Nine men, including drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero and the Mexican police commander who headed the original murder investigation, were indicted Wednesday in the torture and death of U.S. drug agent Enrique Camarena and his pilot in 1985.
The indictments returned by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles represent a significant breakthrough in a case that for nearly three years has frustrated federal law enforcement officials and strained U.S. relations with Mexico.
The indictments target some of those believed to have been present at Caro Quintero's home outside Guadalajara, where authorities say Camarena was tortured for two days.
Among those named are three former Mexican police officials. They are Armando Pavon Reyes, a commander with the Mexican Federal Judicial Police who originally headed the Mexican government probe into the Camarena murder; Sergio Espino Verdin, a police officer identified by federal authorities as one of Camarena's "interrogators," and Raul Lopez Alvarez, a former homicide investigator.
Three of the nine men indicted Wednesday are in U.S. custody. Four others, including Caro Quintero, are in custody in Mexico. Pavon Reyes and Ines Calderone Quintero, Caro Quintero's cousin, are fugitives.
While some U.S. officials privately were skeptical about the prospects of bringing the suspects in Mexican custody to trial in American courts, the Justice Department announced that it will begin extradition proceedings by the end of this week.
"Our first concern is that justice be done," said Robert C. Bonner, U.S. attorney in Los Angeles. "If justice is done in Mexico with respect to Caro Quintero and other individuals they have down there, then so be it."
Bonner said the three defendants already in U.S. custody may be brought to trial in Los Angeles within two months. He said he could not say how long extradition proceedings on the other defendants may take--if they are ever extradited.
"We pledged that Kiki Camarena would not die in vain, and he did not. Today's indictment graphically reinforces our determination that this never be allowed to happen (again)," Drug Enforcement Administrator John C. Lawn said at news conference in Los Angeles where the indictments were announced.
"Agent Camarena was a DEA agent," Bonner added. "For 14 years, he served his country well. We will not let his brutal murder go unnoticed. The government of the United States will not let the murder of one of its own by a terrorist narcotics organization go unavenged."
'Only a Handful'
Federal prosecutors said the nine men indicted Wednesday represent "only a handful" of those believed responsible for Camarena's murder and pledged to seek additional indictments as the investigation continues.
Five of the suspects, Caro Quintero, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, Rene Martin Verdugo Urquidez, Espino Verdin and Lopez Alvarez, are named in counts directly related to the kidnaping and murder. They are charged with committing violent crimes in aid of racketeering, conspiracy to kidnap a federal agent and murder of a federal agent. They face life in prison if convicted on the charges.
The other four, Calderone Quintero, Jesus Felix Gutierrez, Pavon Reyes and Albino Bazan Padilla, are accused of being accessories-after-the-fact. They face a maximum of 30 years in prison.
Caro Quintero is also charged under the federal "drug kingpin" statute, which carries a minimum 15-year prison term without parole.
Caro Quintero, 35, has been identified as the head of one of Mexico's five largest drug families, shepherding a narcotics empire that employs more than 5,000 workers and is believed to have netted him more than $434 million in 1985 alone.
Federal authorities say Camarena and his pilot, Alfredo Zavala Avelar, had been ferreting out some of Caro Quintero's most lucrative marijuana plantations.
One raid at a plantation allegedly owned by Caro Quintero north of Chihuahua resulted in the seizure of more than $50 million worth of marijuana. A number of Mexican nationals arrested by Mexican authorities in the case say Caro Quintero had repeatedly sworn revenge against Camarena.
Lawn said DEA officials believe that Camarena may have been lured into a car near the U.S. Consulate by Mexican law enforcement agents he had worked with previously. The suspicion that police cooperated in the abduction and slaying has been a particular source of consternation for federal drug agents, whose lives may depend on the cooperation of foreign authorities.
"In what we do for a living, we depend on the integrity of our law enforcement counterparts," Land said. "In the case of Kiki Camarena, that mutual trust failed. It is very important to note that of nine individuals in this indictment, three are former police officers in Mexico."