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Witness in Camarena Case Describes Life in Mexican Drug Ring : Trial: Man holds jury spellbound with tales of raucous parties. He does not implicate defendants in agent's death.

December 05, 1992|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In two hours of riveting testimony, a former communications specialist Friday recounted his years at the side of one of Mexico's most notorious drug kingpins and linked the leaders of the Guadalajara narcotics cartel to two defendants charged in connection with the 1985 murder of an American drug agent.

Lawrence Victor Harrison, 48, said he saw defendants Dr. Humberto Alvarez Machain and Ruben Zuno Arce in the company of his boss, Ernesto Fonseca, on several occasions. Alvarez, who is a gynecologist, would often treat drug traffickers who had smoked too much cocaine, Harrison said. Zuno, the brother-in-law of former Mexican President Luis Echeverria, met with Fonseca privately at least once and attended a raucous party for another major kingpin, Harrison said.

His testimony came at the end of the first week in the trial of Alvarez and Zuno. Harrison is the first witness to back up the government's assertions that the two men were allies of the drug bosses who allegedly ordered DEA Agent Enrique Camarena kidnaped Feb. 7, 1985. Harrison's bizarre account of years inside the drug organization headed by Fonseca held jurors and members of the audience spellbound.

He did not, however, implicate either Alvarez or Zuno in the crimes against Camarena.

Harrison detailed vast sums of money that passed through the drug cartel. He and several other men once spent four to five weeks counting $400 million in U.S. currency that was said to be Fonseca's contribution to the payoff of a high government official, Harrison said.

Mexican law enforcement officials at all levels worked with Fonseca and other traffickers, he added: "This was an operation that included everybody."

At one point, Harrison told of a party at one of Fonseca's many homes for Rafael Caro Quintero, a close associate of Fonseca and a major drug kingpin. Caro sat atop a dancing horse during the party, smoking cocaine as the animal pranced about, Harrison said.

Zuno greeted Caro with an embrace at that party, Harrison added.

"I remember being surprised to see him there," Harrison said. "I had not known that he knew these people."

Asked about Alvarez, Harrison said he had seen him many times in the company of drug traffickers. Alvarez, sitting across the room from the witness box, blushed deep red but did not look up.

"He was attending to them as a physician," Harrison said in response to questions from Assistant U.S. Atty. John L. Carlton. "When they got sick from smoking too much cocaine base, he would attend to them."

Although Harrison's testimony links both defendants to the drug cartel, he did not say anything that goes to the heart of what the prosecution is attempting to prove: that Zuno and Alvarez conspired to kidnap and murder Camarena.

As a result, defense lawyers say, Harrison's testimony may not prove especially damaging.

"It's all untrue," said Alan Rubin, Alvarez's lawyer. "But even if you believe it, does it prove anything on the charges? No."

Defense attorneys did not get the chance to cross-examine Harrison. The trial will resume next week and defense attorneys are expected to hammer away at payments Harrison has received from the U.S. government during the time that he has cooperated with their investigation. Government documents obtained by The Times indicate that Harrison has received more than $130,000 since late 1989 for information and expenses, mostly related to this case.

Without discussing the amount, Harrison acknowledged that he and his family received government payments and protection. "The government has tried to keep us alive," he said.

According to Harrison, that danger was illustrated by a harrowing attempt on his life in 1984.

Fonseca and the other cartel leaders had grown deeply suspicious of Americans by mid-1984, Harrison said. He alleged that on Sept. 11, 1984, he and an associate were ambushed by law enforcement officers who were loyal to Fonseca. He said he was shot nine times in the confrontation and his partner was killed.

"He set me up to be killed," Harrison testified of Fonseca. "They planned this ambush in front of me."

Harrison survived, only to be arrested by Mexican officials. U.S. authorities have said Harrison still suffers from that attack. On Friday, Harrison was pale, and he labored to speak during his hours on the stand, his narrative interrupted by fits of coughing.

In addition to Harrison's testimony, prosecutors called a number of witnesses Friday who elaborated on a series of blows that DEA agents inflicted on the Mexican drug lords in 1984 and 1985.

DEA officials in Mexico received the tips that led to those raids, carried out even though high-ranking Mexican officials erected obstacle after obstacle in an attempt to protect the drug traffickers, said Charles Lugo, a DEA agent who was the intelligence supervisor in Mexico during the mid-1980s.

Despite evidence of the huge marijuana fields, high-ranking officials in Mexico City declined to move quickly, claiming that they had manpower, equipment and budget shortages, Lugo said. Eventually, they agreed to go ahead, but a commander in the Mexican federal police, Manuel Aldana Ibarra, who also headed that country's Interpol office, stalled for several hours at an airstrip near the fields, Lugo said.

Aldana at first said he needed authorization from Mexico City and then falsely claimed that his helicopter did not have enough fuel to proceed, the agent said.

Eventually, Aldana gave in to Lugo's threats and exhortations, and the raids went forward, netting about 10,000 tons of marijuana, the largest marijuana seizure in history.

According to prosecutors, it was those and a few other raids that provoked Fonseca, Caro and other traffickers to retaliate against the DEA by kidnaping and killing Camarena.

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