A former Salvadoran congressman was convicted yesterday of helping to run what law enforcement authorities described as one of Central America's biggest cocaine trafficking rings behind the cover of his political office.
Jurors at the federal courthouse in Washington deliberated for about eight hours in the trial of William Eliu Martinez, who was accused of using his political muscle to help smuggle about 36 tons of cocaine into the United States from 1998 to 2002, federal prosecutors said.
Martinez, 48, showed no emotion as the verdicts were read finding him guilty on charges of distribution of cocaine and conspiracy to import cocaine, authorities said.
"As it turned out, there was lots of evidence against him," said Michael C. Mota, a Justice Department prosecutor. "Some of that evidence showed he used his position as a congressman to cover up what was going on."
Martinez licensed high-speed boats and leased waterfront property in places in El Salvador that are known as hubs for drug traffickers, prosecutors said. His business phone number was in the logbooks of some notorious dealers, Mota said.
The prosecution had about two dozen witnesses, some of whom testified that they saw Martinez at the scene where drugs were being transported from boat to truck on their route from Colombia, through El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and into the United States, Mota said.
The jury didn't buy the argument from Martinez's attorney that a three-year federal investigation failed to produce solid evidence linking Martinez to the drug ring.
Shawn Moore, an assistant federal public defender, argued that the government's claims hinged solely on the statements of two former drug runners who can expect to avoid some prison time in exchange for their testimony.
Martinez, who served as a congressman from the National Action Party from 1999 to 2002, was arrested in Panama in October 2003 and extradited to the United States after his indictment. Four others were indicted as conspirators in the drug smuggling operation, including alleged kingpin Otto Herrera-Garcia, who is on the Justice Department's list of 41 most-wanted international drug traffickers. Herrera-Garcia. also known as el Profe or "the Professor," escaped from a Mexican prison May 13. The United States has offered a $5 million reward for his recapture.
Justice Department lawyers prosecuting the case against Martinez said that he admitted his role in the drug ring when interviewed by agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. But the defense challenged the alleged admissions, noting that agents acknowledged that the statements were not in writing.
Visiting U.S. District Judge Michael M. Mihm, who presided over Martinez's trial, allowed the statements to be admitted into evidence. But over the government's objection, Mihm allowed Martinez's attorneys to question DEA agents in front of the jury about the circumstances of the confession, including whether they warned Martinez properly of his right to remain silent and his right to an attorney.
The defense contends that Martinez did not receive proper warnings; the government says he did.
"We're pleased the jury was able to hear the case and listened carefully to the case we presented," Mota said. The charges carry a potential sentence ranging from the 10-year mandatory minimum to a maximum of life in prison. Sentencing is scheduled Sept. 12.