By Anna Merlan
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It's a libel action with all the elements of a political thriller. Two left-wing publishers use the Internet to accuse a powerful Mexican banker of pushing cocaine from his Caribbean beachfrontand the banker hires Vernon Jordan's law firm to sue for libel in New York. Turning the tables, the defendants hire top First Amendment lawyers and prepare to put the drug war on trial in the media capital of the world.
Sound too good to be true? So says the alleged drug dealer, Roberto Hernández Ramirez, a former stockbroker who bought Banco Nacional de México (Banamex) from the Mexican government in 1991. The Banamex lawsuit denies all the allegations, right down to the money laundering and the bribes, and says the drug "smear" has hurt the bank's ability to do business.
"Banamex is one of the oldest, most respected, and largest banking institutions in Mexico, and the bank's chairman, Roberto Hernández, is a man of the highest moral character," says Thomas McLish, a lawyer with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, a powerful lobbying and law firm in the nation's capital. "The portrayal of Banamex and Hernández being involved in narcotics trafficking is utterly false and [the defendants] know it to be false."
"Everything I have printed I know to be true and I have documented with the facts," says Al Giordano, publisher of The Narco News Bulletin, a Web site that covers the drug war in Latin America (www.narconews.com). My friend Giordano, a former political reporter for the Boston Phoenix, has never been sued for libel before; indeed, he's usually the one making the accusations. This past October, an AP correspondent resigned after Narco News caught the reporter lobbying the Bolivian government on behalf of a private company.
"Everything I have printed I know to be true and I have documented with the facts."
The other defendant is Mario Renato Menéndez Rodriguez, editor and publisher of Por Esto!, a daily newspaper with a paid circulation of about 70,000 on the Yucatán peninsula. Menéndez says he has eyewitness testimony, documents, and photos to back up his allegations that Hernández has turned miles of once-pristine beachfront into an outpost for the drug trade. The publisher is outraged by what he calls the banker's attempt "to destroy me economically, politically, and professionally."
It's not the first time Hernández has tried to silence Menéndez. In 1997, after Por Esto! first denounced Hernández as a "narco-trafficker," the banker asked the Mexican government to file a criminal libel action against the publisher. But that action was dismissed in September 1999 by a judge who wrote that "all the accusations . . . were based on the facts." Hernández pressed charges again in Mexico this year, and the case was thrown out for the second time on October 26, 2000, the day Menéndez learned he was being sued in New York.
The plot thickened in November, when Menéndez retained Martin Garbus, the legendary First Amendment lawyer who represented Lenny Bruce on obscenity charges in 1964. Garbus thinks Menéndez will prevail. "I represent a newspaper and a journalist accused, and from what I understand they have a good defense of the libel claim," says Garbus, who finds it "very significant" that the libel claims were thrown out in Mexico.
Akin Gump's McLish says the new suit is different because it "relates to knowingly false statements made in the U.S." The complaint cites statements published by Narco News, comments made by Menéndez and Giordano when they traveled to New York last March, and interviews they gave to WBAI and the Voice. (Exhibit A in the suit is the Press Clips column of February 23-29, 2000, in which Menéndez declared Hernández a "narco-trafficker." The Voice is not a defendant in the suit.)
The inflammatory charges came home to roost on August 9, when Akin Gump filed its libel action in New York. In a totally unconnected incident, shots were fired into the Por Esto! offices in Mérida at the end of August. After making inquiries, Menéndez found out the government was planning to arrest him for libel on September 8, the day he was set to launch a new printing press in Cancún. That day, Menéndez says, the Mexican attorney general's office called a judge three times asking for the arrest warrant. He also claims that armed police were on the street and a government plane was waiting at the airport to take him to a high-security prison outside Mexico City.
Menéndez is used to this kind of pressure. In 1968, the government put him in jail for reporting on and publishing photos of the student massacre in Mexico City, in his now defunct magazine Por Qué? He believes the banker planned to have him locked up before announcing the lawsuit in the U.S. But on September 8, the judge refused to issue the arrest warrant.
In the meantime, Giordano has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with lawyers in the U.S. Because Giordano does not publish his address, Akin Gump has been unable to serve him, mailing notices to defunct post office boxes and sending reps to Mexico in search of a gringo with a mustache. Two weeks ago, as the deadline loomed, Akin Gump asked Giordano to acknowledge the charges by e-mail. He did not respond.
According to Giordano, Akin Gump then launched a "cyber-attack" on Narco News, sending e-mails that took up more than 10 megabytes of storage space and caused his list server to shut down. Last week, Giordano says, Akin Gump went so far as to send a threatening letter to Voxel.net, his Internet service provider.
McLish denies threatening legal action against Voxel (which as a Web host is not liable for defamatory content). "The suggestion that Akin Gump is engaged in cyber-war is nonsense, and Mr. Giordano knows it," fumes the lawyer. "He should just come out of hiding and accept service of the complaint."
Giordano has sought advice from Thomas Lesser, a Massachusetts lawyer who put the CIA on trial in 1987, in the course of defending Abbie Hoffman and Amy Carter on a campus protest charge. Lesser calls the Banamex suit a "heavy-handed attempt to silence criticism." No one on the defense team understands why Akin Gump brought this suit in New York, where the allegations are likely to attract more publicity. Says Garbus, "They're shooting themselves in the foot."
But Giordano sees the case as a golden opportunity to exercise his skills as a pro se defender, if he so chooses. "I'm looking forward to deposing Hernández," he says. "In the long run, this will be an educational process for the public that will reveal information about the atrocity of the drug war and how it's being waged by the U.S. government and its friends in Latin America."
One more twist: The judge assigned to the case is Harold Baer, who was pilloried in 1996 when he threw out a car search in Washington Heights even though it had turned up 80 pounds of heroin and cocaine. If the case proceeds, it could reach Baer's courthouse in Manhattan by this time next year. Tom Lesser predicts,"it's going to be a long, interesting trial."