SAN DIEGO — When the Mexican Federal Judicial Police converged on Kenneth Erickson in the lobby of a Mexico City hotel last September, he was surprised but not overly concerned.
For the previous eight months, Erickson had been working under cover for the U.S. government, masquerading as a member of an international drug ring while feeding information to federal agents.
His friends at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Customs Service would intercede quickly, Erickson thought, to free him from the Mexican authorities.
Instead, Erickson, 41, the owner of a San Diego limousine service, spent seven months in a Mexican prison, ignored by the American agents who ultimately conceded that he had, indeed, played a significant role in a joint DEA-Customs investigation.
Tells of Torture
During that time, Erickson said, he was beaten, tortured and left naked on the floor of a jail cell for two weeks.
"I was just totally abandoned," Erickson said. "I had fights. I ate out of trash cans. I ate stuff people would throw away. The government never brought me a lawyer, never brought me a clean shirt. Nothing.
"I've been scrupulous at every turn in this thing and to end up being accused of being a criminal, that's the worst indignity."
The episode, which left Erickson bankrupt and deeply embittered, provides an unusual public glimpse into the world of government informants.
Moreover, Erickson's story, raises questions about whether the U.S. agencies were operating clandestinely in Mexico.
The acrimony between Erickson and the federal agents for whom he once worked reached a peak last week when his requests for compensation for his financial losses were finally, and flatly, turned down.
Officials of both Customs and the DEA acknowledge that Erickson worked with agents in San Diego, but they insist they never sent him to Mexico. Therefore, they say, they are not responsible for his problems.
Erickson said the officials denied knowledge of the ill-fated trip to Mexico--one of three he says he made for them--because they never informed Mexican authorities that they were conducting an investigation in that country. "It's totally a lie to say they didn't know I was going down there. They gave me the purpose for going down there," Erickson said. "Customs calls me up and says that the group needs me for a very important job. . . . It turns out that they want me to go to Mexico."
Claims by people who get into legal trouble in foreign countries that they are working as government informants are nothing new. What distinguishes Erickson's case is the uncontroverted evidence that he was working with the government on the American side of the border in an investigation of the drug smugglers with whom he was eventually arrested in Mexico.
Further, federal agents acknowledge that Erickson himself was never under investigation for any crime and was not cooperating in an attempt to avoid prosecution or to cut a deal on a prison sentence.
Called a Volunteer
"We would call him a citizen source," said Kenneth Ingleby, special agent in charge of the Customs Service office in San Diego. "He basically volunteered." Ingleby said he believes Erickson's claims that he was tortured by Mexican police, who extracted a bogus confession from him shortly after his arrest, and feels bad about Erickson's current financial state, including the loss of his home and repossession of his cars.
"He went through hell. There's no doubt about it," Ingleby said. "He got a raw deal. He gets picked up and gets tortured. . . . I feel for the guy."
Still, Ingleby said, there is nothing either Customs or the DEA legally can do for Erickson now.
Charles Hill, special agent in charge of the DEA office in San Diego, said he could not comment on matters relating to informants, but added that the DEA did not send Erickson to Mexico.
Erickson's stint as a government informant began in January, 1987, when he telephoned the DEA office in National City and said he had some information about what he believed was a drug smuggling operation. Later that day, he met with two agents at a restaurant in National City.
Erickson said his motives were altruistic, but also conceded that his limousine business needed a financial boost and he hoped to get the standard fee of 25% of any property seized as a result of information he provided.
Suspected Drug Activity
He told the agents he believed that an old friend he had taken into his home was using his telephone to arrange drug deals. He had met the man years earlier, he said, through his fledgling limousine business and had acted as his personal chauffeur.
Later, the man was convicted of a drug charge and spent time in prison. Erickson told the agents that he allowed the man to move into his home on the condition that he stay away from drugs. He also told them that he chauffeured the man around in late 1986 to pick up money in the Los Angeles area.