Pubdate: Sun, 22 Nov 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: Front Page, continued on page A26
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Author: Sebastian Rotella, Reporting from Nogales, Ariz.
Bookmark: (Corruption - United States)


Peers Say He'd Never Help Mexican Cartels. His Trial Starts Monday.

Around here, the grim joke goes, most people work for the government 
or the mafias.

Or both.

Richard Padilla Cramer apparently had bested the temptations that 
come with the territory. During three decades in border law 
enforcement, he made the most of his pitch-perfect Spanish and talent 
for undercover work. He locked up corrupt officials, racked up drug 
busts and rose through the ranks. He retired after a coveted stint as 
a U.S. attache for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Mexico, the 
land he had left as a child.

At 56, the former anti-drug chief was an immigrant success story: a 
decorated Vietnam veteran; a youthful, solidly built grandfather 
whose three children served in the military and law enforcement.

So his arrest in September resounded in the close-knit law 
enforcement community like a bomb blast in the desert. The alleged 
corruption goes beyond the typical case of an inspector waving drug 
loads north.

In a trial set to begin Monday in Miami, authorities will charge that 
Cramer sold his talents to drug lords while in Mexico, acting in 
effect as a counter-espionage consultant helping to unmask informants 
and set up smuggling deals. Raising fears of gangsters buying the 
expertise of U.S. law enforcement, investigators predict that the 
case will widen to bring down more agents.

But several former officials defend Cramer. Friends and family call 
it an overzealous prosecution based mainly on traffickers-turned-informants.

"Of the people I worked with in my career, he's one of a group of 
four or five who I would trust with my life," said Terry Kirkpatrick, 
a retired ICE supervisor. "Unless somebody says, 'Here's a 
videotape,' I am not going to believe it."

The history of drug wars in Mexico is full of fallen crime-fighters 
who battled one cartel while on the payroll of another. But that kind 
of treachery is less frequent among those north of the line. Cramer's 
case is clouded by the ambiguities and mysteries of the border.

"This is impossible to grasp," said Rene Andreu, a former assistant 
ICE chief in Tucson. "Richard is old-fashioned in his integrity, his 
honor, the perceptions people have of him. I can't imagine him taking 
the risk of having his family look at him differently."

Cramer's daughter Michelle, 33, said that the reality she knows 
clashes with the image of a high-rolling outlaw. About four months 
before the Drug Enforcement Administration arrested him in Tucson, 
Cramer began a $30,000-a-year job as a jailer with the Santa Cruz 
County Sheriff's Department, the border-area agency in Arizona he had 
first worked for in the 1970s. He lost about 30 pounds training with 
cadets half his age, she said. He told friends and family he did it 
for the challenge and to keep busy.

"He would come home and brag about the push-ups he did, more than the 
20-something-year-olds," Michelle Cramer said. "He got sprayed with 
mace at the academy. . . . He was all red, excited, telling us about it."

Was the return to his roots part of an elaborate cover story or a 
sign of his gung-ho taste for life in uniform? If he crossed the line 
into corruption, when did it happen and how?

The investigation started two years ago as an outgrowth of a DEA 
inquiry on a Mexican drug ring active in Florida. Traffickers boasted 
that a U.S. official was selling them files that they used to 
identify traitors. The probe expanded and has targeted other U.S. 
officials, although it remains to be seen whether they will be 
charged as accomplices or accused of lesser offenses, such as leaking 

A high-ranking federal official, who requested anonymity when 
discussing the ongoing case, said that Cramer is believed to have 
been involved in corruption since his years as a chief agent in 
Nogales. But prosecutors have made no such allegations.

Cramer's story begins in this border town of about 20,000, where his 
family moved soon after his birth in Guaymas, Mexico. His Irish-born 
stepfather, a Spanish-American War veteran, died when Cramer was a 
teenager. His childhood was bilingual and bicultural, according to 
longtime friend Jaime Huerta, who became a banker and is now a 
community organizer in Los Angeles.

"We had the benefit of both cultures," Huerta said. "In high school 
we were the clean-cut guys. We weren't doing drugs. We drank beer, 
but we were not boozers."

Cramer dropped out to fight in Vietnam because he revered the 
military and needed to support his mother, Huerta said. Cramer was 
awarded a Bronze Star. Back home, he married his wife, Carmen, who is 
from Nogales, and started working at the U.S. Customs Service in 1980.

Graft was a workplace hazard. Cramer soon learned that smugglers prey 
on rookie Mexican American border inspectors with local ties. A 
childhood friend was enlisted to offer a bribe, but Cramer alerted 
his bosses and they set a trap.

"When he was a young inspector, because he was from the area, he got 
approached by guys about letting loads through," said Kirkpatrick, 
also an inspector then. "He reported it right away. Eight or nine 
people got arrested."

