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.”
Drug-related violence on the U.S.-Mexico border has surged over the past several years, the result of intense competition between two warring drug cartels. More than 8,000 people, including about 800 Mexican police officers and soldiers, have been killed in the resulting war, which has spread into the United States.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently reported “an unprecedented surge” of border violence, and the Justice Department has reported that Mexican drug cartels represent the “largest threat to both citizens and law enforcement agencies in this country and now have gang members in nearly 200 U.S. cities.”
Abducted in Guadalajara by five Jalisco State police officers, Camarena was still bound and gagged, his eyes taped shut, when his body was found.
Due to be reassigned less than a month after his body was discovered, he had infiltrated a number of drug gangs, confiscated thousands of pounds of cocaine and marijuana, and seized millions of dollars in illicit drug profits. He had become the worst nightmare for drug smugglers throughout Mexico, particularly those in Guadalajara, then the center of that country’s drug-trafficking empire.
DEA investigators, after discovering the audiotape, determined that Camarena had been beaten with a cattle prod, a tire iron and a broomstick. On the tape, according to those who have heard it, the agent is heard moaning in pain and pleading with his captors, “Don’t hurt my family.”
An autopsy report showed that Mr. Zavala Avelar, who flew small planes to help Camarena scout out marijuana fields, had been buried alive.
The kidnapping and slaying led to the most comprehensive homicide investigation ever undertaken by DEA, which ultimately uncovered corruption and complicity by numerous Mexican officials. Operation Leyenda, translated as Operation Lawman, was established in May 1985 to investigate the abduction. DEA was ultimately successful in securing indictments of several people connected to the slaying.
The investigation, according to the DEA, was long and complex, made more difficult by the fact that the crime was committed on foreign soil and involved major drug traffickers and corrupt Mexican government officials.
The 37-year-old agent, a former U.S. Marine who grew up in a dirt-floored house in Mexico and later moved with his family to the U.S. to pick fruit, was kidnapped on Feb. 7, 1985, as he left the DEA office in Guadalajara to meet his wife for lunch. He had locked his badge and his service revolver in his desk drawer.
According to a reconstruction of the kidnapping by DEA investigators based on witness statements and physical evidence, Camarena was crossing the street en route to his pickup when he was surrounded and grabbed by the Jalisco State police officers, who shoved him into a van and sped away.
The kidnapping occurred in broad daylight within a block of the U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara. Mr. Zavala Avelar was kidnapped the same day in a separate incident. Both were taken to a ranch owned by the drug smugglers, where they were sadistically beaten and tortured.
Immediately after the agent was kidnapped, John Gavin, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, demanded that Mexican authorities do whatever was necessary to find the agent and return him safely. When Mexican authorities showed little interest in pursuing the case, Operation Camarena was ordered all along the U.S.-Mexico border - every vehicle entering this country was searched. As a result, a border crossing that usually took five minutes took five hours.
The initial suspect in the kidnapping was Rafael Caro Quintero, then 32 and the owner of a marijuana ranch that employed hundreds of workers and had operated with apparent immunity for years. Three months before the kidnapping, the ranch had been raided by Mexican authorities on Camarena’s insistence. The raid resulted in the seizure of $160 million of marijuana already baled and readied for shipment to the U.S.
The U.S. government sought an arrest warrant for Caro Quintero, but he and several of his lieutenants were allowed to leave Guadalajara for Costa Rica on the drug czar’s private jet after giving First Comandante Jorge Armando Pavon Reyes a check for 60 million pesos - equivalent to about $265,000 in 1985 U.S. currency and twice that much today.
On his way to Costa Rica, Caro Quintero - then known as the “drug lord of drug lords” - picked up his teenage girlfriend, Sara Cristina Cosio Martinez. The DEA later tracked a call she made to her parents in Mexico City back to a mansion in Costa Rica, where Caro Quintero was arrested by Costa Rican police and returned to Mexico.
A second suspect, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, then 60, was arrested in Puerto Vallarta, along with 23 suspected members of the Guadalajara drug cartel - 14 of whom were Mexican police officers.
Caro Quintero and Fonseca Carrillo received 40-year sentences, which they are still serving in Mexico.
Camarena’s death has since sparked what is called the annual Red Ribbon Week, in which millions of parents and children wear red ribbons during a week in October to support DEA’s efforts to reduce demand for drugs through prevention and education programs. Participants pledge to lead drug-free lives to honor the sacrifices made by the agent and others.
Students, teachers, law enforcement officials, drug-prevention specialists and community leaders will take part in the first “Marching for Kiki’s Red Ribbon” to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his death on Saturday in San Diego.
Camarena is survived by his wife, Mika, and three children, Enrique, then 11, Daniel, then 6, and Erick, then 4. He was given a hero’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery.