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Camarena's Abduction and Torture Described : Courts: Former bodyguard says ranking Mexican officials were at the house where U.S. drug agent was killed.

December 10, 1992|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A former Mexican policeman who became a bodyguard to a drug kingpin testified Wednesday that two defendants, along with an array of high-ranking Mexican government officials, were at the Guadalajara house where an American drug agent was being tortured and killed in 1985.

The witness, Rene Lopez Romero, also testified that he saw two Mexican Cabinet members and the governor of the state of Jalisco enter or leave two meetings where another witness said the kidnaping and murder of Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Enrique Camarena was planned. Those alleged meetings were first detailed in testimony Tuesday and sparked an angry denial from the Mexican government.

Wednesday's allegations, however, are potentially even more damaging to defendants Ruben Zuno Arce and Humberto Alvarez Machain, and to a host of prominent Mexican political figures. Zuno and Alvarez are being tried in federal court in Los Angeles on charges that they participated in Camarena's abduction and murder.

Lopez admits to playing a role in abducting Camarena from a city street Feb. 7, 1985, and his testimony marked the first time that a witness described the kidnaping and torture.

While Lopez's testimony held jurors rapt almost all day, his credibility has been severely questioned by defense lawyers and Mexican officials, and it is likely to be tested as cross-examination continues today.

Lopez, who is receiving government payments of $3,000 a month, acknowledges that he was present during much of the torture and murder of four American Jehovah's Witnesses in 1984--a crime that remains unsolved. And he said Wednesday that he watched as another couple was tortured at the home of Ernesto Fonseca, the drug trafficker who employed him.

During cross-examination Wednesday, Lopez struggled to recall facts such as how much money he was paid by Fonseca or how much he earned in subsequent years. But his account of several meetings closely parallels testimony by another witness, and that could bolster the credibility of both accounts.

Speaking in a soft voice and through an interpreter, Lopez testified for nearly six hours. He meticulously detailed the events surrounding Camarena's abduction, describing how an employee of the American Consulate pointed out the drug agent for the traffickers, who accosted him. One of the men showed Camarena a pistol, Lopez said, and the agent was escorted to a waiting car and driven to 881 Lope de Vega, the Guadalajara residence where previous witnesses have said the torture took place.

Camarena was blindfolded before being led inside the grounds of that home, Lopez added, and once inside was greeted by Rafael Caro Quintero, one of Mexico's most notorious drug traffickers.

Embracing the agent, Caro declared: "I told you I was going to have you in my hands, you son of a bitch," according to Lopez.

From there, Camarena was led to a small bedroom where he was pummeled and burned with cigarettes, Lopez said. The torture continued for hours, he added, though he said he had only witnessed a short bit of it.

As Camarena and his DEA pilot were being tortured, a group that included defendants Zuno and Alvarez gathered in the living room of the house, Lopez said. They were joined by dozens of others, including Mexico's leading drug traffickers and some of the country's highest-ranking political and law enforcement officials, he testified.

Among those in the living room, according to Lopez, were Defense Minister Juan Arevalo Gardoqui, Interior Minister Manuel Bartlett Diaz, Jalisco Governor Enrique Alvarez del Castillo, Mexican Federal Judicial Police Director Manuel Ibarra Herrera and Mexican Interpol Director Miguel Aldana Ibarra.

Zuno and Alvarez listened impassively as Lopez testified, sometimes scribbling notes to their attorneys.

Lopez testified that he only heard snatches of the conversation in the living room as Camarena was being tortured, but he said he recalled Zuno telling the traffickers that he had wanted them to hear Camarena's words themselves.

He also said he heard Gen. Arevalo, the defense minister, demanding that the bodies of the two men be "properly buried."

"He wanted the job to be done right," Lopez said.

In addition, Lopez said he overheard Caro congratulating Bartlett Diaz, then the interior minister and now the governor-elect of the Mexican state of Puebla.

"Don't worry," Caro allegedly told Bartlett Diaz. "You're going to go as far as we want you to. We need you up there."

During a news conference in Puebla on Tuesday, Bartlett Diaz vehemently rejected any suggestion that he had ties to drug traffickers.

Lopez said that at some point during the evening when Camarena was tortured and murdered he saw Humberto Alvarez Machain in the kitchen of the house washing out a syringe. That testimony could prove damaging to Alvarez because it places him at the scene of the crime and tends to support the prosecution's contention that the physician gave Camarena an injection to revive him so that he could be tortured further.

According to Lopez, the gathering at 881 Lope de Vega continued until late on the night of Feb. 7, 1985. The following morning, he added, Caro called the home of Fonseca and told him that Camarena had died.

The bodies of Camarena and DEA informant Alfredo Zavala-Avelar were discovered a month later in a neighboring state. Forensic experts have testified that the bodies were first buried near Guadalajara and later moved.

Cross-examination of Lopez will continue today. The trial, which had been expected to last four to six weeks, is moving more quickly than anticipated and prosecutors say they expect it to conclude before Christmas.

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