Los Angeles Times
Nogales, Ariz. - Around here, the grim joke goes, most people work for the government or the mafias.
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 documents.
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."