Rafael Caro Quintero: the case of Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, the DEA agent assassinated in Mexico for whom the US was persecuting the Narco de Narcos

The day Enrique Camarena’s body was found, everything changed. The Kiki, as he was known, was the first agent in DEA history to be killed.

The crime occurred on February 9, 1985 and caused, according to experts, the greatest diplomatic crisis between Mexico and the United States in recent history.

Mexican drug trafficker Rafael Caro Quintero was convicted of the crime, which occurred a few months after Camarena discovered a large marijuana plantation in the state of Sinaloa.

But Caro Quintero was released in 2013. The DEA then launched a $20 million dollar reward for information that would help recapture him.

This Friday, nine years later, he was captured in Mexico for the same crime.

Rafael Caro Quintero was detected in the bushes by a police dog.

In the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Camarena is considered a hero, and the recapture of his killer was unfinished business.

But who was this agent who died at the age of 37 and how was he close to the Guadalajara cartel?

the kiki

Camarena was born on July 26, 1947 in Mexicali, Baja California (Mexico). When she was 9 years old, she moved with her family from across the border to the sister city of Calexico, California.

After finishing high school, he enlisted in the US Navy, where he served two years.

Some time later he was a firefighter and later joined the Calexico Police Department. There he went on to work in a nearby city as a narcotics investigator.

In 1974 he became a DEA special agent.

The body of Enrique Camarena was transferred from Mexico to the United States.

Getty Images
The body of Enrique Camarena was transferred from Mexico to the United States.

Seven years later, in 1981, he was assigned to work in Guadalajara investigating the route of marijuana and cocaine to the United States.

The mission

In those years, Mexican and American drug traffickers transported drugs from one side of the border to the other in small planes.

The demand increased more and more and the Mexicans specialized in the routes that managed to reach the United States.

It was there that the main cartels allied with their Colombian peers to traffic cocaine, a substance that took up much less space and multiplied profits astronomically.

The capital of Jalisco, then, became the center of drug trafficking in Mexico.

“An investment boom came to Guadalajara even through large businessmen who began to launder a lot of money, especially in real estate construction, car agencies, shops, banks,” Felipe Cobián Rosales told BBC Mundo in 2013.

This was the scenario found by Camarena and other agents deployed in the city.

Kiki stayed a year and a half in Mexico. People who knew him at that time say that he managed to get close to some leaders of the Guadalajara cartel, especially Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo.

It is not clear if they knew that he was an undercover agent, but according to the Attorney General’s Office (PGR), the order to assassinate him was for revenge.

The crime

Camarena had decided to investigate the drug business in northern Mexico by air and, flying in a small plane piloted by Alfredo Zavala, discovered a large green space in the middle of the desert with perfectly planted plants.

He approached and confirmed that what he was looking for was there: almost a thousand hectares of marijuana that were worth -in the US market at the time- about $8,000 million dollars.

In November 1984, 450 soldiers entered the ranch known as El Búfalo in the state of Chihuahua.

Months later, as he was leaving the US consulate in Guadalajara to have lunch with his wife, Camarena was kidnapped by five men who put him in a car.

They took him to a house, tortured him and killed him.

The bodies of Enrique Camarena and pilot Alfredo Zavala wrapped in bags in a van in Mexico.

Getty Images
The bodies of Enrique Camarena and pilot Alfredo Zavala were found in the state of Michoacán weeks after they disappeared.

His body turned up four weeks later in the neighboring state of Michoacán.

Despite the fact that the authorities pointed out the responsibility of Caro Quintero at all times, former DEA agents pointed to the CIA as participants in the murder, something that was reflected in the Amazon documentary series The Last Narc (“The Last Narco”).

At the time it was learned that, when the case was investigated, an extensive network of protection for the Guadalajara cartel was discovered, in which police chiefs, military commanders and high-level officials of the Mexican government participated.

Among what caught the most attention was the fact that Caro Quintero and other cartel bosses, for example, were carrying IDs from the Federal Security Directorate (DFS), which was then the main Mexican intelligence agency to combat drug trafficking.

In addition, the El Búfalo ranch was protected by a commander of the Federal Judicial Police, Rafael Aguilar Guajardo, who years later founded the Juárez cartel.

Hence, the recapture of Caro Quintero, in July 2022, represents a historical fact for the case.

“El Kiki personalized the best of the DEA, he was a tenacious agent who relentlessly persecuted the drug cartels in Mexico,” Anne Milgram, head of the agency, wrote in a statement addressed to DEA workers.

“Kiki is a hero,” the official emphasized after learning of the recapture and extradition request of the main person accused of murdering a special agent for the first time.

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