Drug kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero’s capture in Mexico could be signal to U.S. government
Caro Quintero — wanted in the torture and murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985 — has been captured by Mexican forces nearly a decade after walking out of a Mexican prison.
MEXICO CITY — As Mexican marines closed in on infamous drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero deep in the mountains of his native state of Sinaloa, it was a 6-year-old bloodhound named Max that rousted from the undergrowth the man authorities say is responsible for the murder of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent more than three decades ago.
While the United States’ motivation to find Caro Quintero never was in doubt — hence the $20 million reward for information leading to his capture — there was less certainty about the commitment of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who had made clear his disinterest in pursuing drug lords.
Yet Friday, three days after López Obrador and President Joe Biden met in the White House, the DEA’s most-wanted target was in Mexican custody.
Mexico’s attorney general’s office said late Friday that Caro Quintero was arrested for extradition to the United States and would be held at the maximum-security Altiplano prison about 50 miles west of Mexico City.
Attorney General Merrick Garland and Ken Salazar, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, expressed gratitude for Mexico’s efforts to catch the man blamed for the torture and murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985 — a case that brought a low point in U.S.-Mexico relations.
“This achievement is a testament to Mexico’s determination to bring to justice someone who terrorized and destabilized Mexico during his time in the Guadalajara Cartel and is implicated in the kidnapping, torture and murder of DEA agent Kiki Camarena,” Salazar said late Friday.
Garland said the U.S. government would seek Caro Quinetero’s immediate extradition.
Cooperation between the DEA and Mexico’s marines had led to some of the highest-profile captures during previous administrations but not under López Obrador.
Both presidents face domestic pressure to do more against drug traffickers.
“It seems to me that, in the private talks between President Joe Biden and Andrés Manuel [López Obrador], they surely agreed to turning over high-profile drug traffickers again, which had been suspended,” security analyst David Saucedo said.
With Caro Quintero’s arrest, “Narcos are being captured again, and I believe that clearly it was what was in fact needed,” Saucedo said.
Samuel González, who founded the organized crime office in Mexico’s attorney general’s office and is now a security analyst, said that, to López Obrador’s benefit, the arrest “shows evidence that there’s no protection of capos” from his administration.
González said he thinks Caro Quintero has long been a thorn in the bilateral relationship, but said that “without doubt” his capture was fruit of the recent negotiations in Washington.
Mexico’s navy and attorney’s general’s office led the operation deep in the moutains that straddle the border between Sinaloa and Chihuahua states, many miles from any paved road. They found Caro Quintero, with the help of Max, hiding in brush in a place in Sinaloa called San Simon.
Caro Quintero came from Badiraguato, Sinaloa, the same township as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, the former leader of the Sinaloa cartel, which came later.
Caro Quintero was one of the founders of the Guadalajara cartel and, according to the DEA, was one of the primary suppliers of heroin, cocaine and marijuana to the United States in the late 1970s.
Authorities say he blamed Camarena for a raid on a huge marijuana plantation in 1984.
The following year, Camarena was kidnapped in Guadalajara, on orders from Caro Quintero, according to the DEA.
Camarena’s tortured body was found a month later.
Caro Quintero was serving a 40-year sentence in Mexico when an appeals court overturned his verdict in 2013. Mexico’s Supreme Court upheld the sentence, but it was too late — Caro Quintero had been spirited off in a waiting vehicle.
Caro Quintero was added to FBI’s 10 most-wanted list in 2018 with a $20 million reward for his capture.
López Obrador previously has seemed ambivalent about his case. Last year, the president said the legal appeal that led to Caro Quintero’s release was “justified” because supposedly no verdict had been handed down against the drug lord after 27 years in jail. López Obrador also depicted a later warrant for his re-arrest as an example of U.S. pressure.
“Once he was out, they had to look for him again because the United States demanded he shouldn’t have been released, but legally the appeal was justified,” López Obrador said.
Presidential spokesman Jesús Ramírez said at the time, “The president was just saying that it was a legal aberration that the judge had not issued a verdict on Mr. Caro Quintero after 27 years ... but he was not defending his release.”