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After Caro Quintero's arrest in Mexico, is the Camarena case any closer to being solved?

The 1985 murder of DEA agent Kiki Camarena was a major part of the plot of the popular Netflix series 'Narcos: Mexico'. Following the arrest last week of Rafael Caro Quintero, the notorious Mexican drug lord, US authorities say they want to extradite him to stand trial for numerous crimes, including the kidnapping, torture and murder of Camarena. (Leer en español)
Publicado 23 Jul 2022 – 02:42 PM EDT | Actualizado 23 Jul 2022 – 03:02 PM EDT
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Two agents escort drug trafficker Rafael Caro Quintero following his capture on Friday, July 15, 2022, in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico. Crédito: AP

Following the arrest in Mexico last week of the notorious drug trafficker, Rafael Caro Quintero, U.S. authorities were quick to declare their intention to put him on trial for the notorious kidnapping, torture and murder of DEA agent Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena in 1985.

But they could face a potential legal dilemma if he is ever extradited to the United States. Almost 40 years later, the case may be too old and too tainted by prosecutorial misconduct to be successfully prosecuted. There’s also the awkward allegations by several witnesses of the CIA’s involvement in Camarena’s death.

Caro Quintero, 69, was mistakenly released from a Mexican jail in 2013 after serving 28 years of a 40-year sentence for his role in the assassination of a Mexican pilot helicopter, Captain Alfredo Zavala. Camarena and Zavala took the aerial photographs that led to the bust of a massive marijuana farm operated by Caro Quintero in Chihuahua. Caro Quintero, one of the leaders of the Guadalajara drug cartel, spent the last nine years on the run with a $20 million reward on his head as one the FBI’s ‘Most Wanted’ fugitives list.

While on the run, Caro Quintero is accused of continuing his drug trafficking activities, according to a 2020 drug trafficking indictment in New York.

The Camarena case dates back 35 years

Caro Quintero still faces an old indictment for the Camarena murder in Los Angeles, dating back to May 1987. The investigation into his death has continued to this day.

"To this day, the highlight of my professional career was the privilege of being part of the team that worked really hard as a federal prosecutor to bring in those people responsible for this heinous crime to justice,” said Manny Medrano, one of the original prosecutors who was in his mid-30s at the time. Now 66, Medrano said he hopes to see Caro Quintero extradited.

"Back in the day when we were prosecuting our case out of LA, we badly wanted Caro Quintero in a federal court to face prosecution because he was the engine that drove the machine for what happened to Kiki Camarena. So he’s as high up a defendant in this entire murder conspiracy that you can find," added Medrano.

The elusive cartel boss, known as ‘RCQ’ is expected to fight his extradition but his days may be numbered, experts say. “The U.S. wouldn’t pressure Mexico to extradite him if they didn’t think they had a strong case against him,” said Mike Vigil, a former head of international operations for the DEA.

To be sure, Caro Quintero’s name has been linked to the case by numerous witnesses who said he was enraged after Mexican troops busted his marijuana farm and set his merchandise, worth tens of millions of dollars, on fire. He was also identified on tape recordings of Camarena’s torture and murder as presiding over the gruesome interrogation that last two days. The tapes were later turned over to U.S. authorities.

Caro Quintero fled Mexico after Camarena’s murder and was captured two months later in Costa Rica. His diamond-studded Colt pistol, taken off him in Costa Rica, is today a prized exhibit at the DEA museum in Arlington, Virginia.

Who was Kiki Camarena and how did he die?

Camarena was born in Mexicali, Baja California and emigrated as a boy with his parents to Calexico, California. He served briefly as a U.S. Marine and joined the DEA in 1975. He was kidnapped right outside the U.S. consulate in Guadalajara on February 7, 1985 when he stepped out to meet his wife for lunch.

Camarena was taken to a large house nearby where witnesses say he was interrogated about DEA knowledge of the cartel’s operations. After two days of torture, he died from multiple blunt force injuries to the head and a perforated skull, aged 37. His body was found a month later dumped by the side of the road in the neighboring state of Michoacan.

The case against caro Quintero: dead witnesses and evidence fraud

But, over the years, some witnesses have died or changed their stories, the convictions of two others were vacated in 2017 after evidence linking them to the crime scene was thrown out by a judge due to fraudulent lab analysis by an FBI expert.

On top of that, three key witnesses who testified in previous trials against other people accused in the Camarena case, have since gone on record accusing the DEA and CIA of complicity in the murder, including a 2020 Amazon documentary series, The Last Narc, and two books, one by Mexican investigative journalist Jesus Esquivel, the Washington correspondent for Proceso magazine.

"Since 1985, much has been written about the story of Camarena and Caro Quintero in newspapers, magazines and books, both in the United States and in Mexico," Esquivel wrote in his book, 'The CIA, Camarena and Caro Quintero,' published in 2015. "It can even be argued that in Mexico this famous episode gave birth to what we now know as narcocorridos," he added.

Esquivel says the U.S. manhunt for the killers of Camarena "is only comparable" to the order that President Woodrow Wilson gave in 1916 to General John Pershing to enter Mexico to look for the 'bandit,' General Francisco Villa.

