Cali cartel cocaine smuggler tarts up fancy condo at San Diego's One Harbor Drive

Drug-runners' hideaway

Federal prosecutors say Jose Castrillón was captain of a billion-dollar cocaine-smuggling empire for the Cali cartel. For five years Castrillón injected millions of dollars into San Diego's economy.
  • Federal prosecutors say Jose Castrillón was captain of a billion-dollar cocaine-smuggling empire for the Cali cartel. For five years Castrillón injected millions of dollars into San Diego's economy.

José Castrillón Henao was said to have cut a dashing figure on the streets of downtown San Diego. Partial to expensive Armani suits and accompanied by a flashy girlfriend, the Colombian native — who said he was a fisherman from Panama — made the rounds of shops at the Palladion and galleries in Seaport Village, snapping up diamonds, artwork, and custom-designed furniture.

Manual Rodríguez-López in the early 1990s arrived in San Diego and began assembling Castrillón's efficient drug-running fleet.

Manual Rodríguez-López in the early 1990s arrived in San Diego and began assembling Castrillón's efficient drug-running fleet.

AP/Wideworld Photos

He frequented one of the best units at One Harbor Drive, the twin-tower condominium project across the street from the convention center. His people told the sales staff at the condo complex that they were in the tuna business and were using the computers set up inside their 26th-floor condominium to track fish movements via satellite.

But federal prosecutors say Castrillón wasn't really a fisherman. Instead, they say, he was captain of a billion-dollar cocaine-smuggling empire for the Cali cartel. They say that during his five years as a part-time resident of America's Finest City, Castrillón injected millions of dollars into San Diego's economy. He indulged his fancy for garish, dolphin-themed furniture, ordering cell phones, and having a middleman pay Campbell Shipyard at least a million dollars to outfit his smuggling vessels, disguised as tuna boats.

Manual Rodríguez-López and family. Rodríguez-López was not a known entity in either the La Paz or Ensenada area at all. He came out of nowhere and spent millions of dollars buying ships and outfitting ships.

Manual Rodríguez-López and family. Rodríguez-López was not a known entity in either the La Paz or Ensenada area at all. He came out of nowhere and spent millions of dollars buying ships and outfitting ships.

One of his henchmen, the Feds say, was Manuel Rodríguez-López, a Mexican citizen who in the early 1990s arrived in San Diego and began assembling Castrillón's efficient drug-running fleet. The feds argue that Castrillón used Rodríguez-López as a convenient front man who purchased the condominium at One Harbor Drive in Rodríguez-López's name.

The good life didn't last, though. In April 1996, Panamanian officials arrested Castrillón in connection with the seizure of 12 tons of cocaine on a fishing vessel off the coast of Peru. Five months later, Mexican authorities busted Rodríguez-López at his office in La Paz, Baja California Sur. As both men languished in foreign prisons, the United States government filed suit in federal court here to seize the condominium at One Harbor Drive. No matter that Rodríguez-López's name was on the condo deed, they said; they had clear evidence that Castrillón's drug profits had paid for it.

But Rodríguez-López, who remains incarcerated in La Paz, charged with drug-related tax evasion, has at least one stalwart defender. Ken Hoyt, an attorney who operates out of a small, one-man office on a back street near the East County Civic Center in El Cajon, claims his client is getting a raw deal. Hoyt, who deals mostly with divorces and small-business disputes, says this is his first drug-related case, and before taking it he searched his soul. But he's convinced Rodríguez-López is innocent, the condo at One Harbor Drive really belongs to him, and what the government has said about him is a mishmash of slapped-together hearsay and lies from unreliable government informants.

Asked whether his client denies that he had anything to do with drugs, Hoyt replies: "Absolutely, 100 percent."

"Joe Keenan, my associate, Joe's a 30-year retired navy captain, he's 73 years old, he's done about everything," Hoyt says. "I took Joe down there to see my client and said, 'Hey, listen, if you think I've made a mistake, that I'm a terrible judge of character -- which I am, by the way -- tell me,' and Joe came out of that jail and he said, 'There's something absolutely wrong here.'

"This is a guy [Rodríguez-López] who from day one tenders to [the government] during the discovery process everything from his résumé of his entire life's work to how he made every dollar that he made for purchasing the condo," Hoyt argues. "This is a pretty draconian law when you say that all the government needs to do in order to take property is probable cause. So we're assumed guilty, and until we prove our innocence absolutely, we're still guilty."

According to the government, the case starts back in the mid-'80s. "From approximately 1986 to 1988, Manuel Rodríguez-López resided in Harlington, Texas, where he was a member of the Humberto Calero-Aragón cocaine-transporting organization smuggling cocaine from Colombia into the United States using trans-shipment points in Mexico," says a January 1998 affidavit filed by DEA special agent Kyle Scott.

"Rodríguez-López was responsible for coordinating and arranging for the use of airplanes and airstrips to bring the cocaine to the United States. The organization imported and distributed approximately a ton of cocaine per month during this period. López-Rodríguez [sic] disappeared from the jurisdiction prior to being prosecuted."

Hoyt says his client was in the maritime business, not drugs, period. He acknowledges Rodríguez-López might have known Castrillón, but only as an employee going by the name "Tovar," who Hoyt says had the keys to the San Diego condominium, which also served as Rodríguez-López's office. "He did hire that man [Tovar]. He was authorized to purchase ships, give us the best purchase price for fish, and like Manuel always said, everything was for sale, so if you could go out and sell my fleet, my boats, my properties for $30 million, call me, and if you've got a buyer, you've got a commission. So Tovar had access, could have used it, could have used the condo, so the idea that he could have been there had never bothered us."

On April 17, 1996, Castrillón was arrested in Panama, where he was known as a well-connected businessman who dabbled in local politics. In a statement later released by U.S. officials, Castrillón was called "the primary maritime transporter for and a member of the Cali cartel." They said Castrillón used the Colombian ports of Cartagena and Buenaventura to run a fleet of fishing vessels that were really cocaine-smuggling ships bringing tons of cocaine to the U.S. Castrillón's financial empire of phony companies and straw men owning everything from mansions to corporate jets allegedly ran from San Diego to Florida, Panama, Ecuador, Switzerland, Germany, and France.

After Castrillón's arrest, Mexican authorities targeted Rodríguez-López, who commuted between Panama, La Paz, Ensenada, and San Diego. They claimed their investigation showed that Castrillón had covered his tracks in Mexico by using multiple aliases and posing as an employee of Rodríguez-López's fishing company, Pesquera Carimar, which they alleged was actually another of Castrillón's many fronts.

The Mexicans arrested Rodríguez-López in La Paz on September 6, 1996, calling him a key link between Colombia's Cali cartel and the notorious Arrellano-Félix brothers. Mexico's National Institute for the Combat of Drugs (INCD by its Spanish initials), a branch of the Mexican attorney general's office (PGR by its Spanish initials), announced it had seized six fishing boats, a yacht, a helicopter, and a small plane it said were registered to him.

Meanwhile, back in Panama, Castrillón was causing an embarrassing political fuss. Rumors began circulating that he would go public with the names of Panamanian politicians who had assisted his drug operations. According to a December 1998 account in the Washington Post, Castrillón had given at least $51,000 to the campaign of incumbent Panamanian president Ernesto Pérez Balladares, who admitted his campaign accepted the money but denied knowing Castrillón.

The scandal caused such an uproar in Panama that Enrique Alberto Pretelt, son-in-law of President Balladares, later took out a full-page advertisement in the Panamanian newspaper La Prensa denying any ties to Castrillón or Rodríguez-López. "I, ENRIQUE ALBERTO PRETELT ARAUZ, out of the respect I feel for the public in general, wish to explain I never had or have business or personal relations, or relations of any kind, with José Castrillón Henao, Manuel Rodríguez-López, Divaldo Cano or with any corporation related to them. I also wish to explain I never interceded officially or unofficially before government authorities in favor of any of the aforementioned persons."

Panama ultimately amended its laws to allow the expulsion of foreign nationals in prison there. Days after the amendments took effect, on May 31, 1998, Panamanian authorities handed Castrillón over to waiting U.S. DEA agents, who whisked him to Miami, where he currently awaits trial on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering. One of Castrillón's principle codefendants in that case is American James Gordon Williams, a 52-year-old Jacksonville, Florida, fish importer and owner of a company called Carribean Fisheries. In 1996 Williams was arrested in the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil and charged with being one of Castrillón's main U.S. connections, helping to smuggle 31,000 kilos of cocaine into the United States.

According to a government affidavit filed in January 1998 by a Drug Enforcement special agent in San Diego, Williams had "met with Rodríguez-López after Castrillón's arrest in Panama and told Rodríguez-López to get out of the business because law enforcement efforts were forthcoming. Rodríguez-López told Williams that he had a shipment of cocaine en route at that time and could not get out of the business." Both Rodríguez-López and his daughter France, the affidavit said, told an informant that "Williams was Rodríguez-López's point of contact for U.S. distribution of cocaine and that cocaine came from mid-ocean transfers to Rodríguez-López's vessels."

(In December 1998, Williams was convicted by a panel of three Ecuadorian judges and sentenced to eight years in a Quito prison for laundering drug money on behalf of Castrillón. Though Williams has also been indicted in the United States, the U.S. Justice Department says it doesn't want him extradited back to America. Williams claims his association with Castrillón was a legitimate fishing partnership. His family has enlisted the help of several congressman and former president Jimmy Carter in an attempt to have Williams returned to the United States, with no success thus far.)

With both Castrillón and Rodríguez-López behind bars, the United States government moved to seize their considerable assets. On March 7, 1997, prosecutors filed a civil forfeiture case against what they said was Castrillón's San Diego headquarters, the three-bedroom condominium on the 26th floor of the One Harbor Drive complex downtown, with its sweeping views of San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Though the condominium was in the name of Manuel Rodríguez-López, the government said there was plenty of evidence that it belonged to Castrillón. They traced a convoluted series of transactions, beginning in 1993, when, the government alleged, Castrillón had paid $367,200, "in seven payments over a period of months with drug proceeds," for Unit 2106. Four years later, in March 1996, prosecutors said, Castrillón traded that unit, along with $210,000 in cash and a $102,000 promissory note to HSD Ventures, the company marketing the One Harbor complex, in exchange for a better unit, 2105, with a purchase price of $610,000.

"At the time Castrillón purchased the Defendant condominium 2106 at 100 Harbor Drive, San Diego, CA," prosecutors alleged, "he placed title to it in a nominee owner, Claimant Rodríguez. In titling in the name of a nominee who Castrillón controlled, Castrillón was attempting to conceal his true ownership and control of the condominium, as well as to conceal the source of the funds used to purchase the defendant property.

"The seller of the property, HSD Ventures, the property managers and interior decorators dealt directly with Castrillón in the purchase and decorating of the property. Castrillón's niece was the contact person for the sale and any subsequent requests by HSD. Castrillón arranged for the utilities for the property, which were in the names of his nephews, Fred Esvindo Barcos and Victor Savin for telephone lines, and Patricio Navarro for San Diego Gas and Electric. Castrillón listed the property as an asset on his personal financial statement. Castrillón carried a picture and escrow documents for the purchase in his personal files."

To further bolster its case, the government said it was prepared to produce a string of witnesses who would testify they dealt with someone calling himself Rodríguez-López, but who they said matched photographs of Castrillón. "At the time of the purchase [of unit 2105] Castrillón was occupying the trade-in unit 2106. Meetings were held between the seller and Castrillón and Castrillón's niece, Maria Pilar Ivey. Castrillón met with the president of HSD Ventures...met with an interior decorator, and chose the artwork and sculptures."

Anne LeBaron, a real estate saleswoman working for the One Harbor Drive complex, identified Castrillón as a man calling himself Manuel López she met at the condo. "Ivey once asked that Ms. LeBaron leave unit 2105 open one evening so that Castrillón and Ivey could enjoy the night view. LeBaron stated Ivey had explained to her that confidence was necessary because Mr. Castrillón had both a wife and a girlfriend."

An employee of Ethan Allan, where Castrillón allegedly purchased thousands of dollars' worth of furniture, told investigators that "Mr. Castrillón was present at the delivery of the furniture accessories. Also present was a man introduced to me as Mr. Barcos. Several laptop computers and other electronic equipment were operating on the dining room table. Also, several ocean charts were spread on the dining room table. Mr. Barcos spoke of satellite tracking of fish based on water temperature."

The manager of Wyland Gallery at Seaport Village, which sells photographs of whales and other sea life, as well as custom-built bronze furniture with nautical themes, described Castrillón's visit to the store, accompanied by three women. "All four individuals were very well dressed. Mr. Castrillón wore an Armani business suit, prescription glasses hanging by a chain around his neck, and was approximately 5´7" to 5´8" with a medium build."

According to the account, Castrillón decided to purchase a "custom-made 60-inch dolphin dining room table" for $85,000, a "Meeting of the Minds" dining room table for $26,000, an "Above and Below Dolphins" coffee table for $15,188, and an oil painting "valued at $20,000." At the Whitt/Krause Gallery, also in Seaport Village, Castrillón stopped by and picked up a painting entitled "Enchanted Sea" by an artist named Joslin for $5000. According to another government affidavit, Castrillón had the shipping invoice for the furniture in his wallet at the time of his arrest in Panama.

None of this testimony persuades Rodríguez-López's attorney Hoyt, who points to the fact that checks drawn on his client's bank account were used to make payments on the condo. "We've never had the money to be able to go and actually depose the people who they say were the furniture salespeople," Hoyt adds. "And where's the art? I don't know that either. We've been barred. We never saw the inside of the unit. I've never been in it, and I don't know how it was furnished. So you have these incredible allegations that the furniture was purchased by Castrillón using that address, but we never really know if it was in that room. It was just that it was purchased and put there, but we never saw anything."

During her opening presentation to the jury, prosecutor Leah Bussell offered a preview of the government's case, describing Castrillón as "a transportation coordinator for the Cali cartel in Colombia. His job was to plan and carry out the transportation of cocaine from Colombia aboard ships and other vessels. Now, it's a lot of responsibility to transport millions and millions of dollars' worth of cocaine. You're talking about tons and tons of cocaine."

Bussell told the jury that they would hear from "a convicted cocaine transporter by the name of Renaldo Ruíz who worked directly for José Castrillón Henao in bringing in cocaine into the United States." She said Ruíz would testify about shiploads of drugs he knew about. "The first one he's going to tell you about is the vessel named the Phaedrus, the second is the Dolphin, and the third is the Swiftsure. He will tell you that the first two vessels, the Phaedrus and the Dolphin, successfully came into the United States with the delivery of 2300 kilos of cocaine very close here to San Diego. The third vessel, the Swiftsure, was intercepted and resulted in his arrest.

"Now, you're going to hear about numerous boatloads of cocaine that were seized between 1991 and 1996, but for the boatloads that were seized, many, many more got through. Now, one of the responsibilities of a cocaine transporter is to hire a number of people. You can't do it all by yourself when you're moving tons and tons of cocaine. You need people to acquire a boat. You need people to outfit boats. You need a boat captain, and you need somebody to physically move the cocaine. You need someone to coordinate the transshipments of the cocaine from site to site.

"Now, the people that José Castrillón Henao had to hire had to be loyal and they had to be trustworthy. He used -- and you're going to hear about them -- Colombian family members. You're going to hear about Fred Esvindo Barcos, his nephew, and Maria Del Pilar Ivey, his niece. He has a high degree of control over these family members because they still have family in Colombia.

"He also hired Manuel Rodríguez-López. The role of Manuel Rodríguez-López was to help arrange mid-ocean pickups of cocaine and transport it aboard these fishing vessels to other sites to be broken down and further transported into the United States. The front of a fishing company is the perfect front to move cocaine from Colombia to Panama and into the United States. What better reason to be on the ocean picking up bales of cocaine than to say you're fishing? The front of Pesquera Carimar, which was the [Rodríguez-López] business, was also a money-laundering front. What better way to hide your money than to try to funnel it through a fishing company?"

Bussell told the jury that Rodríguez-López "held himself out as a ship's captain, but you're going to hear that the fishing community is very small, and until about six or seven years ago, Manuel Rodríguez-López was not a known entity in either the La Paz or Ensenada area at all. He came out of nowhere and spent millions of dollars buying ships and outfitting ships and turning these fishing vessels into the Cadillacs of the fishing fleets. No, you're not going to hear from Manuel Rodríguez-López. He's sitting in prison in La Paz, Mexico.

"Now, you have to ask yourself why you aren't hearing from him, since you know he's indicted here. He could come here to face that indictment. No, he wants you to try to accept his story that he's but a poor fisherman and give him this condo. You're going to hear from special DEA agents Jim Nims and Kelly Rae, who met with Manuel Rodríguez-López in prison in La Paz, and you're going to hear how Manuel Rodríguez-López subsequently called them on the phone and offered to cooperate with the U.S. government against the Arellano-Félix brothers. You'll hear that from the agents themselves."

Bussell then related how one of the fishing boats registered to Rodríguez-López, the Maria del Mar, was found scuttled off the Mexican coast in May 1996. "The U.S. Coast Guard was called in to conduct an ion scan. It's a kind of test to detect the presence of illegal substances, and it tested positive for the presence of cocaine.

"In September of 1996, the Mexican authorities seized the following vessels, which were claimed to be titled in the name of Manuel Rodríguez-López, but you'll hear how they also appear on José Castrillón Henao's personal financial statement, and you're going to see that financial statement: the Kino, the Sauzal, McMax, the Vizcaíno, the Juliana Maria, a Cessna airplane, a Bell helicopter, and a Dodge Dynasty.

Bussell said that former coast guard Ltjg Kevin Tally would testify that "the Sauzal was positive for cocaine and methamphetamine; the Vizcaíno was positive for cocaine; the McMax...positive for cocaine and methamphetamine; that the Pesquera Carimar offices, the business premises where this claimant supposedly worked and conducted legitimate fishing activities, was positive for the presence of cocaine; that the residence and storage area at the Pesquera Carimar business premises was positive for the presence of cocaine; and you're also going to hear how the Cessna airplane was positive for the presence of cocaine."

"Unit 2105 was purchased in 1996 for $610,000. You're going to hear testimony from an HSD sales person, Ann Lebaron, who was the sales associate, that she met José Castrillón Henao in the old unit, unit 2106, to negotiate the trade-up and to negotiate the sales price. Now, he called himself Manuel Rodríguez. She's going to tell you that's who she thought he was. You're also going to hear that he met another sales associate by the name of Shari Pollack. They met and they talked about the trade-up and he gave her -- José Castrillón Henao gave them both the name of Maria del Pilar Ivey as the point of contact, the sole point of contact to deal with the acquisition of this property. Now, remember, Maria Ivey is José Castrillón Henao's niece, no relation at all to Manuel Rodríguez."

"You're also going to see a wedding video where you're going to see Manuel Rodríguez-López at the wedding of José Castrillón Henao's niece in Colombia in 1995."

Hoyt's star witness was Garry Day, owner of Ocean Ventures, a Harbor Island-based tuna broker described in testimony as one of the three largest in the world. Day was called as an expert by Hoyt to show that Rodríguez-López's operation was on the level. And at first, he provided favorable testimony. "Our business is the marketing of frozen tuna throughout the world for canning," Day told the court. "Depending on the size and species of fish that one has, we find the appropriate market for that fish."

Day said he had met Rodríguez-López in 1995, when the two worked out a deal for Day to purchase some tuna from one of Rodríguez-López's boats. "He wasn't a normal supplier, if you will," Day said. "He was more a spot supplier as opposed to those who are working on an ongoing basis." Reviewing an invoice from August 1995 produced by Hoyt, Day recalled that he had bought $261,000 worth of tuna. "That's reflected in the invoice. We probably had purchased more fish from him at that time, but this is -- I don't know if this is the only invoice for this particular shipment or not." Day estimated he'd probably purchased a total of $1.5 million worth of tuna from Rodríguez-López. He also testified that he had wired the funds to a bank account belonging to Rodríguez-López's company.

"These transactions were in 1995, so I don't recall the exact quantity of fish purchased from him, but I recall there were three separate transactions of which we either purchased or marketed these fish," Day said. "The relationship with Mr. Rodríguez-López was at arm's length. He was a supplier. We were a buyer. He had fish to sell. We buy fish."

Day also described the La Paz office of Pesquera Carimar, Rodríguez-López's company. "It was a small office. He probably had maybe ten employees, secretaries, desks. Nothing out of the ordinary. It was a business office, typewriters, fax and so forth."

But under Bussell's cross examination, the tenor of Day's testimony seemed to change. Day described Rodríguez-López as "a newcomer to the industry, which was a little unusual, because most of the people who are fishermen involved in the industry have a long history of being involved in the industry. And he was an individual who was in his middle or late 50s getting involved in a tuna industry, which is a little unusual. But, nevertheless, he made an investment in the industry."

Day said that the first tuna boat Rodríguez-López purchased had been the Cheryl Marie; Rodríguez renamed it the Juliana Maria and had it elaborately refitted at San Diego's Campbell Shipyards. "He could have easily put close to a million dollars into it," Day said. Asked about the shipyard's "reputation in terms of expense" of the repair work performed there, Day said it was "high end."

Then Bussell got Day to acknowledge he had heard tales about Rodríguez-López's connection to the drug world. "Did you hear about speedboats chasing around bales of drugs in the Gulf of Mexico?" the prosecutor asked.

"I heard those stories," Day replied.

"Did you ever hear about Manuel Rodríguez-López transporting ammonia aboard his vessels for drug processing?" asked Bussell.

"I heard of him transporting ammonia on his boats, yeah. It was supposedly for drug processing," Day said, adding, "Again, these are dockside-borderfront rumors. I mean, the sources of information are fishermen and so forth, so there are a lot of rumors." Asked about the quality of tuna he had purchased from Rodríguez-López, Day said, "some was acceptable and some was terrible." According to Day, Rodríguez-López's crew "had put too much fish into the fish tank and, in order to get the fish out, they had to just get -- just pick and shovel it out. It was just a disaster. It was completely a total loss. Not all the fish, certain fish."

Under redirect examination by Hoyt, Day added more to his account about the drug rumors. "How do you authenticate a rumor? I mean, I didn't see drugs. I wasn't looking for them, either. You hear things. And I was hesitant to do business with the person at first. If he started operating in '93 -- I'm not sure when it was, if it was '93 -- we didn't do business for a year and a half because I was hesitant to do business with him.

"My competitors were doing business with him. I made one small purchase and that worked out okay and then maybe two more, and that was it." Then he added, "It's a competitive business. We had this carrier in La Paz, the Arawak. We may have had a situation where we had the fish -- the fish was presold. We may have needed additional tonnage to put on the carrier, and his boats were coming in. We'd negotiate a price. He accepts the price. We pay him for his fish.

"You know, what he does with the money, where it came from, where it goes, that's his business. I mean, if I bought something from you and I pay you $100, I don't ask you what you do with the money. That's his business."

Hoyt's next witness was Gilberto Novelo, who testified he was an ex-commander in the Mexican navy who had worked as a consultant for Rodríguez-López in Ensenada. "He called me at home in August '92 and he asked me to meet him at a restaurant, and he told me that he owns a boat, and he wanted to bring this boat into Mexico for fishing. And he requested me if I wanted to work with him as an advisor on fishing matters."

Novelo said he had not found it strange that Rodríguez-López had no previous experience in tuna fishing. "Because from that area in Mexico, we have a kind of, say, boom of tuna. Many people from many walk of life came into -- especially into Ensenada, and they start fishing business, taking advantage and so forth of government loans and banks' financings and things like that."

But Novelo also testified his relationship with Rodríguez-López soon became stormy. "Manuel Rodríguez has a kind of very harsh temper or, I would say, uneven temper. Sometimes he's happy and getting along, next second he's yelling and cursing, and I don't get along with that." He quit his consulting job but said he remained friends with Rodríguez-López.

Hoyt was prepared to introduce into evidence what he said were records Novelo kept on Rodríguez-López's tuna business but was stopped by the judge after an objection by Bussell that the notes hadn't been properly introduced as part of the pretrial discovery process. Novelo was allowed to testify that he thought Rodríguez-López had grossed about $15 million during his five years fishing for tuna. He also said he never believed the drug rumors making the rounds of the Ensenada docks.

"I don't see anything that leads — first of all, people on the piers, they talk too much. To begin with, ammonia is one of the main products that the tuna boats take in because the refrigeration is based to ammonia. Every tuna boat carries a container of from 500 to more than a thousand liters of ammonia normally for refrigeration.

"We are [a] very little community in the fishing business in Ensenada, in Mexico, and we know everybody. And people who is involved in drugs, they behave in a pattern. To start with they have plenty of money, affluence. They have cars. And the crew that we knew, they were normal, regular people. We didn't see anything that can rise our suspects."

On cross-examination, Bussell asked Novelo: "Were you aware that ion scans were conducted on Manuel Rodríguez-López's fishing vessels by the U.S. Coast Guard?"

"I heard they did," he replied.

"And you were aware that they were positive for methamphetamine and cocaine?"

"No, I don't know the result of that information," Novelo said.

The next witness up was Luís Octavio López-Ramírez, an ex-boat captain for Rodríguez-López's fishing operation, who American DEA agent Kyle Scott claimed had told an informant named Antonio González that López-Ramírez once bragged "he made more money running drugs for Rodríguez-López than when he, the captain, had worked at smuggling for other organizations.

"González stated that Luís Octavio López-Ramírez was the captain of the McMax at the time of its seizure. After the seizure of the McMax, López-Ramírez told González that the McMax had just transported three tons of cocaine from Panama to Mexico, where one and a half tons had been off-loaded in Acapulco at a private marina and the other one and a half tons had been off-loaded in La Paz in TV and VCR boxes prior to being seized by the Mexican police."

In the same affidavit, the government agent quoted another informant who said he had watched bags labeled "sugar" being unloaded from the Kino, another of Rodríguez-López's boats captained by López-Ramírez, at the dock in La Paz. "The load was stacked 7 bags high, 20 bags long, and about 8 bags wide. The bags bore lettering in different colors: approximately 90 percent red and 10 percent blue. While on the dock, a dog tore open one of the blue lettered bags, consumed some of the powdery substance, and immediately went into convulsions and fell off the dock and drowned. The workers re-bagged the contents of the torn bag, swept and hosed off the dock and then loaded all the blue lettered bags into a large truck which departed."

Scott also wrote that González told him that "Rodríguez-López's boat, the Vizcaíno, had a special compartment built into the portside aft fuel tank for transporting U.S. currency back from the U.S. González further stated that Rodríguez was nicknamed the '$20 man' because he paid his debts with small U.S. dollar bills smelling of diesel fuel. González further stated that Rodríguez-López used two of his boats, the Vizcaíno and the Juliana Maria, to transport $8 million in U.S. currency from the U.S. González further reported that on September, 26, 1995, three Colombians came to 100 Harbor Drive relating to the movement of Rodríguez-López's vessel, Kino."

During his direct examination by Hoyt, López-Ramirez denied the government's accounts linking him to drugs and Chinese-alien smuggling. "I never saw anything myself. As a captain of these, I never saw anything that was illegal or anything like that."

"Did you...sail to La Paz, Mexico, and were you met by several speedboats?" Hoyt asked.

"No. I don't remember — no, I never — no."

"Okay. The speedboats did not come out and unload something from the ship?" queried Hoyt.

"No, never."

"Did you ever tell anyone that you were making more money for Rodríguez than for smuggling Chinese?"

"No, that's negative. That's lies. No."

The cross-examination of López-Ramirez by Bussell was short.

"Did you talk to Manuel Rodríguez before you came here today?" Bussell asked.

"No."

"Did you know he's indicted here in the United States?"

"Yes."

"Did you know he's indicted in Panama?

"No. I don't know about that. I only know about here."

"Do you know there are charges in Mexico against him?"

"Yes"

"And do you know that's for cocaine trafficking?"

"I only work for him for fishing. I don't know anything about anything else."

"Now, were you around when the U.S. Coast Guard conducted ion scans on those boats?"

"No, I was not working for him anymore."

Hoyt's final witness was Patricio Navarro de la Torre, who testified he was then currently working for Rodríguez-López collecting past debts; before that he had been employed by him for about four years in Ensenada as a purchasing agent for his company, Pesquera Carimar. In his January 1998 affidavit, DEA special agent Scott had alleged that a confidential source (CS) told him Navarro was involved in moving large sums of cash for Rodríguez-López.

"In May of 1996, the CS saw $3 million in U.S. currency at Rodríguez-López's Ensenada residence that Rodríguez-López said he was moving to hide because the Hacienda [Mexican version of IRS] was coming to seize it. The CS saw Patricio Navarro and Javier Saucedo [a Banamex vice president] transport the money in a pickup to an undisclosed location in La Paz," according to Scott's affidavit.

"Rodríguez-López gave $20,000 in U.S. currency to the CS to pay Victor Savin, his boat captain. The CS also heard Rodríguez-López tell Saucedo to wire transfer $50,000 to France Rodríguez in La Paz under the name 'Onofre.' The CS saw Navarro and another Rodríguez-López employee shred business and personal documents, including photographs and passports at Rodríguez-López's Ensenada residence to destroy them before the police arrived. The CS observed Rodríguez-López fill several suitcases of U.S. currency which had been hidden in the residence and leave in an airplane with Saucedo."

During his testimony, Navarro testified he had the keys to the One Harbor Drive condominium in San Diego and sometimes went there to pick up mail for Rodríguez-López and make payments on the mortgage when he was out of town. "I would bring him over and leave him there at the apartment, and he would start working on things that had to do with the ship," Navarro recalled. "Two or three times I was able to go in, whenever I took food to him when he was working." Navarro also denied the charges in Kyle Scott's affidavit.

Hoyt rested his case and says he was looking forward to grilling the government's witnesses. But that was not to be. "We concluded our case, the government immediately handed in a nine-page brief on why they should be awarded the condominium because of our failure to reach the threshold [of proof], and the judge granted the motion. And that was the case."

With the trial terminated, Hoyt says he plans to appeal the judge's ruling but knows it won't be easy, or, he insists, profitable. "We've never done one of these appeals before. We don't have an employment agreement that says contingency. It was an hourly base case that they probably in the first year were able to pay $15,000. I just haven't asked him [for more].

"If you went to La Paz and saw him and stayed at what we call the compound, his business office, or went down to Ensenada and saw the home of his wife, it's a very modest lifestyle. Upper-middle class for us. His daughter goes to school at Mesa College here and has a condo in La Jolla. That's theirs, so I guess they could mortgage that yet, and a house in Ensenada, a place in La Paz.

"At one time he had a lot of resources, and there's probably still enough; in other words, I don't know that he hasn't mortgaged or he couldn't mortgage the condo in La Jolla, although I don't know how he could qualify for income to do that, unless he went to some kind of cut-rate guy or some kind of nonconventional lender.

"All of this is very tough on us, because we are a neighborhood practice. We are owed hundreds of thousands of dollars, we don't get paid, so this is a tough case to prosecute. We haven't been paid for over a year and a half of any kind."

Why keep working on the case, then? "It's a bad law, it's what I became a lawyer for. This is an obvious wrong. And it's a lot of fun."

Meanwhile, Hoyt says, Rodríguez-López will continue to languish in the La Paz prison with little hope for release anytime soon. "The bottom line is simply this, the government -- whether they're sincere or not doesn't make any difference -- but there is an absolute belief that he is a leading character in cocaine smuggling. Because that's there, that's a fact when it comes to foreign policy, so there's no way Mexico could be in compliance with trying to arrest the drug problem if they treat him as an innocent man. God himself could come down and say he's not guilty, but...it won't matter, he must remain in jail."

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