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Accomplice in Drug Agent's Killing Loses Bid for New Trial

Court: Mexican businessman fails to persuade federal judge that informant lied. Witness had placed defendant at meeting where murder of Enrique Camarena was plotted.

August 20, 1998|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal judge has refused to set aside the conviction of a Mexican businessman serving a life term for helping plan the 1985 kidnap and murder of U.S. drug agent Enrique Camarena in Guadalajara.

U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie said in an opinion made public Wednesday that businessman Ruben Zuno Arce had failed to present sufficient evidence to warrant overturning the jury verdict.

Rafeedie held an extraordinary evidentiary hearing earlier this month into claims by Zuno and three other defendants that they were wrongly convicted because of perjured testimony by a key government informant.

The informant, a former drug cartel bodyguard named Hector Cervantes Santos, had placed Zuno at a meeting near Guadalajara where Mexican drug lords allegedly plotted to murder Camarena, who was making a serious dent in their marijuana and cocaine trafficking operations below the border.

Zuno, brother-in-law of former Mexican President Luis Echeverria, was accused of being a high-ranking member of the drug cartel headed by Rafael Caro Quintero and onetime owner of the house where Camarena was tortured and murdered.

Last year, five years after Zuno's conviction, Cervantes surfaced and said he had testified falsely about Zuno at the direction of a federal prosecutor and a Drug Enforcement Administration agent.

Zuno switched his story three more times after that, finally testifying at the evidentiary hearing that his original account was accurate.

In his 29-page opinion, Rafeedie said it seemed clear that Cervantes made his first recantation "because of personal greed and feelings that the DEA had abandoned him and his family."

Testimony at the hearing revealed that Cervantes had been rejected for admission into the federal witness protection program for undisclosed reasons. Cervantes was also said to be upset because the DEA ended his $3,000 a month subsidy, giving him a $100,000 severance payment, much of which was deducted to pay for taxes.

Knowing that he would be returning to Mexico because of his expired immigration, Rafeedie said, Cervantes' fear of harm to himself and his family in Mexico was "real and well founded," evidently prompting his switching sides.

Back in Mexico, Cervantes was placed in the Mexican witness protection program and confined to a military base where be became increasingly dissatisfied. In February of this year, he fled to Guadalajara, went to the U.S. Consulate and gave a videotaped statement to DEA agents withdrawing his recantation.

At the time, Cervantes said he was tortured and forced to recant by representatives of Zuno and Manuel Bartlett Diaz, the governor of Puebla who was implicated but not charged in the Camarena case. Bartlett has hired American lawyers to clear his name.

In his opinion, Rafeedie indicated that he put little stock in Cervantes' claim of torture by Zuno's and Bartlett's representatives.

Cervantes was returned to Los Angeles after his DEA interview and then he allegedly made yet another attempt to change his story in an interview with a defense investigator.

At the evidentiary hearing, however, he was back on the government's side.

Summing up Cervantes' contradictory statements, Rafeedie said it was apparent that he changed his stories "solely for personal gain and not because his testimony was in fact false. Zuno has failed to prove otherwise."

One of Zuno's lawyers, James Blancarte, said: "We're disappointed that the court did not see fit to grant Mr. Zuno a new trial given the unreliability of the government's star witness." Blancarte, who was out of the country when reached, said he had not seen the opinion and therefore could not comment further.

Zuno was convicted in a 1990 trial in Los Angeles federal court, but the verdict was set aside by Rafeedie because of improper statements to the jury by Assistant U.S. Atty. Manuel Medrano, the same federal prosecutor Cervantes later accused of suborning perjury. Medrano, now a reporter with KNBC-TV, denied those charges.

Cervantes was not called as a government witness in Zuno's second trial in 1992. Prosecutors have never explained why. Instead, they relied on two other Mexican police officers-turned-drug-cartel-bodyguards who placed Zuno and his co-defendants at the scene where Camarena's kidnapping was hatched.

The Mexican businessman's lawyers said the government knew Cervantes was a liar during the first trial. If that had been revealed to the defense, the case would have ended with an acquittal and the second trial would never have taken place.

Zuno's lawyers also cited recently discovered impeachment evidence against the witnesses used by prosecutors in the second trial, but Rafeedie said that evidence was inconsequential.

Rafeedie noted that the witnesses' testimony had been aggressively attacked during the trial, but that the jury chose to believe them.

And he observed that the two witnesses, Jorge Godoy Lopez and Rene Lopez Romero, had not recanted their testimony against Zuno.

Rafeedie dismissed a number of other objections raised by the defense, including claims that Zuno was a victim of double jeopardy and that he received inadequate representation during and immediately after his second trial.

The ruling announced Wednesday applies only to Zuno. The judge did not rule on motions made by three other defendants convicted in the Camarena murder.

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