Kirkpatrick reminisced during an interview at the Grumpy Gringo, a 
cigar store he runs among the galleries and cafes in the artist 
colony of Tubac, north of Nogales. In his 28-year career, Kirkpatrick 
held top posts in Mexico, Moscow and Washington. He retired last year 
and decided to indulge his passion for cigars. He has a goatee, wavy 
hair and a disposition that mixes grumpy and amiable. He prides 
himself on his wariness, but backs Cramer.

"He and I got death threats because of work we did" locking up 
corrupt officials, Kirkpatrick said. "If it turns out to be true, 
I'll never believe anybody ever again."

In the 1980s, Andreu hired Kirkpatrick and Cramer to work in Nogales 
as customs investigators. Andreu and Cramer became friends while 
working side by side on stakeouts and raids.

"We have shared laughs, beers and moments of terror," Andreu said, 
"kicking in a door, hoping there's not somebody ready for you on the 
other side."

Cramer spoke Spanish like a Mexican. He amassed informants because he 
knew the cultural nuances. He used warmth, patience and subtlety to 
avoid the stereotype of the aggressive American.

"Intel gathering, glad-handing, the rapport with the Mexicans, 
developing sources -- it was his forte," Andreu said.

Customs' main mission was going after smuggling pipelines. Cramer 
burrowed into investigations, Andreu said.

"His intel was good to the point that we knew exactly when and where 
vehicles would cross and what vehicle would be used," Andreu said. 
"Word got out he was a problem. He was causing them to lose a lot of 
loads, lose money. There was talk of a contract out on him."

Cramer took other risks, developing close ties to informants and 
giving them his home phone number, Andreu said. "He trusted his 
sources a bit too much. Others of us would try to isolate our family more."

Moving to his first foreign assignment, Cramer served as assistant 
attache for customs in Mexico City in the early 1990s. The family 
enjoyed expatriate life. But Michelle Cramer disagrees with a judge 
who denied her father bail on the grounds that he might flee to 
Mexico because of his dual citizenship and many contacts.

"When we came back from Mexico, we said: 'We're home,' " she said. 
"We're Americans."

Cramer worked next in internal affairs in El Centro, Calif. In 2001, 
he became resident agent in charge in Nogales, leading two dozen 
agents. In 2004, the newly formed ICE -- which had incorporated 
customs investigators -- gave him another attache post: running a 
small office in the U.S. consulate in Guadalajara.

Bloodshed had escalated dramatically since his last tour, but Cramer 
and his wife enjoyed Mexico's second-largest and proudly traditional 
city, friends and family said. Three years later, Cramer rejected the 
offer of a post in Ciudad Juarez because of that city's violence, his 
daughter said. He retired after 27 years with the federal government.

Cramer stayed in Guadalajara for about a year. He looked into finding 
security work for a U.S. company, and did part-time consulting and 
translating for a Mexican lawyer.

"His preference was to stay there," Huerta said. "He had made a home 
for himself there."

Informants told the DEA that a drug lord had convinced Cramer to 
retire and work for him full-time. A federal complaint charges that 
Cramer invested $40,000 in a shipment of cocaine from Panama that got 
busted in Spain. Cramer was so close to the gangsters that he 
communicated with them via a push-to-talk phone registered to his 
Arizona home, and even quarreled with them, the complaint alleges.

"The leader of the [drug organization] and Cramer had a fight . . . 
over the 300 kilograms of cocaine and as a result of the fight, 
Cramer reluctantly severed ties" with the organization, the complaint 
says. It quotes a recorded conversation in which traffickers said 
that Cramer had "very powerful friends" -- including two or three DEA 
agents in Mexico.

Given the gravity of the charges, Cramer's defenders find it strange 
that authorities have not frozen his assets. They wonder whether 
interagency animosity played a role in the prosecution. They think 
that informants who were facing prison terms concocted the corruption 
charges as a bargaining chip.

In fact, crucial testimony comes from informants such as the one who 
met with a suspected trafficker in Miami in 2007 while under 
surveillance. Saying he had received a DEA document by e-mail from 
Cramer, the trafficker accessed his computer to download it, 
according to the complaint.

The informant reported later that he had spotted the sender's e-mail 
address: "corpsmanpop." Relatives confirm that is Cramer's e-mail. It 
alludes to his son, who idolized him and was inspired to join the 
Marines by his father's service in Vietnam. When an injury forced the 
son to leave boot camp, he enlisted in the Navy instead, became a 
corpsman, and saw action tending to wounded soldiers under fire in Iraq.

If Cramer is found not guilty, it would seem that investigators went 
astray. If not, his life was apparently a scam: an anti-drug warrior 
who betrayed his friends, a father who deceived his children.

It remains hard to explain how traffickers obtained at least 10 
criminal history documents that Cramer allegedly downloaded from U.S. 
databases. His friends say that he may have slipped the information 
to friends in Mexican law enforcement as a favor, without knowing 
they were on the take.

"It happens," Kirkpatrick said. "He could have given it to a 
comandante legitimately, then it ended up with a trafficker. You are 
not supposed to give documents to the Mexicans like that. If he did 
it, shame on him. But it's not the same as the charges in the complaint." 
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