A government witness who claimed that federal prosecutors in Los Angeles pressured him to falsely implicate suspects in the 1985 kidnapping and murder of U.S. drug agent Enrique Camarena has recanted his allegations against the prosecutors, the U.S. attorney's office said in a document filed in federal court Thursday.
In a videotaped interview with the Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Guadalajara last month, the witness reportedly said he was plied with money to lie about the prosecutors and was later beaten and held captive in Mexico to ensure his cooperation.
The witness, Hector Cervantes Santos, also said he was forced to repeat his account of prosecutorial misconduct in an interview with a Times reporter and was coached on how to beat a polygraph examination, the U.S. attorney's office said.
Cervantes' claim of prosecutorial misconduct is at the heart of a motion for a new trial being sought by Ruben Zuno Arce, now serving a life term for Camarena's torture-murder in Mexico.
Reached for comment, Zuno's lawyer, Edward Medvene, said, "From everything I know, these most recent statements of Cervantes are false."
Chief Assistant U.S. Atty. Richard E. Drooyan said Cervantes came to the DEA office in Guadalajara voluntarily Jan. 18 and, during a videotaped interview of more than an hour, disavowed statements he had made to the defense.
The government plans to play the tape during a hearing before U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie on March 2 to consider Zuno's motion.
The government summary of the taped interview said Cervantes alleged that he was coerced to lie about the prosecution by agents of Zuno and Manuel Bartlett Diaz, currently governor of Puebla state.
Bartlett, once the second-highest Mexican official, was identified by Cervantes during the trial as being present in a drug lord's home where Camarena was tortured. Bartlett was not charged but has been trying to clear his name.
Bartlett's attorney said Thursday that Cervantes' latest recantation shows that he lacks credibility.
Zuno, the brother-in-law of former Mexican President Luis Echeverria, was convicted in a Los Angeles federal court trial in 1990 after Cervantes placed him and two other defendants at meetings held by Mexican drug dealers to plot Camarena's abduction. Cervantes worked at that time as a security guard at a drug cartel member's home.
Zuno's conviction was overturned on appeal, but he was convicted again in 1992 without Cervantes being called as a witness. Instead, the government relied on the testimony of two other drug cartel security guards.
Last summer, after he was rejected for entry into the federal witness protection program and after quarreling with the DEA over financial support, Cervantes surfaced as a witness for the defense.
The Times undertook its own examination of the Camarena case, interviewing Cervantes and scores of witnesses in the United States and in Mexico. The paper reported last October that new evidence raised questions about the integrity of the DEA investigation and the testimony of prosecution witnesses.
In their summary of Cervantes' recent interview with the DEA, federal prosecutors gave this account:
Cervantes said that after his falling out with the DEA last year, he met in Los Angeles with representatives of Zuno and Bartlett who told him he had been betrayed by the drug agency. He said they also gave him $6,000 or $7,000.
He said he was put up at a downtown Los Angeles hotel for about two weeks and "met with a polygraph examiner for five days, eight to 10 hours a day."
He said the representatives of Zuno and Bartlett told him they would "make sure that . . . [the polygraph] comes out fine." He said they also instructed him to "close his mind into a blank" while taking the test and he would pass.
Cervantes did submit to a polygraph test administered by a reputable examiner at the behest of Bartlett's American lawyer--and reports said he passed.
In July, Cervantes said, he was taken to Tijuana and was met by Alberto Espinoza, "a representative of Bartlett" who escorted him to Puebla for a meeting with Bartlett in the state Capitol.
"Bartlett said he wanted Cervantes to speak to the press, and Cervantes said he did not want to do that," the government document said. "Bartlett then told him that they were going to 'soften him up.' " Cervantes told the DEA he was taken to a room in the Capitol basement, blindfolded, stripped, doused with cold water and beaten over several days. He said he was taken to another location where the beatings continued until he became ill and "agreed to do whatever he was told."
After being freed and returned to his family, the document said, Cervantes met for an interview with a Times reporter and "as instructed, he falsely told the reporter that he had been coached to lie in the earlier trial."