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José Castrillón Henao was said to have cut a dashing figure on the streets of downtown San Diego. Partial to expensive Armani suits and accompanied by a flashy girlfriend, the Colombian native — who said he was a fisherman from Panama — made the rounds of shops at the Palladion and galleries in Seaport Village, snapping up diamonds, artwork, and custom-designed furniture.

He frequented one of the best units at One Harbor Drive, the twin-tower condominium project across the street from the convention center. His people told the sales staff at the condo complex that they were in the tuna business and were using the computers set up inside their 26th-floor condominium to track fish movements via satellite.

But federal prosecutors say Castrillón wasn't really a fisherman. Instead, they say, he was captain of a billion-dollar cocaine-smuggling empire for the Cali cartel. They say that during his five years as a part-time resident of America's Finest City, Castrillón injected millions of dollars into San Diego's economy. He indulged his fancy for garish, dolphin-themed furniture, ordering cell phones, and having a middleman pay Campbell Shipyard at least a million dollars to outfit his smuggling vessels, disguised as tuna boats.

One of his henchmen, the Feds say, was Manuel Rodríguez-López, a Mexican citizen who in the early 1990s arrived in San Diego and began assembling Castrillón's efficient drug-running fleet. The feds argue that Castrillón used Rodríguez-López as a convenient front man who purchased the condominium at One Harbor Drive in Rodríguez-López's name.

The good life didn't last, though. In April 1996, Panamanian officials arrested Castrillón in connection with the seizure of 12 tons of cocaine on a fishing vessel off the coast of Peru. Five months later, Mexican authorities busted Rodríguez-López at his office in La Paz, Baja California Sur. As both men languished in foreign prisons, the United States government filed suit in federal court here to seize the condominium at One Harbor Drive. No matter that Rodríguez-López's name was on the condo deed, they said; they had clear evidence that Castrillón's drug profits had paid for it.

But Rodríguez-López, who remains incarcerated in La Paz, charged with drug-related tax evasion, has at least one stalwart defender. Ken Hoyt, an attorney who operates out of a small, one-man office on a back street near the East County Civic Center in El Cajon, claims his client is getting a raw deal. Hoyt, who deals mostly with divorces and small-business disputes, says this is his first drug-related case, and before taking it he searched his soul. But he's convinced Rodríguez-López is innocent, the condo at One Harbor Drive really belongs to him, and what the government has said about him is a mishmash of slapped-together hearsay and lies from unreliable government informants.

Asked whether his client denies that he had anything to do with drugs, Hoyt replies: "Absolutely, 100 percent."

"Joe Keenan, my associate, Joe's a 30-year retired navy captain, he's 73 years old, he's done about everything," Hoyt says. "I took Joe down there to see my client and said, 'Hey, listen, if you think I've made a mistake, that I'm a terrible judge of character -- which I am, by the way -- tell me,' and Joe came out of that jail and he said, 'There's something absolutely wrong here.'

"This is a guy [Rodríguez-López] who from day one tenders to [the government] during the discovery process everything from his résumé of his entire life's work to how he made every dollar that he made for purchasing the condo," Hoyt argues. "This is a pretty draconian law when you say that all the government needs to do in order to take property is probable cause. So we're assumed guilty, and until we prove our innocence absolutely, we're still guilty."

According to the government, the case starts back in the mid-'80s. "From approximately 1986 to 1988, Manuel Rodríguez-López resided in Harlington, Texas, where he was a member of the Humberto Calero-Aragón cocaine-transporting organization smuggling cocaine from Colombia into the United States using trans-shipment points in Mexico," says a January 1998 affidavit filed by DEA special agent Kyle Scott.

"Rodríguez-López was responsible for coordinating and arranging for the use of airplanes and airstrips to bring the cocaine to the United States. The organization imported and distributed approximately a ton of cocaine per month during this period. López-Rodríguez [sic] disappeared from the jurisdiction prior to being prosecuted."

Hoyt says his client was in the maritime business, not drugs, period. He acknowledges Rodríguez-López might have known Castrillón, but only as an employee going by the name "Tovar," who Hoyt says had the keys to the San Diego condominium, which also served as Rodríguez-López's office. "He did hire that man [Tovar]. He was authorized to purchase ships, give us the best purchase price for fish, and like Manuel always said, everything was for sale, so if you could go out and sell my fleet, my boats, my properties for $30 million, call me, and if you've got a buyer, you've got a commission. So Tovar had access, could have used it, could have used the condo, so the idea that he could have been there had never bothered us."

On April 17, 1996, Castrillón was arrested in Panama, where he was known as a well-connected businessman who dabbled in local politics. In a statement later released by U.S. officials, Castrillón was called "the primary maritime transporter for and a member of the Cali cartel." They said Castrillón used the Colombian ports of Cartagena and Buenaventura to run a fleet of fishing vessels that were really cocaine-smuggling ships bringing tons of cocaine to the U.S. Castrillón's financial empire of phony companies and straw men owning everything from mansions to corporate jets allegedly ran from San Diego to Florida, Panama, Ecuador, Switzerland, Germany, and France.

After Castrillón's arrest, Mexican authorities targeted Rodríguez-López, who commuted between Panama, La Paz, Ensenada, and San Diego. They claimed their investigation showed that Castrillón had covered his tracks in Mexico by using multiple aliases and posing as an employee of Rodríguez-López's fishing company, Pesquera Carimar, which they alleged was actually another of Castrillón's many fronts.

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