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THE PRICE OF A FAVOR
Whether he intended it or not, in 1991 George W. Bush aided a fugitive criminal with a sordid history. Will his wheeler-dealer political style catch up with him now?
Julia Reynolds, with Eduardo Valle
In the fall of 1991, George W. Bush asked his father, the President, to "help out" on behalf of Enrique Fuentes León, a millionaire lawyer wanted in Mexico for bribery in a case involving the rape and murder of a six year-old girl.
A joint investigation between Eduardo Valle of the Mexico City daily El Universal and El Andar magazine has found that soon after a call from the younger Bush, the President personally directed information about the case to Richard Howard of the State Department. George W. Bush, who held no public office at the time, offered to help Fuentes León by calling the President.
Who is this Enrique Fuentes León, that he deserved Juniors attention?
In 1991, Fuentes León was living in the United States on a tourist visa that was about to expire. He had fled Mexico in 1989, after a highly-publicized case in which he was charged with bribing two judges in order to free a wealthy Acapulco businessman convicted of the rape and murder of a young child. Fuentes León first fled to Chile. After Mexico sent Chile an extradition request, he went to Argentina and finally settled in San Antonio, Texas.
He remained free in the U.S. for three more years on an expired tourist visa, even though the Mexican government made an official extradition request on October 21, 1991. It is not understood why authorities did not pick him up during this time, since he led a visible public life as a San Antonio businessman and could be easily located. By 1994, he had purchased more than $6 million in San Antonio real estate, and together with Texas publisher Tino Durán made moves to purchase the now-defunct San Antonio Light newspaper from The Hearst Corp. Fuentes León declared his worth at $20 million when he entered the U.S., but government officials estimated his assets to be $30 million by the time he left.
The Bush Connection
In an October 28 interview, Tino Durán told El Andar that he and Fuentes León were sitting in George W. Bushs Texas Rangers baseball team office when the younger Bush called the President. Tino Durán describes himself as a friend and supporter of the Bush family, and said he telephoned George W. Bush when his associate Fuentes León became frustrated at his inability to "get through to George W." about his case. Fuentes León claimed that he, the two judges, and their families, had suffered human rights abuses and persecution in Mexico, and he was seeking political asylum. Mexican authorities disagreed, saying Fuentes León fled to avoid arrest.
Durán said, "He [Fuentes León] said to me, Id like to talk to George W., but Im not getting anywhere. I made arrangements to see him." "I had sent him [George W.] a letter so he would know what it was all about, so he could decide if he wanted to help," Durán said. "And he called me and said, Sure, come on down and lets talk about it."
Durán continued, "Enrique and I went down to his office and he called the President." George W. Bush asked President Bush if he could help Durán and "his friend here." Durán says President Bush then asked Durán to send him a letter and said he would direct the information to the State Department.
A letter dated November 6, 1991 was sent from Richard Howard in the State Department to Durán, which began, "The President asked me to reply to your letter." Howard went on to say that each year the State Department discusses human rights issues with Mexican officials, but stopped short of offering to bring up the case of Fuentes León and the two judges. Howard recommended that Durán contact the Mexican National Human Rights Commission, and concluded, "I hope this will further your efforts to help the individuals mentioned in your letter. Please let us know if we can be of any further assistance."
A Sordid History
Fuentes León lived freely in San Antonio for several years after. He was finally extradited to Mexico after a 1994 arrest for allegedly attempting to bribe an INS agent with $30,000. Assistant U.S. District Attorney Glenn MacTaggart testified at the detention hearing that Fuentes León also offered to launder drug money for undercover DEA agents. A courthouse employee said that Fuentes León showed up every day in a $200,000 car, followed by "around 25" other vehicles.
He was sent to Mexico in January 1995, where he was admitted to a hospital for chest pains and subsequently released on bail. He appealed the old bribery charge and got off. Today, Fuentes León is again imprisoned in Mexico. This time its for a case in which he is charged in relation to the kidnapping and death of Nellie Campobello, 85, a famous former ballerina whose 13 year-old grave was found last year. The title to Campobellos house has mysteriously appeared under the name of Fuentes Leóns wife.
There is still more: Attorney MacTaggart testified at the 1994 deportation hearing that documentary evidence had arrived "relating to a 1970 murder case," apparently referring to a case in which Fuentes León was said to have shot and killed 16 year-old Patricia Sahagun Olvera (who may have been his daughter) while attempting to murder his first wife.
Fuentes León is presently under investigation at the request of the U.S. Justice Department, because last year his Mexico City law firm defended accused Texas hit man José Luis del Toro. Del Toro is facing trial in the U.S. for the brutal 1997 murder of Shelia Bellush, a 35 year-old mother of quadruplets. The U.S. wants to know who funded del Toros defense; Enrique Fuentes León is, after all, one of the highest-priced lawyers around. The news reports go on and on. Mexican journalist Carlos Monsiváis has rightly called Fuentes Leóns life "a Gothic horror story."
George W., through a spokesman, says he doesnt recall meeting with Fuentes León and Tino, and dismisses any suggestion of irregularity. "The treatment this gentleman received was the same treatment anyone else would get," says Bush spokesman Brian Jones. "No special consideration was given." While any other Mexican with a visa problem and an arrest warrant might be referred to the State Department, its doubtful that the President of the United States would agree to personally forward the letter as a matter of "usual treatment."
Young and brash, George W. Bush may not have understood back in 1991 when he agreed to help a fugitive that his "do your friends a favor" style of politics could have serious consequences. In the name of compassion Bushs favorite word voters may let this lapse in judgment slide. But has George W. Bush, so weak in the foreign policy arena, learned anything about the world from mistakes such as this? How ironic that the candidate who advocates teaching children right from wrong should have such trouble telling the difference himself.
Julia Reynolds is the editorial director of El Andar. Eduardo Valle is the author of "El Segundo Disparo" the seminal book in which he describes modern Mexico as a "narco-democracy." He writes a Sunday column for the Mexico City daily El Universal.