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Informers in cartel case to stay secret

A judge denies a motion to release evidence on drug seizures. The defense lawyer says his clients were set up.

By LINDA GIBSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 19, 2000


TAMPA -- Since February, the U.S. Navy has arrested at least 32 crew members and seized more than 14 tons of cocaine from fishing boats and speed boats in the Pacific Ocean off South America.

It wasn't detective work or luck that led to the arrests, contends defense lawyer Daniel Castillo.

The theory Castillo presented Wednesday in U.S. District Court is that a major player in the Cali, Colombia, drug cartel set up those seizures to appease prosecutors who are about to try him on federal charges.

But Castillo's theory didn't get him what he wanted Wednesday, which was access to government evidence against his clients, whom he describes as fishermen who didn't know their vessels contained cocaine.

U.S. Magistrate Mary S. Scriven denied a motion by Castillo that would have forced prosecutors to identify informers and unindicted co-conspirators.

Castillo, who is representing two of the defendants, wants to question the informers who helped the U.S. Navy find the vessels, one of which was seized 200 miles from its home port in Colombia.

He also wants to inspect the seized cocaine, but he told Scriven he's not about to wear a hood over his head on the way to the secret Drug Enforcement Agency warehouse, as federal agents are insisting.

"I'm an officer of the court. I can keep a secret," Castillo told Scriven. "I refuse to wear a bag over my head or a blindfold."

Acting U.S. Attorney Joseph Ruddy said he wanted defense lawyers to wear a blindfold to ensure they couldn't reveal the location of the warehouse.

Scriven ruled the lawyers could be blindfolded for up to 20 minutes, but also suggested that putting them in the back of a van without windows would do. Once in the warehouse, she ruled, they could take four samples of the seized cocaine and have them analyzed for quality.

Castillo contends that those boats were filled with "trash" cocaine of low quality and dispatched on orders of Jose Castrillon-Henao, who then tipped authorities about where to find the boats.

Castrillon-Henao has been jailed in undisclosed locations since his extradition from Panama in June 1998, where he was jailed for two years. Described as the Cali cartel's chief of seaborne smuggling, he is charged with importing 5 tons of cocaine into Florida, Texas and California, and of laundering his profits through banks in Central Florida.

Castillo and other defense lawyers want the government to reveal what evidence it has that the crew members knew some of the boats carried cocaine behind a door in a hold filled by tons of ice for fish.

Ruddy refused to say whether informers were used, much less make them available to Castillo., so the defense attorney hoped to persuade Scriven to force prosecutors to name them.

Scriven questioned Ruddy in a brief hearing closed to defense lawyers and spectators, then let the lawyers back in.

"I'm satisfied that no disclosure is needed," she said. "The indictment is clear about what the defendants face." Afterward, Castillo was undaunted.

"I'm still confident in my theory," he said. He will consider appealing the no-disclosure ruling.

Even if he loses that one, too, "I got a lot of information out of this hearing," he said.

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