Monday, December 10, 2007
Court Upholds Architect’s Conviction for Building Drug Tunnel Under Border
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Friday affirmed a Mexican architect’s conviction on drug charges based upon his role in building a tunnel for the importation of cocaine and marijuana into the United States.
The panel rejected claims by Felipe de Jesus Corona-Verbera that he was denied his right to a speedy trial, that there was insufficient evidence to show that he was involved in a conspiracy, and that his 18-year sentence is excessive.
Jurors found Corona-Verbera guilty of conspiracy to import cocaine, conspiracy to possess marijuana and cocaine with intent to distribute, importation of cocaine, and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. The charges were all based on his role in the construction of the tunnel discovered by federal agents in the border town of Douglas, Ariz. in May 1990.
The tunnel was discovered underneath a warehouse, for which Customs agents obtained a search warrant after they followed a flatbed truck from the warehouse to a farmhouse complex near Phoenix, where they executed a warrant and found more than a ton of cocaine.
The tunnel, which was covered by a steel drainage grate, covering a door disguised as a concrete plate, was found after agents broke through the covering with a jackhammer. It stretched 200 feet to the home of attorney Francisco Camerena in Agua Prieto, Mex.
Further investigation led to the conclusion that the tunnel was built for, and used by, the Sinaloa Cartel to move drugs between the United States and Mexico. The cartel has used other tunnels as well.
Camarena, who became a cooperating witness for the government, was an attorney for Joaquin “El Chappo” [Shorty] Guzman, head of the cartel, who escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001, reportedly after paying a multi-million dollar bribe. Corona allegedly put his architectural skills to work for the organization, being linked to residences in Mexico with hidden rooms that were used to hide currency, drugs and weapons.
Entry into those rooms was through the floor or other hidden entrances, often through the use of hydraulics, as was the case with the tunnel.
A warrant for Corona’s arrest was issued within days of the discovery. In 1995, a federal grand jury issued a superseding indictment, adding Corona to a conspiracy case against the cartel in which the first indictment was returned in 1988.
He was arrested in Mexico in January 2003 and extradited two months later. After several continuances, and after motions to dismiss for pre-indictment delay and violation of speedy trial rights were dismissed, the case went to trial in March of last year.
A high-ranking member of the cartel who pled guilty and testified for the prosecution, Angel Martinez-Martinez, testified that Corona built the tunnel at Guzman’s request, and that Guzman had praised the architect’s work. A contractor who said he had been Corona’s best friend, and who had poured concrete at the Douglas warehouse, said Corona was the architect at the warehouse and was present throughout its construction.
Jurors found him guilty on all four counts. U.S. District Judge Frank Zapata sentenced him to 18 years, rather than to more than 24 years as called for by the Sentencing Guidelines, so that the sentence would be more in line with the 18-year term received by Martinez and the 10-year sentence imposed on Camarena.
Senior Judge Stephen Trott, writing for the Ninth Circuit, said there was sufficient evidence tying the architect to the conspiracy, and circumstantially to the cocaine seized at the farmhouse complex.
Trott rejected the contention that the eight-year delay between indictment and extradition violated Corona’s right to a speedy trial. The government, he concluded, acted diligently by placing Corona’s information in criminal databases and encouraging television programs to air segments about the case, at a time when Mexico would not extradite drug suspects.
When policies changed, the jurist noted, the government acted quickly to secure extradition. The subsequent delay, he pointed out, was largely a result of defense continuances, adding that the defendant failed to show any specific prejudice resulting from the earlier delays.
With respect to sentencing, Trott said the district judge properly took the defendant’s use of special skills into account, and that the departure from the guidelines range adequately took into account the disparity that would otherwise exist between Corona’s sentence and those of his co-conspirators, who unlike Corona pled guilty and cooperated with the government.
The judge rejected the “inventive” argument that by sentencing the 53-year-old defendant to 18 years in prison—with credit for nearly four years in custody prior to sentencing—Zapata had in effect imposed a life sentence, contrary to the extradition agreement, and the Mexican Constitution, which the defense argued had to be followed pursuant to the extradition treaty between the United States. and Mexico.
Nothing in the agreement to extradite Corona, or in the treaty, prohibits imposition of a term of years or contains any prohibition on “extreme punishment,” Trott said, adding that Corona would be eligible for release at age 64.
Senior Judge Robert R. Beezer and Judge N. Randy Smith concurred.
The case is United States v. Corona-Verbera, 06-10538.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company