Former El Salvador congressman William Eliu Martinez was the perfect frontman, according to prosecutors: a seemingly upstanding politician who, behind the scenes, worked as an operations manager for one of Central America's most notorious cocaine-trafficking rings.

In their closing arguments in Martinez's trial, government attorneys told a federal court jury in Washington yesterday that he helped a drug kingpin smuggle 36 tons of cocaine into the United States from 1998 to 2002 by renting waterfront properties used to ship the cargo and quelling police suspicions about the late-night boat trips.

"He's a congressman who gives the false face of legitimacy," said Justice Department trial attorney Patrick Hearn. "He's the one who can get rid of the cop who stops the boat, the one who can dispel questions. Why? Because he's a congressman. He's a person they can trust."

But Martinez's attorney said a three-year federal investigation had produced no tangible evidence tying his client to a drug conspiracy.

Although Martinez licensed some high-speed fishing boats, the government could not show that he personally transported drugs on them, said Shawn Moore, an assistant federal public defender. The fact that Martinez leased properties where drugs allegedly were shipped did not prove that he engaged in a crime, Moore said. Nor did the fact that Martinez's business phone number was in the logbook of drug traders, the attorney added.

Moore argued that the government's claims hinged solely on the statements of two former drug runners who can expect to avoid some prison time in exchange for their testimony. "There is nothing else," Moore said. "There is no corroborating evidence."

Martinez, who served as a congressman from the National Action Party from 1999 to 2002, was arrested in Panama in October 2003 and extradited to the United States after his indictment three months earlier. Four others also were indicted as conspirators in the drug smuggling operation, including alleged kingpin Otto Herrera-Garcia, although Martinez is the only defendant in the current trial.

The indictments stemmed from an investigation coordinated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and law enforcement agencies in Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala. They allege that from about March 1996 to October 2003, the five conspirators were responsible for smuggling thousands of kilograms of cocaine from Colombia through El Salvador to Guatemala and then to Mexico for ultimate importation into the United States.

Herrera-Garcia, who is on the Justice Department's list of the 41 most wanted international drug traffickers and money launderers, escaped from a Mexican prison May 13. The U.S. government has offered a $5 million reward for his recapture. He had been arrested at the Mexico City airport in April 2004, a year after officials raided his house in an affluent Guatemala City neighborhood and found $14 million in cash and two grenade launchers.

Justice Department lawyers prosecuting the case against Martinez said that he admitted his role in the drug ring when interviewed by DEA agents. But the defense noted that the agents acknowledged the confession was not in writing. And it was not mentioned in an agent's handwritten notes of the interview, only in notes that were typewritten later.

Visiting U.S. District Judge Michael M. Mihm, who presided over Martinez's trial, allowed the alleged confession to be admitted into evidence. But, over the government's objection, he allowed Martinez's attorneys to question DEA agents in front of the jury about the circumstances of the confession, including whether they warned Martinez properly of his right to remain silent and his right to an attorney. The defense contends that Martinez did not receive proper warnings; the government says he did.

Members of the jury began deliberating after lunch yesterday and were excused for the weekend at 5 p.m. They are scheduled to return for a second day of deliberations on Monday morning.