The Godfather of Mexican Drug Trafficking Has Disappeared

By Jason McGahan

On Friday, August 9, at the unseemly hour of two o'clock in the morning, the main gate of Puente Grande prison opened, and a godfather in the Mexican narcotics trade walked out into the darkness a free man. By then, Rafael Caro Quintero, former founder and leader of the Guadalajara Cartel, had served 28 years of a 40-year prison sentence for drug trafficking and the audacious 1985 murder of a DEA agent named Enrique 'Kiki' Camarena.

The order for Caro's release was given by a three-judge appeals panel in his home state of Jalisco, overturning the murder conviction on a technicality. The court decided that Caro should have been tried in a state and not federal court at the time because Kiki Camarena—who worked undercover—was not officially in the US’s diplomatic corps in Mexico. With that, judges reduced his prison sentence to 15 years. Having already served 28, he was free to go.

The release of the most historically powerful and connected drug lord in modern Mexican history—a still potent symbol for US antidrug agencies—immediately aroused suspicions, and led to the Mexican attorney general to issue a warrant for a "provisional detention" after receiving a request from the United States on Wednesday of last week.

For one thing, the appeals court declined to send the murder case back to the state courts, opting instead for immediate release. Also, prior to the warrant being issued, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam released a statement saying only that Quintero being set free “worried” him. Then there is the US government's claims in media reports that it was not notified of the release beforehand, learning about it only it after the fact from the news.

"We've been told it was a technicality," said Jack Riley, director of the DEA's Chicago Field Division and former head of its El Paso office, "but I'm sure that everybody's going to look real hard at it to make sure it was legitimate." 

The US Department of Justice has had a standing request for Mexico to extradite Caro Quintero since 1987, and they have 60 days to formally request extradition if and when Quintero is detained. Riley explained the extradition request had previously been a low priority after Caro received his four-decade prison sentence. "They wouldn't consider extradition because at that point it didn't make sense because he was never going to get out of Mexican custody," Riley said.

But Caro Quintero was probably not sitting out his sentence idly for all those years. In June, the US Treasury Department had invoked the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act to freeze the banking assets of 15 businesses bankrolled by Caro, as well as those of 18 of his relatives and associates, including his wife, four children, and daughter-in-law.

Riley said he was "deeply troubled" at news of Caro's release from jail, and said the Justice Department will likely continue to explore the possibility of apprehending Caro for extradition. "We're still looking into that to really figure out where exactly the process is now. We're also looking at where the investigations took place in California, working with the US Attorneys and the Department of Justice there to see whatever we've got to do to recreate the extradition process so that we get him on US soil."

Since Caro was already tried once for Camarena's murder, he cannot legally be tried for it a second time. The charges he faces in the US are limited to his drug-trafficking activities. Any extradition to the US would have to be on the basis of those other crimes, and not Camarena's murder.


Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Photo via Wikipedia Commons

The release of Caro comes at a sensitive time for US authorities as they negotiate with Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, the basis for cross-border cooperation in matters of intelligence sharing and drug interdiction.

President Peña Nieto has yet to give a clear sign that his administration will permit US law enforcement and intelligence agencies the same degree of influence over antidrug operations that they enjoyed during the 12-year reign of his presidential predecessors from the opposition National Action Party, which ended last year.

There is no doubt, however, that Peña Nieto and his party, the Institutional Revolution Party, have the most to lose if Caro were ever to appear in a US courtroom. The PRI is heavily implicated in the worst excesses of Caro's time at the head of the Guadalajara Cartel.

No gangster in his day was more politically connected than Caro Quintero. At 32, he smoked cocaine in the saddle of a dancing horse in the middle of a raucous party in Guadalajara, to the delight of a PRI state representative who was the brother-in-law of a former PRI president of Mexico. Henchmen who worked for Caro testified to spending four weeks counting out by hand a $400 million-cash bribe for a high official in a PRI government. The director of the Mexican FBI in the administration of another PRI president was on Caro's direct payroll.

And on it went. Caro Quintero's teenage girlfriend Sara Cosio was the niece of Guillermo Cosío Vidaurri, the former mayor of Guadalajara, a national secretary of the PRI at the time of Caro's arrest, who became governor of Jalisco state four years later. Caro claimed the uncle drove a Mercury Cougar that he had given him as a gift. A bodyguard for the Guadalajara Cartel who witnessed the torture of Camarena later testified in a US court that the governor of Jalisco state and the sitting Mexican Secretary of the Interior, both PRI politicians, sat near the open door to the room where Camarena was being interrogated to better hear what he was saying about their own collusion with drug-trafficking.

Like the wedding scene in The Godfather, the young men who in ten years' time would be slashing at one another's throats as the heads of warring cartels in Sinaloa, Tijuana, and Juarez were then peacefully coexisting in wealth and impunity in the same city, as part of the same syndicate, under the leadership of men like Caro Quintero, Carlos Fonseca, and Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo.

Was it only hubris that caused them to believe they could abduct, torture and murder a DEA agent intent on making problems for them? In the fall of 1984, Camarena had led a raid by DEA and Mexican Federal Police on Caro's pride and joy, the Buffalo Ranch, a marijuana plantation of 1,300 acres in Chihuahua state – the largest field ever put to the torch by law enforcement. El Bufalo employed ten thousand field hands and yielded a harvest of up to 6,000 tons of weed, with a street value of $8 billion dollars.

The murder of Camarena was a pivotal event in the drug war in Mexico. On one hand, it enhanced the power of the DEA like never before.

"It really led to the agency expanding," Riley said, "because for us to be successful here domestically we've got to operate with our foreign counterparts in parts of the world where the narcotics are coming from."

In doing so, it fed the DEA's single-minded quest to bring down the cartel and government officials responsible for it, leading to the discovery that Caro was providing material support to the CIA's Contra guerilla army in Nicaragua.

In 1990, the anti-drug agency issued a report on the cartel's cooperation with the CIA mission in Central America. Among its findings was that Caro Quintero permitted a ranch he owned in Vercruz state to be used as a guerrilla training camp. The report concludes that “the operations/training at the camp were conducted by the American CIA, using the DFS [Mexico's FBI] as cover, in the event any questions were raised as to who was running the [camp]” and that “Representatives of the DFS, which was the front for the training camp, were in fact acting in consort with major drug overlords to insure a flow of narcotics through Mexico and into the United States.” The DEA's main source for the information was a cartel insider who set up the communications network for the Mexican cartel and its law enforcement partners in the early 1980s and mid 1980s. 

It remains to be seen if and when the US government will request extradition for Quintera, or if the Mexican government will even be able to capture him. Like no other instance in the history of the drug war in Mexico, the murder of Kiki Camarena, or more specifically the numerous investigations and court cases that followed it, revealed the inner workings of the Mexican government's inability to control the cartels. The uncertainty surrounding the release of Rafael Caro Quintera after 28 years in prison for that same murder may have already done as much to suggest that that situation persists.

Jason McGahan is a journalist in South America.

For more on drugs:

It's Good to Be the King

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