpins of the Mexican drug underground are jailed in Mexico, accused of the kidnap-murders. Nonetheless, U.S. officials have complained throughout the investigation of the killings that Mexican officials have failed to pursue the case aggressively.