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Smuggler May Shed Light on Level of Corruption

Mexico: Documents give glimpse into alleged drug payoffs among top officials. Many on both sides of border hope U.S. civil trial will offer details.

March 04, 1997|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — To friends and neighbors along the affluent stretch of Santa Rosa Road in El Centro, Calif., where Magdalena Ruiz Pelayo lived in 1991 in a $250,000 home, the 39-year-old mother of two was noteworthy for her business acumen and, especially, her contacts with Mexico's ruling elite.

Charlie Johnson, a lawyer and businessman who lived down the street, would later testify as a character witness that he knew Ruiz Pelayo and her family. He would say that her family was religious, that his son and hers were close friends, that their families vacationed together and that he was impressed with her political contacts south of the border.

Johnson said he worked unsuccessfully with Ruiz Pelayo and her partner--the cousin of then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari--on legitimate, multimillion-dollar Mexican government export-import contracts for food and fertilizer.

What Johnson didn't know was that, at the same time, Ruiz Pelayo was smuggling millions of dollars of Colombian cocaine through Mexico into Southern California--activities that led to her November 1992 drug conviction in a Newark, N.J., federal court.

Court documents in San Diego show that she was helped by a U.S. immigration officer from El Centro who pleaded guilty last year to accepting more than $350,000 in bribes from 1990 to 1992. He waved at least 40 of Ruiz Pelayo's drug shipments through his inspection lane at the nearby Calexico border crossing.

But the story of Magdalena Ruiz Pelayo now appears to go beyond showing how low-level corruption has frustrated efforts to halt the flow of billions of dollars of narcotics from Mexico into Southern California.

Two weeks ago, her name surfaced in Mexico City as part of an unfolding saga of alleged drug corruption at the highest levels of Mexico's government during Salinas' term as president.

Documents leaked to Proceso, a Mexico City weekly magazine, suggested that Ruiz Pelayo may be a key witness, testifying to millions of dollars in alleged drug payoffs to members of Salinas' family and top officials of his government.

These allegations, many analysts here expect, will emerge more fully in a U.S. case, a federal civil trial involving one of those former top Mexican officials. It is scheduled to begin in Houston next week.

Several other potential witnesses in the upcoming trial also were identified in the leaked documents.

And although U.S. prosecutors have refused to discuss their witnesses, other than to express grave concern about their safety and their willingness now to testify, Mexicans, in the days since the Proceso story, have expressed a great hunger to know more about them.

There is considerable information about Ruiz Pelayo in thousands of pages of court testimony in San Diego, Houston and Newark in U.S. criminal cases dating to 1992 against Mexican drug trafficking organizations and their members.

In her case, for example, records reviewed by The Times show that Ruiz Pelayo boasted in testimony four years ago of her close ties to the Salinas family. Her attorney said in court in Newark that she started cooperating with U.S. federal agents soon after she was convicted on drug-conspiracy charges there in November 1992.

Ruiz Pelayo testified that she had worked as "private secretary" to the then-president's father, Raul Salinas Lozano, for a decade until 1989 and that she was friends with him and other members of the Salinas family.

In the leaked documents, published by Proceso, Ruiz Pelayo also was quoted as telling federal agents that Raul Salinas Lozano and other family members were linked to the drug trade. The former president's father, however, denied those allegations and told The Times that he does not even know Ruiz Pelayo.

Records show she was convicted in the Newark case with her brother and the former president's cousin Carlos Enrique Cervantes de Gortari. The cousin testified in 1992 that Ruiz Pelayo often had spoken of her friendship with other members of the Salinas family.

*

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration undercover agent in charge of the investigation that led to Ruiz Pelayo's arrest testified that she and Cervantes de Gortari explained in detail how their high-level contacts in the Mexican police, military and government protected their large shipments of Colombian cocaine.

Next Monday, federal prosecutors in Houston are scheduled to open a civil case involving Mario Ruiz Massieu, formerly Mexico's deputy attorney general. They will seek to prove that Ruiz Massieu, who has been detained in New Jersey on immigration matters, amassed a $9-million fortune, which was deposited in Texas accounts, from drug payoffs--not from a legitimate family business, as he claims.

The documents published by Proceso suggest that Ruiz Pelayo may play a key role in Ruiz Massieu's trial, because the magazine said she has told FBI investigators that she witnessed millions of dollars in drug payoffs to him during the years she was smuggling cocaine into the U.S.

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