2,000 Mourn Victim of War Against Drug Traffickers : Murdered U.S. Agent Eulogized as 'Martyr and Hero'

Times Staff Writer

More than 1,000 mourners gathered at Our Lady of Guadalupe Roman Catholic Church here Saturday at a memorial Mass for Enrique (Kiki) Camarena, the U.S. drug enforcement agent apparently murdered by narcotics traffickers in Mexico.

Another thousand spilled out onto the sidewalk and street in front of the church in this dusty border town where the 37-year-old Camarena was raised and got his start in law enforcement.

A Marine color guard preceded the copper-colored urn containing Camarena's ashes into the church, the same one in which he was married.

Among the mourners were U.S. Ambassador to Mexico John Gavin, U.S. Sen Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) and John C. Lawn, acting chief administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

A Foe of 'Atrocity'

Representatives of many local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as representatives of Mexican police agencies, stood along one wall of the church as San Diego Bishop Gilberto Chavez called Camarena "a martyr for the sake of goodness and a hero to our country because he tried to free us from the slavery and atrocity of illegal drugs."

Camarena was abducted in Guadalajara on Feb. 7, apparently by narcotics traffickers. His battered body was discovered last week.

Friends and colleagues of the slain drug agent described him as a man capable of great charm who possessed a rare ability to move in different circles. He was also, according to a DEA agent who worked with him in Fresno, a "narc's narc."

"He had a natural ability to shift gears as the situation dictated," said one friend.

"I guess what made him successful as a drug agent was that he grew up in the barrio and learned all the mores, the nuances that kept him alive, and the slang that made it easy for him to move unnoticed in the drug world," the friend said.

Kiki, his friends said, succeeded as a narc because he spoke and understood " la turica "--the barrio and street language--and because he could blend with the " tecotes ," the hoodlums and unsavory characters of the drug world.

Strictly Business

Interviews with friends and relatives of Camarena who grew up and worked with him in Calexico stressed that he was all business when he put on a uniform.

"I've known Kiki all my life. Well, one night I had gone to the store for a gallon of milk and coming back Kiki pulled me over," said a longtime friend who later went into law enforcement.

Camarena, said the man, was in a Calexico police patrol car.

"He walked up to the car and I say, 'Hi, Kiki, what's going on.' The guy acted like he didn't know me. He asked to see my license, asked me where I was going and what I had in the bag," the man said.

The friend said that when Camarena came to visit with his family the next day, he acted as if nothing had happened.

Recollection of Friend

"He was really into his job, but he kept everything under his hat. I know that he took it seriously," said Hector Salgado, another friend of Camarena and owner of a Calexico construction company.

Friends say that Camarena rarely talked about his job and never explained why he chose to work undercover, beginning with the Imperial County narcotics task force and later with DEA. Earlier, he had worked as a Calexico firefighter.

Oscar Gonzales, a local school teacher who befriended Camarena in 1958, when Camarena's family immigrated to Calexico from Mexicali, theorized why his friend chose the dangerous work of a drug agent.

"Growing up poor in the barrio, he saw a lot of his friends and relatives exposed to narcotics and the drug culture. He saw the destructive effect of drugs. Looking at it from that point of view, it isn't a mystery why he went to work for DEA," Gonzales said.

Concern for Safety

Close relatives of the slain agent talked to reporters in the family's wood-frame home Friday. But they said they were told by DEA officials to be cautious about how much they revealed about Camarena's life and about his wife, Genoveva, and three sons. A DEA agent was present during interviews.

Dora Camarena Sota, the slain agent's mother, said that her son, who was raised in grinding poverty, was motivated by a desire to be somebody. She said he always wanted to become a police officer.

"We had several conversations when he was growing up where he told me that he loved police work. He told me that he was going to do something big with his life so I could be proud of him," she said.

When they arrived in Calexico from Mexicali, the family--three brothers and three sisters--lived in a two-room shanty, according to friends. The present home was built with the $10,000 insurance money received when the oldest brother, Eduardo, died in 1965 while serving in Vietnam, Gonzales said.

Photos of the two slain brothers were displayed next to religious icons and candles burning atop an altar in the living room. Draped across the front wall of the family's house was the huge American flag that covered Eduardo's casket when his body was returned from Vietnam.

"If by now she (Camarena's mother) hasn't repaid this country for accepting her here, I don't know what else she has to do," said Diana Camarena, the slain agent's youngest sister.

Camarena's mother last saw him alive on Jan. 7, when he was home for a brief visit. On Friday, she showed reporters a last photo taken of her son during that visit.

The photo shows a smiling, confident Camarena turning to look into the camera.

The woman said that she accepted the death of her two sons as a test from God.

"I don't know why He is putting me through the test, but I have to be strong. I have other children who need me," she said.

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