Arrest in plot shocks DEA agent

I wrote this story for the Dallas Morning News. It was published on Dec. 19, 1999.

A U.S. drug agent said he was “shocked and insulted” when authorities arrested him last week on murder-for-hire charges and accused him of plotting to avenge the 1995 slaying of his cousin. Salvador Martinez, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent based in Monterrey, Mexico, said that he told a Mexican informant, probably a bit too loudly, how his family felt about his cousin’s murder and that the FBI quickly used it against him.
“My emotions were misinterpreted and built into a criminal case, which is very sad because I’m not a criminal,” the agent, speaking about his arrest for the first time, said in a lengthy interview Friday night with The Dallas Morning News. “I just expressed the emotions of the family, and it was turned around to where I was going to have a contract to kill. I never did.”
An attacker killed his cousin, Lionel “Bruno” Jordan, 27, in a carjacking in El Paso. A Mexican teenager, Miguel Angel Flores, then 13, was convicted, but the conviction later was overturned.
Getting justice in the murder and searching for whoever might have ordered it became an obsession for the Jordan family, especially for Mr. Martinez’s older cousin, Phil Jordan, who spent three decades with the DEA. Mr. Jordan, now a Plano security consultant, said the family never wanted the teenager murdered.
Mr. Martinez, 37, was arrested Tuesday by the FBI and was released on $200,000 bond set by a federal magistrate in Brownsville on Thursday.
U.S. law enforcement officials condemned the alleged murder-for-hire plot. The FBI, however, has declined to detail its case, saying it’s sealed by law. DEA officials on Saturday did not respond to a request for comment.
Calls of support
But dozens of current and former DEA agents have quietly rallied around the agent, setting up a legal defense fund in Plano and swamping him and his wife, Suzie Martinez, with phone calls.
“The phone’s been ringing off the wall,” said Mrs. Martinez, 32. “Everybody has been so loving and supportive.”
Her husband added: “We have gotten hundreds of calls. Friends and family. And we’ve been crying.”
Mr. Martinez is under house arrest in Floresville, a town of about 5,000 south of San Antonio.
Mr. Martinez, who must wear an electronic monitoring device around his ankle and isn’t allowed to go more than 250 feet from his in-law’s house in Floresville, said he never imagined he’d be in such difficult straits.
“I want to resolve this as soon as possible,” he said. “I have a very rewarding career, and I hope to keep it after this whole thing is done.”
24-1-IMG_6676The agent grew up in El Paso, graduated from Ysleta High School and said he was voted “Most Popular Student” in 1980.
“I also played football. I was an all-city cornerback,” he said. Just then, his wife glanced over and he grinned sheepishly.
After earning a criminal justice degree from the University of Texas at El Paso, Mr. Martinez said, he joined the Texas Department of Public Safety and worked as a state trooper in Floresville from 1985 to 1988.
He said he first saw his wife-to-be at church.
“One day after being here alone for two months, I was in church and I was praying. I said, “Lord, I know I’m supposed to be fighting crime, but I’m getting a little lonely.’
“Sure enough, Suzie and her parents and her sisters were walking by and Suzie and I made eye contact. I said, “Lord, you worked that very quick. Thank you very much.’ ”
The two dated for four years, married in 1990 and moved to El Paso. He worked as a highway patrolman for two more years, then spent eight months with the U.S. Customs Service.
The DEA hired him eight years ago.
“Happiest time’
“That was the happiest time of my life. I felt I was doing something for society.”
On Jan. 20, 1995, his fifth wedding anniversary, he said he and his wife were at home relaxing when they saw news of their cousin’s slaying on television.
His cousin, a prelaw student, worked at a Men’s Wearhouse store in El Paso and had put his favorite suit on layaway. After his slaying, his relatives retrieved the suit and buried him in it.
Nightmarish days followed, he said.
“I had never cried so much like I did at Bruno’s wake. Bruno was such a nice guy. Why couldn’t they have killed me? I was always putting my life in danger. How come they didn’t kill me?”
At the time of the murder, the couple was living in El Paso. In 1997, the DEA sent Mr. Martinez to Monterrey, Mexico. Such posts are coveted, yet perilous at times.
Take what happened on Nov. 9. Two U.S. federal agents from the Monterrey office went to the border city of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas, reportedly to investigate a reputed drug boss named Oziel Cardenas Guillen.
Mr. Cardenas Guillen and about a dozen other heavily armed Mexicans – including police agents – quickly swept in and threatened to kidnap the two Americans.
Mr. Cardenas Guillen, described by Mexico’s Proceso magazine as an alleged trafficker and former federal police officer, yelled: “Gringos, this is my territory. Get the hell out of here!” before driving off, the magazine reported.
On Dec. 13, Mr. Martinez said he went to Brownsville to help do a follow-up investigation on the incident.
An informant he’s known for a couple of years showed up and began talking to him – and, Mr. Martinez said he believes – secretly recorded the conversation.
“I just went along with whatever he would say,” the agent said.
Mr. Martinez declined to detail their conversation, saying only, “To understand this case, one must feel the grief, the sorrow, the pain suffered by the Jordan family.”
U.S. authorities arrested him the next day. He spent the next two days in the Cameron County Jail in Brownsville.
“I was in a 10-by-14 [foot] cell . . . away from the general population. The first night . . . was very horrible. I wanted to talk to Suzie so bad.”
News of arrest
His wife said she was getting ready to make Christmas cookies in Monterrey when she heard he had been arrested.
“I was just in disbelief and the news that I was getting was like, “They have evidence and your husband has been terminated and he’s facing all this time in prison.’ And I was just like, there’s something wrong with this story.
“Sal is a man of character . . . and as much as he loved his family and as close-knit as they are, they would never even dream of doing something like that,” she said.
At her parents’ home Friday night, the Martinezes sat on the living room floor next to moving boxes filled with their belongings trucked in from Monterrey.
Soon, they began singing with Mrs. Martinez’s brother, Tommy Garza, and her sister, Mary Sanchez. They sang awhile and ate pizza, a respite from the several previous stress-filled days.
Mr. Martinez has been suspended without pay and, if convicted, faces up to 10 years in prison. A court hearing in his case is expected to be held within the next 30 days. His wife worries about the future.
Trying to be strong
“The severity of the charges . . . makes you kind of wonder.” What evidence “do they have to get to this point?”
Still, she said she supports her husband 100 percent.
“I didn’t want to be that weepy wife that was going to say, “Oh, poor pitiful me.’ I had to be strong,” she said.
As the lights on a Christmas tree twinkled in the next room, Mrs. Martinez said: “We just take it day by day. It’s going to be a rough ride, but the truth always comes out.”
They sang more songs for a while, then from the dining room, something began to beep. The electronic monitor around the arrested agent’s ankle had started to come loose.
Mrs. Martinez broke down in tears and rushed to the bedroom crying.
Her husband went to comfort her.
“All this hasn’t settled in,” he said. “And it probably won’t until we get a decent night’s sleep.”