The U.S. Department of Justice said Friday that the release of Rafael Caro Quintero, a legendary drug boss in Mexico connected to the murder of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, was “troubling and disappointing” – a sign the move could throw a wrench in U.S.–Mexico relations.
Caro Quintero, who founded a major criminal group that later split into several other orgnizations including the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels, was ordered released after authorities ruled that his conviction for the 1985 killing should have been handed down in a state court and not by federal authorities. Camarena was kidnapped in Mexico and subsequently tortured and murdered. The Associated Press reported that Mexican authorities said he would be released in part because he has already served time for drug trafficking charges. The kingpin was convicted in 1989 and ordered to serve 40 years in prison. Mexico does not have a death penalty. The AP reported he was freed early Friday.
Caro Quintero is still wanted in the U.S. on charges of murder and kidnapping in connection with Camarena’s death.
“In May 1987, the Department of Justice, through the United States Attorney’s Office in the Central District of California, indicted Caro Quintero and several others for conspiracy and racketeering charges related to the kidnapping, torture and murder in Mexico of Agent Camarena,” Peter Carr, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said Friday in a statement. “In the years since, the Department of Justice has continued to make clear to Mexican authorities the continued interest of the United States in securing Caro Quintero’s extradition so that he might face justice in the United States."
The DEA said in a statement that it would continue to seek Caro Quintero's extradition to the U.S. to face murder charges.
“Caro Quintero was the mastermind and organizer of this atrocious act. We are reminded every day of the ultimate sacrifice paid by Special Agent Camarena and DEA will vigorously continue its efforts to ensure Caro Quintero faces charges in the United States for the crimes he committed,” the statement said.
The U.S. Treasury Department in June designated sanctions against 18 people and 15 entities linked to the notorious trafficker. It stated in a June news release that “Caro Quintero continues his alliance with Esparragoza Moreno’s organization and its key players,” referring to Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, known as “El Azul,” a leader within the Sinaloa Cartel. “The President identified Caro Quintero and Esparragoza Moreno as significant foreign narcotics traffickers pursuant to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act) in 2000 and 2003, respectively.”
Phil Jordan, a former associate of Camarena’s who was with the agent in Mexico City months before he was kidnapped and murdered, said that Caro Quintero’s release is a sign that Mexico could revert to its former ways, referring to the corruption that plagued Mexico during the decades-long rule last century by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s election last year marked the PRI’s return to power after 12 years of rule under the National Action Party, or PAN, which began in 2000.
“There is a clear indication of the return to the pre-[PAN] Fox/Calderon days,” said Jordan, the former director of the EL Paso Intelligence Center who was also a senior inspector with the DEA when he worked with Camarena in the 1980s. “If this administration is serious they would – without hesitation – release Caro Quintero to the United States to face real justice.”
Jordan spoke fondly of his slain comrade and said he used to request that Camarena personally escort him through Mexico, citing his former military service as proof that the agent was to be trusted.
“I specifically asked Kiki to pick me up at the airport. He was an ex-Marine,” he said. “The way they tortured and killed him, it’s a reflection of how cowardly Caro Quintero was.”