MEXICO CITY -- Powerful Mexican drug boss Rafael Caro Quintero was off the streets in 1985, arrested in Costa Rica on suspicion of ordering a hit on a U.S. drug agent. His fate appeared to be sealed in 1989, when a Mexican judge convicted him and sentenced him to 40 years in prison.
It has been a long time since Caro's halcyon days when, according to a Times article in 1992, he was the guest of honor at lavish parties, including one where he flamboyantly smoked cocaine while on the back of a dancing horse.
And apparently Caro’s influence lives on, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, particularly in the city of Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest metropolis. His dirty money is allegedly bankrolling construction and real estate projects, a luxury spa, restaurants, a shoe store, gas stations and a swimming pool company.
On Wednesday, the Treasury Department announced that 18 people -- including Caro’s four children, wife and daughter-in-law -- as well as 15 businesses linked to him had been “designated” under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. The designation prohibits Americans from doing business with them and freezes any assets they may have in banks under U.S. jurisdiction.
It far from clear what kind of effect the designation will have: In 2011, The Times found that a number of Mexican businesses blacklisted by the U.S. remained in business.
But the alleged extent of Caro’s continuing influence offers a look at the way laundered narco fortunes -- even those earned by kingpins locked away long ago -- continue to make powerful waves in Mexico, bankrolling some of the most mundane commercial ventures.
It also demonstrates that U.S. law enforcement officials have long memories, particularly when it comes to cases in which one their own was slain. In this case, Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agent, had been targeting Caro’s massive marijuana growing business. One operation resulted in the seizure of more than $50 million in marijuana. Camarena was eventually kidnapped, interrogated, tortured with burning cigarettes and killed.
The U.S. government launched a massive homicide investigation that resulted in a number of convictions of people involved in the plot, including the brother-in-law of former Mexican President Luis Echeverria. The story also generated hundreds of newspaper articles as various cases made their way through the Mexican and U.S. court systems.
Caro’s Guadalajara drug cartel, meanwhile, has long ceased to be the massive player it once was. But Gary Haff, the acting chief of the financial operations section for the DEA, made it clear in a statement Wednesday that his agency remembers.
“No amount of effort can clean [the drug dealers'] dirty money, paid for with their violence and by their victims, including DEA Special Agent Kiki Camarena,” he said. “DEA is committed to seeing that justice is done, and we will not rest until they and their global criminal networks have been put out of business, their assets have been seized, and their freedom has been taken from them.”
Guadalajara, capital of the southwestern state of Jalisco, has long been known as a city where narco bosses live, shop and send their children to school. The Treasury Department statement said the designated businesses included a bath- and beauty-products store called El Baño de Maria, a restaurant called Barbaresco and a resort spa called Hacienda Las Limas.
On the travel website Tripadvisor, reviewers generally enjoyed their stay at Hacienda Las Limas. Their apparent ignorance of the alleged “dirty money” behind the place may come to be viewed as one of the defining conditions of the current Mexican era, a time when the stain of drug profits is difficult to detect and, at this point, probably impossible to erase:
“the service is beyond excellent. white terry cloth robes, huge beds, good sauna, hot tubs, small pool,” wrote a capitalization-averse guest named jeff p from Park City, Utah. “and unlike most spas you can have alcoholic drinks or smoke a cigar, or request a steak for dinner if you like.”