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U.S. Opens Case Against Accused Mexican Drug Kingpin

Courts: Prosecutor in Houston promises to detail multibillion-dollar empire of Juan Garcia Abrego.

September 18, 1996|MARK FINEMAN and LIANNE HART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HOUSTON — Promising to deliver "the quintessential profile of a major drug profiteer," a federal prosecutor said Tuesday that the U.S. government will detail how Juan Garcia Abrego used corruption and money laundering on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border to build a multibillion-dollar drug empire.

"This case is about drugs, drugs and more drugs," Assistant U.S. Atty. Melissa Annis told a 12-member federal jury in opening the U.S. government case against Garcia Abrego, the reputed head of Mexico's Gulf cartel who, last year, became the first suspected international drug trafficker to be placed on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list.

Annis, head of the Houston-based federal drug task force, gave no indication in her opening statement whether testimony would try to link Garcia Abrego to high-ranking present or former Mexican politicians.

But her opening statement indicated that corruption was a chief method the defendant allegedly used to expand his operations during the years that coincided with the administration of former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, which ended in December 1994.

In her statement, Annis described a "pattern of payoffs to officials" by Garcia Abrego after he struck a deal with Colombia's Cali cartel to bring cocaine into Mexico and then across the U.S. border.

Mexican and U.S. officials have said they are investigating possible links between Garcia Abrego and Raul Salinas de Gortari, the elder brother of the former president. Raul Salinas is jailed and on trial in Mexico on charges of masterminding the 1994 assassination of a top Mexican ruling party official.

A tie-less Garcia Abrego, 52, sat placidly throughout Tuesday's trial opening, often looking down, as he listened to a Spanish translation through headphones.

Garcia Abrego's arrest and expulsion by Mexican drug agents in January was hailed by the Clinton administration and Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. They declared it a major breakthrough in the effort to seal off Mexican smuggling routes to the United States.

U.S. law enforcement officials have said they believe Garcia Abrego could implicate high-ranking officials on both sides of the border if he testifies in his own defense, although there was no indication Tuesday if he would do so.

Arguing in Garcia Abrego's defense, in a trial expected to last eight weeks, attorney Tony Canales told the jury that neither his client's name nor voice can be heard on any of the 2,800 audiotapes U.S. law enforcement agents made of 10,000 wire-tapped conversations. He said most of the prosecution witnesses are testifying to reduce their own prison time.

Times staff writer Fineman reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Hart from Houston.

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