How an Ex-Cop Linked to the Murder of a DEA Agent Walked Free From a Life Sentence

Discredited forensics evidence led a court to throw out a conviction and send a former cartel bodyguard back to Mexico. 
April 28, 2021, 1:49pm
​Former DEA Agent Kiki Camarena
Former DEA Agent Kiki Camarena. Photo

MEXICO CITY — A former Mexican police officer turned drug cartel bodyguard who spent more than 30 years in U.S. prison for his involvement in the kidnapping and murder of an undercover DEA agent was released and returned to Mexico, and apparently, freedom.

The 1985 murder of Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in Mexico is one of the most notorious incidents in U.S. law enforcement history, and Juan José Bernabé played a central role, according to U.S. authorities. But forensic evidence from Bernabé’s 1990 trial that has since been thrown into question led to Bernabé's release this month, cutting short his life sentence.

Advertisement

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) delivered Bernabé, 62, to Mexican immigration officials on the bridge that connects El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua on April 9. Court records show no outstanding charges for Bernabé in Mexico, meaning that authorities had no reason to arrest him once he crossed the bridge. 

Bernabé's release is only the latest development related to Camarena’s death, a murder that continues to be a sore point in relations between the United States and Mexico.

Camarena worked as a Drug Enforcement Administration field agent in Mexico in the 1980s and investigated the so-called Guadalajara Cartel, named for the city where the drug traffickers were based. The Guadalajara Cartel is generally considered the first modern Mexican drug cartel and the fallout of the Camarena murder spawned several of the cartels that grew to create much of the violence the country has suffered since then.

As the Guadalajara Cartel gained power under the leadership of three Mexican kingpins, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, Ernesto Fonseca, and Rafael Caro Quintero, Camarena became a major obstacle to the success of their drug production and smuggling operations. Court documents show that information obtained by Camarena led to major drug seizures, including the destruction of a marijuana plantation worth billions reportedly owned by Caro Quintero.

Soon after, five men kidnapped Camarena in February 1985 and took him to a home in an upscale Guadalajara neighborhood reportedly owned by Caro Quintero, where he was tortured for more than 30 hours prior to his death. A pilot and DEA informant of Camarena's named Alfredo Zavala was also murdered. Both bodies would be found in the neighboring state of Michoacan weeks later.

Advertisement

What exactly happened to Camarena is still subject to question. Many of those who are implicated say they are innocent. 

In Bernabé’s California trial, U.S. authorities alleged that he was one of the bodyguards outside the house, and may have been involved in the actual kidnapping, according to court documents. They also alleged that Bernabé was involved in an armed standoff with Mexican police at the Guadalajara airport that allowed Caro Quintero to escape Mexico after the murder. Caro Quintero would be arrested in Costa Rica later that year and extradited back to Mexico.

Both Caro Quintero and Fonseca were imprisoned in Mexico in 1985 for their role in Camarena's murder, followed by Félix Gallardo in 1989.

Although Mexican authorities captured and prosecuted the three drug lords, U.S. authorities continued to go after others who they believed were involved in the case. In 1988, three other cartel bodyguards were convicted in the United States for their role in Camarena's murder. During that trial, prosecutors played a recording of one of the bodyguards talking with an undercover agent, claiming that Camarena was killed “by mistake” after his captors “got carried away” as they tortured him during their interrogation.

Advertisement

Undercover DEA agents in Mexico began circling Bernabé in 1989 after flipping his new boss at a Guadalajara security firm into becoming a confidential informant.

On a trip to the United States, the boss turned informant introduced Bernabé to two DEA agents who were posing as a drug trafficker and his bodyguard. They prodded Bernabé over four meetings in July 1989 about what happened at Caro Quintero's house. During the first three meetings, Bernabé said he was not present during the interrogation. For the fourth meeting, the DEA agents got Bernabé drunk.

One of the agents would later testify that Bernabé admitted that evening to being present at Camarena's interrogation, although that statement was never recorded. Bernabé later said he had consumed thirteen beers that night, and in a recording of him in a car at the end of the night, he denied being present at Camarena's interrogation.

After those July meetings, his boss helped Bernabé receive a temporary visa to return to the United States, where he was arrested and tried.

Bernabé's ensuing 1990 trial proved to be especially high-profile because of his co-defendants: another former bodyguard named Javier Vásquez Velasco, infamous Honduran drug trafficker Juan Ramón Matta-Ballesteros, and the brother-in-law of former Mexican president Luis Echeverría, Rubén Zuno Arce. Prosecutors alleged that all four men were involved in the planning, kidnapping, and murder of Camarena.

Advertisement

During the trial, Bernabé admited to being a bodyguard for Fonseca but denied being involved in Camarena’s murder. The jury found Bernabé guilty on three charges, two related to Camarena’s kidnapping and murder and a third as an accessory for helping Caro Quintero escape Mexico. In 1991, Bernabé was sentenced to life on the kidnapping count, plus two ten-year sentences on the other counts.

His co-accused were also convicted on various charges related to Camarena’s kidnapping and murder.

But the convictions in Bernabé's 1990 trial, as well as the 1988 trial of the three bodyguards, have been thrown into doubt due to the testimony of an FBI agent named Michael Malone, who was found in the late 1990s to have exaggerated his forensics expertise. 

Malone's testimony in the two Camarena murder trials, along with numerous other high profile cases, have since been determined to exceed “the limits of science.” Malone said he found hairs at the alleged crime scene that were Camarena’s, evidence which later was determined to be insufficient.

The questions raised by Malone’s evidence cast uncertainty over the basic facts of the case - where Camarena was killed and who was present.

Advertisement

One of the bodyguards from the 1988 trial, René Verdugo Urquídez, was released in 2019, after winning his motion to throw out the sentence because of Malone's disputed testimony. In 2019, Bernabé also successfully sought to have his sentence thrown out and the Court accepted his guilty plea on lesser charges. He was then released this month for time served.

Mike Vigil, a DEA agent who worked with Camarena in Mexico in the early 1980s, said Bernabé had managed to evade justice. 

“Bernabé is like a slippery fish who slid out of the hands of American justice on a mere technicality,” said Vigil. “We're talking about a very violent man with a very violent history.”

The release also comes after the controversial 2013 release of Caro Quintero, who was serving a 40-year sentence.

Caro Quintero spent nearly 30 years in a Mexican prison before walking free on a technicality that was soon determined unlawful by the country's supreme court. His release outraged U.S. officials who expected his extradition after finishing his sentence in Mexico. 

Vigil told VICE World News that when he interrogated Matta-Ballesteros after his arrest in the late 1980s, the Honduran drug lord claimed that Caro Quintero killed Camarena. He expects Bernabé to reenter the criminal underworld, potentially joining Caro Quintero.

“I can assure you that this is a man that will go back to drug trafficking because that is the only profession that this man knows,” said Vigil.

“We have sent a catalyst into Mexico again to start working with these violent cartels.”