MEXICO CITY (AP) — Defense lawyers are optimistic that a second member of the trio of drug kingpins convicted in the 1985 slaying of a U.S. drug agent will go free in coming weeks, one of the capos' attorneys said Saturday.
U.S. officials and former Drug Enforcement Administration agents were outraged after Mexican drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero walked free Friday when a federal court overturned his 40-year sentence in the kidnapping, torture and murder of agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena. The three-judge appeals court in the western state of Jalisco ordered Caro Quintero's immediate release on procedural grounds after 28 years behind bars, saying he should have originally been prosecuted in state instead of federal court.
The U.S. Department of Justice said it found the court's decision "deeply troubling" and Mexico's attorney general said there appeared to have been a serious error in the court's reasoning. Former DEA agents went further in their criticism, saying they believed corruption lay behind Caro Quintero's release.
Also imprisoned in the Camarena case are Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo and Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, two of the founding fathers of modern Mexican drug trafficking, whose cartel was based in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa and later split into some of Mexico's largest drug organizations.
Fonseca Carrillo's attorney, Jose Luis Guizar, said his team had filed an appeal based on the same procedural grounds used by Caro Quintero, and expected him to be freed within 15 days by a different court in the same state.
"The appeal is about to resolved. We believe that the judges will stick to the law," Guizar said. "Fonseca Carrillo should already be home. At its base, the issue is the same as Rafael's."
He said he had not spoken to Felix Gallardo's attorneys about their expectations for that case.
Mexican authorities did not release the full decision explaining the reasoning of the three-judge panel, but some experts said the ruling may have been part of a broader push to rebalance the Mexican legal system in favor of defendants' rights. Mexico's Supreme Court has issued several recent rulings overturning cases while saying due process wasn't followed.
However, Mexican and current and former U.S. officials expressed deep skepticism that correct procedures were followed in Caro Quintero's case.
Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said the First Appellate Court had "completely ignored" Supreme Court precedent in dismissing the case instead of referring it back to the state courts. He said his office would get involved in the case but offered no details.
Former DEA officials familiar with the Camarena case said they doubted that Caro Quintero walked free simply due to a well-founded reexamination of his case. They noted a history of bribery in Mexico and a continuous need for U.S. pressure on Mexican authorities to keep Camarena's killers behind bars.
Edward Heath was the DEA's regional director for Mexico at the time of the Camarena killing and was present during the identification of the agent's body from dental records.
He said Caro Quintero's release reflected a broader lack of cooperation between the U.S. and new Mexican government, a contrast with the policy of former President Felipe Calderon.
"You had a president that was working very close with our government in a quiet way. These people come in and so, boom, the curtain comes down," said Heath, now a private security consultant. "It means a disrespect for our government ... This is only six, seven months into their tenure and all of a sudden things are happening, not necessarily for the good."
He said he was skeptical of the explanation that there was a justifiable legal rationale for Caro Quintero's release.
"There's some collusion going on," he said. "This guy is a major trafficker. This guy is bad, a mean son of a gun."
Caro Quintero was a founding member of one of Mexico's earliest and biggest drug cartels but he wasn't tried for drug trafficking, a federal crime in Mexico. Instead, Mexican federal prosecutors, under intense pressure from the United States, put together a case against him for Camarena's kidnapping and killing, both state crimes.
"What we are seeing here is a contradiction between the need of the government to keep dangerous criminals behind bars and its respect of due process," said Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University.
"The United States wants Mexico to comply with due process but it is likely that due process was not followed when many criminals were caught 10 or 15 years ago."
Mexican courts and prosecutors have long tolerated illicit evidence such as forced confessions and have frequently based cases on questionable testimony or hearsay. Such practices have been banned by recent judicial reforms, but past cases, including those against high-level drug traffickers, are often rife with such legal violations.
Mexico's relations with Washington were badly damaged when Caro Quintero ordered Camarena killed, purportedly because he was angry about a raid on a 220-acre (89-hectare) marijuana plantation in central Mexico named "Rancho Bufalo" — Buffalo Ranch — that was seized by Mexican authorities at Camarena's insistence.
Camarena was kidnapped in Guadalajara, a major drug trafficking center at the time. His body and that of his Mexican pilot, both showing signs of torture, were found a month later, buried in shallow graves. American officials accused their Mexican counterparts of letting Camarena's killers get away. Caro Quintero was eventually hunted down in Costa Rica.
Caro Quintero still faces charges in the United States, but Mexico's Attorney General's Office said it was unclear whether there was a current extradition request.
The U.S. Department of Justice said it "has continued to make clear to Mexican authorities the continued interest of the United States in securing Caro Quintero's extradition so that he might face justice in the United States."
Samuel Gonzalez, Mexico's former top anti-drug prosecutor, said the U.S. government itself has been promoting, and partly financing, judicial reforms in Mexico aimed at respecting procedural guarantees for suspects, an approach Gonzalez said has weighted the balance too far against prosecutors and victims.
"This is all thanks to the excessive focus on procedural guarantees supported by the U.S. government itself," Gonzalez said.