The recent arrest of drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero in Mexico last week was the latest chapter in one of the longest tales within Mexico’s drug wars. But how it exactly happened is still unclear.
Hours after news of the arrest of Caro Quintero in northern Mexico broke, conflicting accounts of how the capture came about emerged from both the Mexican government and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
News that a Navy helicopter crashed some 130 kms away from where Caro Quintero was arrested in Choix, Sinaloa, killing 14 Mexican soldiers, further muddled matters. Their deaths came after the helicopter was involved in the operation resulting in the drug lord’s capture, but confusion remains around what brought the helicopter down.
The arrest of Caro Quintero is the most high profile drug-trafficker arrest during the administration of Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who over the last few years had backed away from the hunt for drug bosses compared to his two predecessors.
Caro Quintero came to prominence in the Mexican drug trade during the 1970s while working with the now defunct Guadalajara Cartel. But he became of particular interest to the U.S. government following the 1985 murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, a crime for which he was convicted in Mexico.
He went on to serve 27 years of a 40 year sentence in Mexico, before walking free in 2013 on a technicality, further riling U.S. officials who had a decades old extradition request for Caro Quintero.
On finding freedom, Caro Quintero then reportedly re-established himself in the drug trade and the U.S. government put a $20 million bounty on his head.
But there are conflicting statements about how much the U.S government had to do with Caro Quintero’s capture last week.
DEA Administrator Anne Milgram released a statement Friday celebrating “our incredible DEA team in Mexico worked in partnership with Mexican authorities to capture and arrest Rafael Caro Quintero”
But the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, contradicted his own government when he released a statement saying: “the apprehension of Caro Quintero was exclusively conducted by the Mexican government.”
A DEA agent speaking anonymously with VICE World News and who was informed of the operation to arrest Caro Quintero said the agency was “indirectly involved,” and the operation on the ground was “100 percent executed by the Mexican Marines.”
“The DEA’s participation was through informants,” the agent said. “Mexico can’t pay or doesn’t have the means we have to pay informants, and so we did. [The informants] provided information like Caro Quintero’s phone number that ended up on his phone records and also his location. That was the information we shared with the Mexican Marines.”
Today, Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reiterated the government’s stance that Mexico alone was responsible for the arrest of Caro Quintero, and the DEA was not involved. They “had no participation whatsoever,” said the President in his early morning news conference.
The arrest came just days after López Obrador met with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington.
Former DEA agent Mike Vigil, who operated in the agency’s Mexico bureau during the 80s, said the agency contributed to the intelligence leading to Caro Quintero’s arrest.
“(DEA’s Administrator Anne) Milgram is correct. There were no DEA agents present on sight but the agency did collaborate with information. The information shared by the DEA was upon request of the Mexican government,” Vigil told VICE World News.
Although the Navy initially denied the helicopter was involved in the arrest of Caro Quintero on Friday, López Obrador quickly clarified later in the evening that it was in fact involved. He did not say why the helicopter crashed but that the government is investigating.
A mid-level member of the Caborca cartel —an independent criminal organisation allegedly founded in Sonora by Rafael Caro Quintero after his 2013 prison release—said his arrest will not have any effect on the cartel’s illegal operations.
“As quick as they take one of us out, the next one takes that place,” the anonymous source said. “Since we learned the government was after him [Caro Quintero], “El Pelo Chino” stepped in.”
José Gil “Pelo Chino” Caro Quintero, Rafael’s nephew, is said to be his uncle’s successor as the new boss for the Caborca cartel. Mexican and U.S. authorities have signalled “Pelo Chino” and the Caborca cartel as being behind the shipping of tons of cocaine and methamphetamine from Mexico to the U.S. for the Caborca cartel, according to news reports.
It remains to be seen what the Caborca cartel will do without its founder, but the arrest and conviction of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán did little to slow the business interests of the Sinaloa Cartel. And like his colleague El Chapo, if the Americans have their way Caro Quintero won’t be walking free again any time soon.
The process of extraditing Caro Quintero from Mexico to the U.S started over the weekend. But a federal judge in Mexico ruled Monday that Caro Quintero's extradition could not be fast-tracked and his case must go through the proper process.