With their money laundering trial less than a month away, Bancomer and Banca Serfin, two of Mexico's biggest banks, have been talking to federal prosecutors about a plea bargain, it was revealed in court Thursday.
The disclosure was made by a lawyer for Banca Serfin as he sought a 60-day postponement of the first of four trials in Operation Casablanca, the U.S. Customs Service's massive drug money laundering investigation.
Defense attorney John F. Libby told U.S. District Judge Lourdes Baird that a delay might enable the banks to conclude a settlement with the government.
He hinted that a deal was within reach, but gave no details during the court hearing or when questioned by reporters afterward.
Government prosecutors declined comment as well.
Bancomer's attorney, Steven O. Kramer, made no mention of a possible deal during his courtroom remarks and refused to comment later.
He told the judge that the banks need a delay because the government has been slow in revealing information about experts it plans to call during the trial.
Both banks' lawyers also contended that potential jurors might be prejudiced by expected congressional debate over President Clinton's controversial announcement last week certifying Mexico's efforts in the war against drugs.
Baird said she would not delay the March 29 trial. She has yet to rule, however, on the banks' motion to sever their cases from 13 other individual defendants.
Bancomer and Banca Serfin, Mexico's second- and third-largest banks, respectively, were indicted in May along with the smaller Confia bank and more than 100 individuals in what was described as the biggest drug money laundering case ever.
While the individual defendants face long prison terms if convicted, the stakes are also high for the three banks.
If they are convicted of money laundering, they run the risk of losing their licenses to do business in the United States under a 1991 law that applies to foreign banks.
The lawyers for Bancomer and Banca Serfin referred to that possibility in their unsuccessful effort to win more time to prepare their case.
Banca Serfin's attorney added that the loss of a license to operate in the United States could also result in a bank's "inability to raise money in the international capital markets which would be the ultimate death penalty."
Four individual defendants in the case have pleaded guilty. Three of them have agreed to testify for the government.
Last week, Baird rejected a spate of motions by the banks and the remaining defendants to dismiss the charges on grounds of outrageous government conduct and lack of legal jurisdiction.
Some defense lawyers, speaking privately, speculated at the time that the adverse rulings would probably inspire some defendants to seek deals with the prosecution.
During the 2 1/2-year investigation, undercover Customs agents secretly videotaped more than 100 meetings with the money laundering suspects at a warehouse front in Sante Fe Springs.