The case exposed high level Mexican government corruption. One man, Rubén Yuno Arce, who was convicted in Los Angeles and sentenced to life for his role, was the brother-in-law of former president Luis Echeverría. He died in jail of cancer in 2012, aged 82.

In the process, U.S. agents tripped over themselves trying to gather evidence, violating the law in some cases to grab witnesses. In the absence of an extradition treaty, one suspect, Humberto Álvarez Machaín, was abducted in Mexico in 1990 and put on trial in Los Angeles. A Mexican doctor, Álvarez Machaín, who was accused of administering drugs to Camarena during his torture sessions to keep him conscious. But the judge threw out the case and ordered him repatriated in 1992.

Microscopic hair evidence ended up overturning two convictions

One defendant, Rene Verdugo, spent 32 years in jail in the U.S. before being released in 2018 after a judge threw out his conviction for evidence fraud. “They ended up giving my client a plea deal that did not have anything to do with murder, basically just drug trafficking conspiracy, with time served,” his San Diego lawyer, John Lemon, told Univision.

Verdugo was convicted of Camarena’s murder in large part on the basis of microscopic hair evidence from the crime scene that was matched to some of the suspects by an FBI expert Michael Malone. Only years later did the Department of Justice reveal that Malone had a history of providing “false, misleading, or inaccurate testimony at criminal trials.”

Prosecutors dropped plans to retry Verdugo after Lemon discovered that Malone’s fraudulent analysis had been hidden from defense lawyers for years.

Matta-Ballesteros deported from Honduras, embassy attacked

The conviction of another trafficker accused in the murder, Juan Ramon Matta, was also overturned, though he remains in jail on other drug charges. Matta was jailed in the U.S. after being controversially arrested in Honduras and deported in 1988, prompting street protests during which part of the U.S. embassy in the capital, Tegucigalpa, was set on fire.

Now aged 77 and in poor health, Matta recently wrote to Univision offering to tell his story. Permission to interview him was denied by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Problems with the evidence and witnesses in the Camarena case go ever deeper.

“There was lot of additional misconduct that the government had been hiding for close to 30 years,” Lemon told Univision.

Was the CIA complicit in the death of Camarena?

Lemon said he was doing background investigations to prepare to cross-examine three key witnesses when the government decided to drop the case. The three witnesses - Ramon Lira, Rene Lopez and Jorge Godoy - were all corrupt former Mexican state policemen who had worked as bodyguards for Caro Quintero and other Guadalajara cartel leaders. They had told investigators that a CIA operative was present at meetings where Camarena’s abduction was discussed. They also claimed a DEA official accepted money from the cartel.

“There are just reams and reams of material. Cross examination of these guys could take days if not weeks,” said Lemon. “I mean, it's definitely going to be challenging from the standpoint of putting on a prosecution case. Given the fact that we're [more than] 35 years now down the road, most of the percipient [eye]witnesses are gone. The witnesses that they do have, have checkered histories and they are definitely putting CIA right in the middle of this,” he added.

The witnesses claim a Cuban-American CIA operative, Félix Rodríguez, participated in Camarena’s 1985 interrogation. Rodríguez, alias Max Gomez, was allegedly involved in the 1980s in a secret training program in Mexico for the Contra rebels fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The training camp was allegedly at a ranch owned by Caro Quintero in Veracruz.

Univision was unable to contact Rodríguez, now aged 81, this week to obtain his comment, but he has previously denied being in Mexico at the time.

While Rodríguez’s role in the Contra war is no secret, there is little or no evidence of a Mexican training camp. “I was right in the middle of it as an analyst and we never looked at Mexico as an angle. On the analytical side, we were aware of certain things, but [Veracruz] didn’t come to my attention,” said former CIA analyst Fulton Armstrong, who now lectures on Latin American studies at American University in Washington.

"There were training camps in bizarre places with bizarre people. I did know there were Cuban American bad boys in a whole lot of places. They created so many legends around their operations,” added Armstrong.

Although legal rules allow the government to protect classified information from becoming public in court proceedings, in this case the three Mexican policeman have already gone public, both in Esquivel’s book and the Amazon documentary, that was released in 2020. They were also brought to light by the DEA’s own investigation into the case, known as ‘Operation Leyenda’, though much of what they said was covered up, according to former DEA agent who led the investigation, Hector Berrellez.

Berrellez was later removed from the case and published a book which became the basis for the Amazon documentary.

“If he [Caro Quintero] is extradited, needless to say they are going to have a problem,” said Celerino Castillo, a former DEA agent who worked with Berrellez. Castillo told Univision that he worked with Rodríguez at the Ilopango air force base in El Salvador in the 1980s where the Contra re-supply effort was being conducted. “I worked hand in hand with the CIA. I knew this was going to happen when they picked up Caro Quintero. It’s a story that’s got to be told. Those allegations are there,” he added.

Neither the DEA not the Department of Justice responded to requests by Univision News for comment on the strength of the case or the allegations of CIA involvement.

After so many years Camarena’s widow is still hoping for justice. One of her children, Enrique Camarena Jr, is now a district judge in San Diego.

When asked if the U.S. government has told the truth about what happened to her husband, Geneva ‘Mika’ Camarena told the Amazon documentary: “I don't think they've told anybody the whole truth. The whole truth lies with the people that were there. They hold the truth.”