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MEXICO CITY — Mexican Marines on Friday captured fugitive drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero, a top target of U.S. law enforcement who was convicted in the 1985 killing of a DEA agent, an event that transformed the American government’s war on narcotics traffickers, according to Mexican authorities.
Caro Quintero, 69, is considered one of the architects of the kidnapping, torture and murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena in Mexico. The co-founder of the Guadalajara Cartel had served 28 years of a 40-year prison sentence for that killing and other crimes when he was suddenly released before dawn on Aug. 9, 2013, on orders of a judge citing administrative reasons.
Since then, Caro Quintero’s recapture has been an obsession for the DEA and a top priority for successive U.S. administrations. In 2020, then-attorney general William P. Barr urged Mexico’s government to track down the drug chief in a reciprocal gesture as the Trump administration dropped narcotics trafficking charges against former defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda and sent him back to Mexico, according to several officials. But Caro Quintero repeatedly escaped as agents closed in.
“There are hundreds of [DEA] agents that went to Mexico to defend the national security of this country, but also to bring RCQ to justice,” said Terry Cole, a retired DEA agent who served in Mexico.
After Caro Quintero was released in 2013, Mexico issued a new arrest warrant for him. Now, the U.S. government is seeking the trafficker’s extradition on cocaine trafficking charges in federal court in New York.
American authorities had offered a $20 million award for information leading to Caro Quintero’s arrest, and he was on the FBI and DEA lists of most wanted fugitives. His detention Friday came days after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador met President Biden at the White House. Mexico has recently sharply stepped up its anti-drug efforts, particularly against producers of the deadly opioid fentanyl.
Mexican Marine special forces, aided by U.S. intelligence, captured the drug lord near Choix in Sinaloa state, according to two former U.S. officials privy to the details. One, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational details, said Caro Quintero had been traveling with a small group of bodyguards and was in a wooded area.
Hours after the capture, a Mexican Marine helicopter crashed near Los Mochis, Sinaloa, in an apparent accident, killing several Marines, according to Mexican and U.S. officials. The newspaper Reforma, citing unidentified Navy sources, reported that the Marines had helped in the hunt for Caro Quintero.
The trafficker’s arrest was long sought by the DEA, but it could also send a powerful message to members of Mexico’s criminal underworld, said Manelich Castilla, the former head of the Mexican federal police.
“These living symbols represent a great to deal to the criminals,” he said on Milenio TV.
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Camarena, a U.S. Marine and police officer before he joined the DEA, was kidnapped on Feb. 7, 1985, in Guadalajara, an important drug-trafficking hub, shocking the U.S. government and prompting a massive manhunt. U.S. customs agents choked off traffic on the Mexican border to press for action in the case. The DEA angrily alleged that corrupt Mexican police helped Caro Quintero secretly fly out of the country.
A month after the abduction, the bodies of the U.S. drug agent and his pilot were found in shallow graves in the state of Michoacán. The killings were attributed to Caro Quintero, a major marijuana producer, and two other drug kingpins — Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo and Ernesto “Don Neto” Fonseca. Caro Quintero was subsequently captured in Costa Rica and extradited to Mexico. All three men were convicted in the slayings.
Camarena’s murder had far-reaching consequences: It led to the dissolution of Mexico’s corruption-plagued federal police force and an expanded role for the DEA. “His sacrifice bolstered the department’s budget, its personnel and its political standing,” Benjamin T. Smith wrote in “The Dope,” a history of the Mexican drug trade. “By the late 1980s, it spearheaded America’s increasing focus on international counternarcotics.”
The Camarena killing and the homicide investigation was chronicled in the Netflix series “Narcos Mexico.”
U.S.-Mexican drug cooperation deteriorated after López Obrador, a longtime leftist, took office in 2018 vowing to end the “war on drugs” and lure young people away from trafficking with social programs. He was a staunch critic of the kingpin strategy employed by his predecessors to go after leaders of drug cartels.
Relations deteriorated further in 2020, when U.S. officials acting on a DEA request arrested Cienfuegos at the Los Angeles Airport and accused the former defense minister of drug trafficking. Mexico retaliated by limiting the ability of DEA agents to work in the country.
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Lately, however, there has been a pronounced uptick in Mexican busts of fentanyl and methamphetamine labs. This week, in a meeting in Washington, Biden and López Obrador agreed to set up a fentanyl task force. Synthetic drugs have become a growing crisis in the United States, where more than 100,000 people overdosed last year, largely due to the rising use of fentanyl.
It was not clear whether the timing of the arrest of Caro Quintero was related to the White House meeting.
Caro Quintero was once nicknamed the “Godfather” of Mexican drug trafficking. The Sinaloa native co-founded the Guadalajara cartel, a network of allies who dominated the shipment of drugs to the United States in the 1980s and was among the first to team up with major Colombian cocaine dealers.
Since his release in 2013, Caro Quintero has maintained a low profile but is thought to have close ties to leaders of the Sinaloa cartel. He is believed to have been operating in the area of Caborca, Sinaloa, and is rumored to be in poor health.