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Cartel May Have Targeted U.S. Prosecutor

Crime: Alleged gunman for Tijuana drug gang was taped threatening to arrange murder of official who is seeking his extradition, court documents say.

August 28, 1997|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — An alleged gunman for the Tijuana drug cartel threatened to arrange the killing of a U.S. prosecutor who is seeking his extradition to Mexico, according to recently filed court documents.

Court documents say the threat against assistant U.S. Atty. Gonzalo Curiel was made by Emilio Valdez Mainero in a bugged conversation with a convicted cocaine trafficker and government informant who befriended Valdez at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego.

The allegations underscore the fears of law enforcement officers along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, which has become the front line for international drug smuggling. And they come on the eve of a visit by U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey to San Diego and Tijuana.

Curiel has been living under tight security since he took up the extradition case against two alleged cartel henchmen, known in Tijuana as "juniors" because their families are well-to-do. The two were arrested in San Diego after a bi-national manhunt following the Mexico City assassination of the Baja California federal police chief.

In allegations filed Aug. 25 in support of a heroin conspiracy case against Valdez, prosecutors said that "Valdez's desire to kill . . . Curiel" was recorded by electronic surveillance in the jail cell of another inmate, Cesar Trevino.

Court documents say Trevino began acting as a government informant after his guilty pleas to money laundering, cocaine trafficking and criminal contempt charges.

"Valdez, who is a top lieutenant in the Arellano Felix drug trafficking cartel, told Trevino that he planned to have . . . Curiel assassinated and that he had requested and received permission from the leaders of the Arellano cartel to have Curiel murdered," said the allegations.

The lawyer defending Valdez in the case could not be reached for comment. Michael Pancer, who is representing Valdez in the extradition case, said that he had not heard about the tapes, but that he did not believe Valdez would try to harm Curiel.

"It wouldn't make any sense," Pancer said. "Mr. Curiel is just doing the same job 100 other prosecutors would do."

Pancer said any information provided by Cesar Trevino would be an unreliable effort to get a lighter sentence.

While court papers refer to Trevino as a "former inmate" at the center, prosecutors will not say where he is currently, citing concerns for his safety.

Valdez, arrested with the other alleged henchman in September 1996 in the San Diego community of Coronado Shores, is accused in two separate U.S. cases of conspiracy to distribute heroin and conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute, U.S. prosecutor Eric Acker said.

He is being held without bond.

Pending before a federal judge is a request to extradite Valdez to Mexico, where he faces charges of murder, criminal conspiracy and weapons violations, recent court filings say.

The extradition has been bogged down in allegations that several key witnesses had been tortured into confessing while in Mexican custody.

It has been dubbed the "juniors case" in Tijuana after a Mexican term for young men of wealth and status.

Valdez's father, now deceased, was a well-regarded Tijuana colonel who once served in the prestigious presidential guard. His mother, a respected Tijuana matron, declined to comment on the fresh allegations.

"We're not interested in publicity," said Amparo Mainero de Valdez. "We've suffered too much already to want to read this kind of thing in the newspaper."

Some U.S. security experts doubt that drug cartels would dare to invite the crackdown and scrutiny that would follow the assassination of a U.S. authority, although they say all threats are evaluated and taken seriously.

Unknown snipers have shot at Border Patrol agents seven times this year, wounding one, U.S. officials say.

In Mexico, eight senior Baja California law enforcement officers were killed in the year ending January 1997, and hit men have crossed the border to kill Mexican enemies on the U.S. side.

Last December, a Drug Enforcement Administration informant was killed while driving his Mercedes through rush-hour traffic on the Silver Strand, a ribbon of highway that leads to the San Diego community of Coronado.

And last October, one of the key witnesses against the so-called "juniors" was shot just a few yards from U.S. border inspectors as he tried to flee to the U.S.

The detection of Valdez's remarks in prison may have had some deterrent effect, prosecutors said.

"At this point they know that we knew about the threat," a prosecutor said. "Any arrogance that they had before, I think has gone by the wayside."

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