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Accused Drug Lord Pleads Not Guilty in Houston

Law: Garcia Abrego was deported by Mexico. He is to stay jailed pending trial, set to start in March.


HOUSTON — Accused Mexican drug lord Juan Garcia Abrego pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges that he headed a brutal, multibillion-dollar narcotics empire whose members stopped at nothing--even murder--to smuggle tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States each year.

Tieless in a black suit, the 51-year-old Garcia Abrego stood with shoulders slumped and hands clasped before a Houston federal judge.

As he listened through headphones to a Spanish translation of the proceedings, Garcia Abrego heard Assistant U.S. Atty. Melissa Annis describe him as a "kingpin" who became "the principal organizer and leader of a massive international drug-trafficking organization" using methods ranging from high technology to brute force.

Arguing successfully amid tight security for Garcia Abrego's continued imprisonment pending trial--set Tuesday to begin March 11 and expected to last up to 10 weeks--Annis said Garcia Abrego's men waded rivers and piloted airplanes to smuggle "multi-ton quantities" of drugs into the U.S. and bulk-ship millions of dollars in cash proceeds back to Mexico. She also cited "the issue of violence and the issue of corruption."

"This defendant has paid bribes on both sides of the [Rio Grande] river to federal law enforcement officers," she stated. "Violence has been used as a technique to effect the goals of the conspiracy."

Volumes of testimony in recent federal trials of Garcia Abrego's alleged former lieutenants indicated that their organization paid millions of dollars to both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officers each month for protection and that Garcia Abrego ordered the murder of more than a dozen of his rivals.

"This defendant is a kingpin," Annis concluded. "He has both financial and human resources available to him to evade law enforcement. . . . He has properties in many names. The United States has seized $62 million belonging to him, but many more millions of dollars remain available to him."

Annis also flatly denied recent reports that Garcia Abrego is cooperating with U.S. federal investigators who are probing Mexico's powerful drug cartels, which they say supply up to three-fourths of the South American cocaine sold in the United States. "That is not correct," she told the judge.

Garcia Abrego was arrested by Mexican drug agents Jan. 14 and deported to Houston the next day.

The half-hour hearing ended with U.S. District Judge Nancy K. Johnson declaring Garcia Abrego, who was America's most wanted alleged drug dealer until his capture, "a danger to the community" and ruling that he continue to be held without bail--but not before a bomb scare froze prosecutors and defense lawyers in mid-sentence for a moment. Court officials later said the electronic alert was a false alarm.

Security was at a maximum before and during the arraignment. U.S. federal marshals searched everyone and everything entering the courtroom--by hand and with metal detectors--and recorded each spectator's name. Attendance was limited to 80 and included family and friends of the defendant.

Garcia Abrego's lawyers said little in his defense Tuesday. They waived his right to a detention hearing.

"Our position is that our client is a Mexican citizen, a Mexican national," defense attorney J. A. Canales told the court. "So for that reason, of course, the issue of bail could very well be moot if he is a Mexican national with no legal standing to be in this country."

Canales said he will subpoena a Texas state order declaring Garcia Abrego's U.S. birth certificate "null and void, that it was obtained pursuant to false information."

If Garcia Abrego's attorneys are right, they could challenge the legality of his detention in the United States, where he now faces possible life imprisonment.

Annis, who heads the Houston-based federal counter-narcotics strike force, said the government has birth and baptismal certificates and a Social Security card proving that Garcia Abrego is, in fact, a U.S. citizen, born in La Paloma, Texas.

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