Twenty-five years ago today, the brutally beaten body of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Enrique S. “Kiki” Camarena was discovered wrapped in plastic bags and dumped along a road near a ranch 60 miles southwest of Guadalajara, Mexico - a death that continues to echo even now throughout the agency.
The veteran agent, along with his pilot, Capt. Alfredo Zavala Avelar, had been viciously tortured by the bosses of a Mexican drug cartel fearful that he had uncovered a multimillion-dollar smuggling operation tied to top officers in the Mexican army, along with Mexican police and government officials.
Over a 30-hour period, Camarena’s skull, jaw, nose, cheekbones and windpipe had been crushed. His ribs were broken; a hole was drilled into his head with a screwdriver. The agent had been injected with drugs to ensure he remained conscious during his torture.
The brutality of the torture shocked even the most hard-core of DEA agents. While the agency acknowledged this week that no single event has had a more significant impact on DEA than the Camarena abduction and slaying, what might have been a wake-up call in Washington - not only to the rising threat of “narco-states” but also to the DEA’s role in combating it - fell mostly on deaf ears.
Camarena’s “vicious kidnapping, torture and murder 25 years ago remains a burning reminder of the dangers and high stakes involved in drug law enforcement,” acting DEA Administrator Michelle M. Leonhart said. “Special Agent Camarena’s murder endures as a turning point in the fight against drug traffickers and the brutal violence they use to oppress others.”
Yet 25 years later, the DEA has since seen only modest budget increases - along with one major reduction - and has been subjected to prolonged hiring freezes by both Democratic and Republican administrations. Much of the available funding has been diverted in recent years to combat terrorism, which has caused rancor among many of the agency’s supervisory and rank-and-file agents.
The agents said funding shortages and hiring freezes not only threatened efforts to reduce rapidly increasing violent drug crime, but also hampered efforts to combat terrorism worldwide. Many, in interviews this week with The Washington Times, noted that the illicit profit from global drug trafficking is a key source of revenue for terrorist organizations, adding that half of the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations have drug ties.
While the DEA maintains 227 field offices and 86 foreign offices in 62 countries, the agency has fewer than 5,600 agents.
Even now, talks are under way in El Paso, Texas, between U.S. and Mexican government officials in an effort to coordinate drug-fighting efforts. The DEA, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) all have agents in Mexico, but their activities are limited - mostly to sharing intelligence.
Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan on Wednesday reaffirmed that country’s position, saying Mexico does not “intend to weaken, violate or modify the laws that regulate the presence of foreign agents, in this case Americans, on Mexican territory.” He noted that Mexican law forbids the use of weapons by foreign agents on Mexican soil.
James H. Kuykendall, the agent in charge of the Guadalajara DEA field office at the time of the Camarena killing, said the agency immediately got additional funding and more agents after the death and the Mexican government began to help “clamp down” on drug smugglers, but he said efforts to disrupt and dismantle the problem “didn’t last.”
He said the Mexican government acted because it was “embarrassed” when the Camarena investigation established a link between the drug gangs and the Mexican military, police and government. That link was clearly confirmed after DEA agents discovered an audiotape of the torture session, according to government records.
Mr. Kuykendall, now retired and living in Laredo, Texas, said he can look across the Rio Grande from his home and see the drug violence that has since overtaken Mexico. He described corruption south of the border as the root cause of the rising violence.
He also challenged the resolve of the United States to fully confront the drug problem, asking whether the U.S. government - and the public, for that matter - “cares enough” to adequately fund efforts at combating the rise in drug crime.
“Apparently not,” said Mr. Kuykendall, who initiated the Camarena investigation when the agent’s wife, Mika, called to say her husband was missing. “Agent Camarena was a good man and a good friend.”