Shortly after 2 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 9, 1985, agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, frantically searching for their kidnapped comrade Enrique Camarena, spotted the prime suspect — cartel kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero, surrounded by five machine-gun-toting bodyguards, strutting toward a Falcon executive jet on the Guadalajara airport tarmac.
The swarthy young trafficker, sporting pricey cowboy boots and a blinding 6-inch-wide diamond bracelet, beckoned the Mexican police commander minding the Americans, whispered a promise of 60 million pesos (about $270,000) and showily exchanged abrazos with the cop. Then Caro turned toward the Americans, took a swig from a bottle of champagne and raised his machine gun. "My children, next time bring better weapons, not little toys," he laughed.
As the trafficker's jet disappeared into the bright winter sky, Enrique "Kiki" Camarena's mangled corpse lay in a steel-barred chamber behind one of Caro's mansions. The 37-year-old ex-Marine had been tortured viciously for two days. U.S. military pathologists found that he probably died when a tire iron or something like it pierced his skull, around the time Caro was sauntering across the tarmac. Other recent victims were Camarena's pilot, Alfredo Zavala, and six American tourists whom Caro had executed in a fit of cocaine-induced paranoia.
Enraged and grief-stricken DEA agents tracked the kingpin to Costa Rica, which expelled him to Mexico. Under intense U.S. pressure, Mexican authorities secured a 40-year sentence against him.
The gruesome discoveries surrounding the death of Kiki Camarena and the obvious complicity of senior Mexican authorities have haunted U.S.-Mexican relations to this day. The case has come to symbolize not only horror but betrayal at every level of the relationship between the two distrustful neighbors.
All that fury was rekindled this month when a Mexican court in Guadalajara abruptly released Caro on a "technicality" after 28 years in prison. Many American law enforcement officials are deeply skeptical of claims by aides to President Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office in December, that Mexico City had no advance word that an infamous killer was about to walk free.
"The new [Mexican] administration which had promised so much is probably as corrupt as the old," says Jack Lawn, who as DEA administrator led an investigation of the Camarena murder that exposed rampant Mexican corruption. "Time will tell, but I'm not optimistic this administration will do anything about it."
Caro's release raises new questions about the capabilities of U.S. intelligence at a time when counter-terrorism agencies are supposed to be on high alert for terrorists and criminals exploiting the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican frontier. Why was the Obama administration blindsided?
"This doesn't speak well of our intelligence apparatus at all," says Lawn, now retired. "Is our intelligence system so superficial that we don't know what's going on in a neighboring country?"
And what of the National Security Agency's vaunted capacities to sweep in communications from around the world? Did it fail to collect and analyze chatter about Caro's imminent release? His drug empire is still active and a high priority for some U.S. agencies: Only two months ago, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted 33 Caro Quintero family members, associates and companies operating in Guadalajara and Culiacan, a grim city in the Sierra Madre highlands near where Caro was born.
U.S. officials have always assumed that Caro Quintero was directing his criminal empire from prison. In 1989, numerous news organizations reported that Caro and a fellow kingpin had taken over two entire cellblocks designed for 250 inmates and remodeled them, installing kitchens, living and dining rooms, offices, marble bathrooms and, for Caro, a carpeted master bedroom with satin sheets and closets full of silk shirts, cowboy boots and cowboy hats. Women and children visited freely. A prison official bent on reform said the kingpins had guns, cellphones, fax machines and other communications gear. He moved the traffickers to less opulent digs, at least for a while, but no one believed that Caro ever lost control of his drug business.
The U.S. investigation concluded that compliant Mexican officials were the key to Caro's success. Tape recordings of Camarena's torture obtained by the CIA showed that an ex-secret policeman interrogated Camarena over two days. When the Reagan administration put the heat on officials in Mexico City to produce the agent or his body, Mexican Federal Judicial Police "discovered" the corpses of Camarena and Zavala on a ranch outside Guadalajara. Police killed the ranch owner, his wife and three sons in what looked like a clumsy frame-up.
In the late 1980s, a federal grand jury in Los Angeles filed murder and conspiracy indictments against Caro, his fellow cartel kingpins and seven current or former Mexican law enforcement officials, most importantly Manuel Ibarra Herrera, the head of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police. Some lower-ranking officers went to jail in Mexico, but Ibarra was never charged there, an oversight that compounded tensions between the two countries.
After word of Caro's release reached Washington last week, Justice Department and DEA officials scrambled to dust off the old provisional arrest warrant for him. They delivered it to Mexican Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam on Wednesday, and a Mexican judge ordered Caro rearrested. This belated gesture is not likely to mollify American officials, and it could trigger more bloodshed. Caro symbolizes everything that has angered and frustrated Americans about Mexico, and he is not done yet. He can be expected to kill again and again.
"They can issue all the arrest warrants they want, but he's got his own network that's going to hide him," says Bill Mockler, a retired DEA agent who investigated the Camarena murder. "He always traveled with an entourage of gangsters and sicarios [assassins], and some of the bodyguards were cops. If they go after him with any sincerity, he's not going to go down easy."
Elaine Shannon is an independent journalist and author of Desperados, a bestselling book about the 1985 murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena.