MEXICO CITY - In the wee hours of August 9, 2013, Rafael Caro Quintero walked free from a Mexican prison while serving a 40-year prison sentence for the torture and murder of a DEA agent.
The shocking early release of the drug lord, targeted for extradition by U.S. law enforcement, has been a sore point for years between the two neighboring countries, but according to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Wednesday, the release was “legal.”
Caro Quintero spent 27 years behind bars in Mexico for his role in the 1985 murder of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena. But in 2013, an appeals court overturned the sentence claiming that the case should have been overseen by a state court, rather than a federal one, and ordered the immediate release of the kingpin.
News of the release in 2013 came as a surprise to both Mexican authorities, and the U.S. government, which expected to seek his extradition once he finished serving time in Mexico.
López Obrador made the comment as he discussed the case of an alleged kidnapper who had been held in prison without a trial for nearly 15 years, which he compared to Caro Quintero’s case. Experts say that there are over 90,000 prisoners in Mexico who have yet to stand trial.
The President’s remark is likely to prove a new irritant in the already strained relationship with the United States over security issues. López Obrador has shifted priorities in his approach, and recently protected a key military official accused of drug-trafficking in the United States, and also created new restrictions for U.S. agents operating Mexico.
During his morning press conference this week, President López Obrador said that Caro Quintero’s appeal “proceeded legally” because he had never stood trial and that is why he was freed. He then asked rhetorically: "How is a person going to be detained without a sentence?"
The president's statement immediately provoked backlash because it was based on a misunderstanding of what had taken place. López Obrador seemed to argue that Caro Quintero had been held for over two dozen years without a verdict, although in fact, he had been sentenced by a federal court. The appeal was related to which court should have tried him.
After Caro Quintero walked free, Mexico's Supreme Court quickly annulled the release order in 2013. The court ruled that because Kiki Camarena was a U.S. government agent, his murder was a federal crime and Caro Quintero had been tried in the correct court after all.
But by that time, Caro Quintero had disappeared and remains on the lam nearly eight years later. He currently sits at the top of the DEA's Most Wanted List, with a $20 million bounty on his head.
Mike Vigil, a former DEA agent who worked with Camarena in Mexico, called López Obrador's comments "a slap in the face."
"How can you make those statements when the Mexican Supreme Court said it was a mistake for the lower court judge to release Caro Quintero?"
The murder of Agent Camarena has become one of the most emblematic incidents in U.S. law enforcement history. In the early 1980s, Camarena went undercover to play a central role in investigating the so-called Guadalajara Cartel, often considered the first modern Mexican drug trafficking organization.
Caro Quintero, along with Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo and Ernesto Fonseca Carillo, pioneered a collaborative criminal model where they shared access to corrupt officials and trafficking routes, and also became one of the first groups to forge relationships with Colombian cocaine traffickers to move drugs through Mexico into the U.S.
The Guadalajara Cartel is also known for launching the criminal careers of a number of underworld figures who would go on to shape the future of drug trafficking, like Joaquín "El Chapo" Gúzman, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, known as “Lord of the Skies” for his use of aircrafts to move drugs, and the Arellano Félix brothers.
In February 1985, Camarena went missing in Guadalajara and his dead body would be discovered the following month in a neighboring state. U.S. authorities alleged that the agent had been taken to a house owned by Caro Quintero in Guadalajara where he was tortured and murdered.
Investigators soon blamed the Guadalajara Cartel leaders - Caro Quintero, Fonseca Carillo and Félix Gallardo - for Camarena's murder. After what Vigil called a "worldwide manhunt," Fonseca was arrested in Mexico and Caro Quintero was picked up in Costa Rica. Félix Gallardo was arrested four years later in Mexico.
Vigil said that when he interrogated another prominent Guadalajara Cartel associate who had been arrested in the murder, Juan Ramón Matta-Ballesteros, he claimed that it was Caro Quintero who killed Camarena.
After his 2013 release, Caro Quintero went underground. He briefly reappeared in 2016 for an interview with Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández where he declared that he wasn't involved in Camarena's murder and pleaded for a second chance.
"In the name of humanity I believe that I deserve to be left in peace," said Caro Quintero. "I stopped being a drug trafficker in 1984 and will never be one again."
In the interview, which took place in a dirty, barren room somewhere in Northern Mexico, Caro Quintero (who is believed to be anywhere between 58 and 69 years old) repeatedly claimed that he was living in poverty and should be left alone.
U.S. Authorities claim otherwise, and a 2018 indictment in New York alleges that he got back into drug trafficking after his release from prison and into 2017.
Vigil said that López Obrador's comments about Caro Quintero "send a horrific message."
"He still doesn't realize that you can’t be speaking out on behalf of very violent drug traffickers and expect them to say, ‘OK, well, you know, he’s speaking very nicely about it, so we're going to stop drug trafficking. We're going to stop the violence totally.’ It's the contrary."
López Obrador has backed away from the hunt for kingpins, a shift after a dozen years of pursuing their capture. He ordered the release of El Chapo's son in October 2019 after his detention by authorities in Culiacán prompted gun fights broke out around the city that is home to the Sinaloa Cartel. He later shook hands with El Chapo's mother during a visit to her hometown during a weekend tour of the region.
The comment is the latest sour note in a series of escalating tensions between U.S. law enforcement and the López Obrador government. Vigil recalled the time that he and Camarena, along with dozens of Mexican police officers, raided a marijuana ranch and ended up in a shootout with alleged Caro Quintero associates. But according to the former agent, collaboration on operations like that between the two countries is now at an all-time low.
In October, bilateral relations were rocked when U.S. law enforcement arrested Mexico's former Defense Minister in Los Angeles on charges that he was involved in drug trafficking. The Mexican government quickly applied political pressure and threatened to kick the DEA out of Mexico ifGeneral Salvador Cienfuegos wasn’t repatriated. But weeks after Cienfuegos was sent home, he was cleared of any wrongdoing alleged in the U.S indictment, with little to no investigation.
The president also pushed through a change to Mexican law in December that restricted U.S. agents in Mexico and removed their diplomatic immunity.
"It's very insulting to the DEA and to U.S. law enforcement who have helped Mexico deal with drug trafficking. We've lost agents in Mexico," said Vigil. "And for him to be saying that they did the right thing with Caro Quintero, and now they're having to spend resources looking for him again, you know, it's error upon error, and it doesn't bode well in terms of our working relationship."