LOS ANGELES -- Ending an extraordinary adventure in the projection of U.S. legal power, a federal judge yesterday acquitted a Mexican doctor who was kidnapped from his country in 1990 to stand trial here in the torture and murder of a U.S. drug agent.
The doctor, Humberto Alvarez Machain, hoped to fly home to Guadalajara immediately, ending an episode that has aroused fury in Mexico over what many in that country see as bullying by the United States. However, the doctor remained in prison last night while the government appealed the acquittal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court in San Francisco and sought to keep him from leaving the country.
U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie said the evidence against Dr. Alvarez, presented during two weeks of testimony, had been based on "hunches" and the "wildest speculation" and had failed to support the charges that he had participated in the torture of the drug agent, Enrique Camarena Salazar.
The case has strained U.S.-Mexico relations at a time of negotiations over a free-trade agreement and caused anger in other nations over the United States' self-proclaimed right to seize their citizens at will.
The Camarena case also offered a glimpse of the high reach of the drug trade in Mexican society. One of those indicted was the brother-in-law of a former president, and another was a former head of the federal investigations police. And prosecution witnesses testified that other Mexican officials were present when Mr. Camarena was tortured.
Dr. Alvarez, a gynecologist, was accused of helping to revive Mr. Camarena during his torture in February 1985 so that his interrogation could proceed. But the government failed to produce witnesses who actually saw the doctor inject Mr. Camarena with the pain reliever Lidocaine, as prosecutors contended.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld in June the right of the government to arrest foreigners abroad without following procedures set out in extradition treaties. That ruling caused outrage in Mexico and other nations.
In Mexico, Dr. Alvarez's abduction, and the high court's ruling, came to symbolize what many people see as an arrogant and unbridled exercise of U.S. power.
"What right does one country have to kidnap a Mexican?" Sergio Aguayo, a political scientist in Mexico City, said yesterday.
Mexican officials said yesterday that they would continue with the new administration in Washington to try to negotiate a new extradition treaty.
The doctor was kidnapped from Guadalajara by bounty hunters and delivered to the Drug Enforcement Administration in El Paso, Texas.
Paul Hoffman, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California, who argued the doctor's case before the Supreme Court, said yesterday: "What the Supreme Court did was authorize lawless behavior. Now it turns out the government also didn't have a case against him."
DEA Administrator Robert C. Bonner tried to put a positive interpretation on the embarrassing outcome for the government. He said yesterday that "DEA's goal in this case of investigating and bringing Dr. Alvarez Machain before a competent court of justice for trial was achieved."
In the past, top law enforcement officials seemed so fiercely determined to bring Mr. Camarena's killers to justice that they defended the unusual bounty-hunter operation.
Yesterday, Mr. Bonner said, "We do not agree with the district court's ruling. . . . The court's decision will not deter the DEA's commitment to investigate all those responsible for the kidnap and murder of special agent Enrique Camarena."
Mr. Hoffman said Dr. Alvarez faces no charges in Mexico and that yesterday's ruling makes it improbable that any charges will be brought against him there. In the United States, he had faced a possible sentence of life in prison on charges including conspiracy to kidnap a federal agent, kidnapping a federal agent and murder.