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The US Is About to Deport Mexican Drug Lord Hector 'El Güero' Palma

Palma worked as a hitman with El Chapo before they rose through the ranks to become two of the most infamous gangsters in Mexico.
Photo via Reuters

Hector Palma Salazar — one of the most notorious Mexican drug traffickers in the 80s and early 90s and a former partner of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán — has been transferred from a US prison to immigration custody pending deportation.

Known as El Güero, best translated as Whitey or Blondie, Palma was first arrested in Mexico in 1995 and then extradited to the US in 2007.

A statement from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said the transfer of the drug lord to its custody happened on Friday. The agency did not say when it would be handing him over to Mexico. Mexican media reported that this is likely to take place next week at the Tijuana border crossing.


El Güero, who is in his mid-60s, is the latest ageing former capo to be released after a long spell behind bars. It comes at a time when the powerful Sinaloa cartel he helped found is in the midst of an identity crisis with El Chapo now apparently firmly locked up in prison, and awaiting almost certain extradition to the US.

According to Mike Vigil, who was a Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Mexico during El Güero's heydey, Palma holds a special place in the history of Mexican drug trafficking.

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"Even though he's been incarcerated since 1995, he's still highly regarded by many of the Mexican cartels," he said. "The Sinaloa cartel will embrace him. I don't think he's going to takeover the cartel, but he certainly can provide leadership to the cartel, keep it strong, especially with the looming extradition of Chapo Guzmán."

Palma gained prominence alongside Guzmán as a hitman in the 1980s.

At first he worked for Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo who led the Guadalajara cartel along with Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo. But his notoriety took off amid the increased US pressure on the cartel following the 1985 kidnapping and murder of a DEA agent called Enrique "Kiki" Camarena, which led to the arrest of all three bosses within four years.

The story goes that before his arrest in 1989, Félix Gallardo gave Palma and Guzmán control of one part of his criminal empire and gave another to the Arellano Félix brothers. The rivalry between the two groups would bring a particularly bloody turf war that provided the first glimpses of the kind of brutality that has become commonplace in the drug battles of today.


The split is said to have exploded into war when the Arellano Félix brothers reacted to a drug deal with Palma going wrong by asking a Venezuelan associate named Rafael Clavel Moreno to seduce his wife.

Moreno convinced Palma's wife to run away together to San Francisco, taking Palma's two young children with them. The wife then stole $7 million from one of Palma's bank accounts and gave it to the Venezuelan. After receiving the money, Moreno decapitated her and sent her head to Palma in a box. Then he took the two kids to Venezuela and reportedly either threw them off a bridge or out of a low-flying plane.

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"He kind of went over the edge after that," Vigil said of El Güero. "He became a complete psychopath, a killing machine."

For a while it looked like the Arellano Félix brothers, by then based in the border city of Tijuana, were gaining the upper hand in the feud that followed. By 1993 this appeared totally out of control when the two groups allegedly engaged in a massive shootout in the parking lot of Guadalajara's airport — during which a Catholic cardinal was killed in his Grand Cherokee.

The bloodbath at the airport triggered a manhunt that caught up with Chapo within a few weeks in Guatemala. This left El Güero Palma in charge until he was arrested two years later after emerging unharmed from a small plane crash.


The veteran capo spent 12 years in a Mexican jail until he was extradited to the US in 2007. His release this weekend knocks seven years off his 16-year sentence — for good behavior.

During that period, El Chapo would cement himself as the head of the Sinaloa cartel and gain international infamy when he escaped from Mexican maximum security prisons in 2001 and 2015. Guzmán was recaptured in January and is currently awaiting extradition in a northern Mexican prison.

With El Güero Palma's deportation imminent, Mexico's authorities have made it clear they would like to arrest him again, but that is not so easy to do. Attorney General Arely Gomez told reporters this Tuesday that her office has searched for possible cases to revive but have yet to find one where the statute of limitations has not expired.

Alejandro Hope, a prominent security analyst in Mexico, doubted the government will be able to find the evidence they need to keep him in jail. He said Palma should probably be more concerned about vengeance.

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"It depends how many enemies he still has," said Hope. "I don't know much he cooperated with the DEA or other US agencies when he was in jail. If he did cooperate, he might be a target."

It would not be the first time.

The US authorities freed a former foe of Palma, Rafael Arellano Félix, in 2008. Five years later a hitman dressed as a clown shot him dead at his 63rd birthday party in Los Cabos, Baja California Sur.


Others, meanwhile, have opted for quiet celebrity.

Sanda Ávila Beltrán, who the Mexican press dubbed the Queen of the Pacific when she was arrested in 2007, was released from Mexican prison in February 2015.

She recently gave a lengthy interview with The Guardian in which she is seen posing under large pieces of art in her swanky home. During the interview she rehashed her life within the drug cartels and made it clear she felt no remorse.

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And then there is the looming example of what happened after Rafael Caro Quintero, one of Palma's former bosses, who walked away from Mexican prison in 2013.

Caro Quintero had served 28 years of a 40-year sentence for the murder of DEA agent Camarena and his early release on a technicality triggered fury within the agency. This only increased when he disappeared immediately after and allegedly took up a leadership role in the Sinaloa cartel alongside Chapo Guzmán.

Vigil, the former DEA agent, believes that El Güero Palma may well try to follow Caro Quintero's footsteps because "that's the only thing he knows, and he knows it extremely well."

Hope, the security analyst, however, thinks this is unlikely because he has been "out of the loop" for too long.

"I don't think we'll hear from him again," Hope said. "He may just disappear."

Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz