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Jury decides Mexican should forfeit millions

Ending an extraordinary civil action in which American prosecutors virtually put the Mexican government on trial for narcotics corruption, a jury decided Saturday that most of the $9-million confiscated from the former coordinator of Mexico's drug program had come from traffickers' bribes.

The verdict endorsed U.S. government assertions that Mexico's cocaine cartels paid millions of dollars to Mario Ruiz Massieu, who served as a deputy attorney general in 1993 and 1994, to allow drug shipments to move north to the United States unimpeded.

Ruiz Massieu has not been formally charged with drug crimes. But during the trial that unfolded here over the past week, he became the highest-ranking Mexican official ever publicly accused in court by the U.S. government of narcotics-related activities.

The jury decided to return to Ruiz Massieu $1.1-million of the $9-million confiscated by the United States in 1995, apparently in response to testimony by Ruiz Massieu's 84-year-old father that he had sold a Pacific coast beach house for that amount in 1992 and turned the cash over to his son.

More than the amount of money was at stake. The six-day trial was important because of Ruiz Massieu's prominence _ he is a relative by marriage of the former President Carlos Salinas _ and because it unfolded at a time when other revelations about sweeping narcotics corruption in Mexico have upset relations with the United States.

Ruiz Massieu's case was traced to December 1993, when he opened an account at the Texas Commerce Bank here and sent an aide to Houston 24 times in the next 15 months carrying duffel bags stuffed with cash, eventually depositing about $9-million. The funds were seized in March 1995 after the government ruled that they were probably drug proceeds.

During the trial Raul Macias, a former agent for the Mexican Federal Judicial Police, testified that shortly after a jet loaded with Colombian cocaine landed in 1994 on a remote airstrip in central Mexico and was unloaded by the Mexican police, traffickers delivered to his commander about a dozen suitcases filled with money. Macias said he and his commander had driven to Mexico City with two of the suitcases and delivered them to Ruiz Massieu.

Ruiz Massieu testified that his family had assembled the $9-million by selling family properties and by accumulating government bonuses.

Since Ruiz Massieu's arrest in Newark, N.J., he has been charged in Mexico with obstruction of justice and other crimes, but Mexico has lost four extradition attempts. Washington is now seeking to deport him.

The trial was closely watched in Mexico, where news coverage "projected an image of a totally devastated Mexican judicial system," said Jorge Chabat, a professor at a Mexico City research center.

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