Slain Agent 'Narc's Narc,' Friend Recalls

Times Staff Writer

Slain U.S. drug agent Enrique (Kiki) Camarena was an uncompromising cop's narc" who took his work so seriously that even his friends were not above suspicion.

"One night I had gone to the store for a gallon of milk and coming back Kiki pulled me over," recalled a longtime friend who later went into law enforcement. Camarena was then a policeman in this close-knit desert community.

"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," said the man, who asked not to be named.

The next day Camarena visited the same friend on a social basis and acted like nothing had happened, never mentioning the businesslike traffic stop and search.

Described as a man of great charm and a rare ability to move in different circles, Camarena was mourned Saturday by about 2,000 people, including national dignitaries, crowded in and around the Our Lady of Guadalupe Roman Catholic Church in this tiny border town. Camarena, 37, was abducted in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Feb. 7 and his body was discovered last week, apparently the victim of major narcotics traffickers.

A marine color guard preceded the copper-colored urn containing Camarena's ashes into the church, which is the same church where Enrique was married. Representatives of various local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as representatives from Mexican police agencies stood along one wall of the church. U.S. Ambassador to Mexico John Gavin, U.S. Senator Pete Wilson and John C. Lawn, acting chief administrator of the DEA, were also there.

At the beginning of the service, 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."

Monsignor Rodolfo Galindo called Camarena "a man who did good for all of us."

"If his death for which we grieve today, if his death has benefited us, it has also awakened in us a profound gratitude for our freedom. Enrique's death and his struggle against vice and drugs was not in vain," he said. "His spirit lives on and his cause endures."

Camarena was so dedicated to the cause of fighting drugs, said one former Drug Enforcement Administration colleague from Fresno, that he was known as a "narc's narc."

He was able to traverse the shadowy underground of the drug world with the "natural ability to shift gears as the situation dictated," said another 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 Camarena 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.

"He could really move in heroin circles," said the Fresno DEA agent.

Most recently Camarena had moved to a higher level of drug enforcement. With five years in the consulate in Guadalajara, Camarena had been there longer than any of the 30 or so other American officials posted there. His work involved identifying the city's major narcotics peddlers.

Camarena had been scheduled to move to a new posting shortly after his kidnaping.

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.

"He was really into his job, but he kept everything under his hat. I know that he took it seriously," said Hector Salgado, a another longtime 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," said Gonzales.

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.

Speaking with reporters on Friday in the family's modest wood-framed home, Mrs. Camarena said that her son always wanted to be a policeman.

"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," Mrs. Camarena said.

Camarena's grieving family said Friday that to the very end they held on to a slim thread of hope that he was still alive.

Bertha Tamayo, Camarena's sister, said that even when they saw the plastic-wrapped bodies of Camarena and his Mexican pilot loaded on the back of a pick-up truck in Guadalajara, the family refused to believe he was dead.

"We are in a grievous moment right now. (We were) being kept waiting and waiting to hear positive news," Tamayo said. "When we first learned about the two bodies, until the last minute we didn't believe it was Enrique until we were officially notified."

Camarena's mother was particularly distraught by television news reports that showed the two bodies lying in truck's bed.

"What I have seen in the television news has been very difficult for me, particularly the bodies in the plastic bags," said Mrs. Camarena. "I never thought it would come to this. He was doing nothing but good for people and he was repaid so badly."

The family met with reporters in the living room of the mother's modest home. Friends say that the family--three brothers and three sisters--lived in a two-room shanty when they immigrated to Calexico from Mexicali in 1958.

Their 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 he 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, Camarena's youngest sister.

Family members said Friday they were told by Drug Enforcement Administration officials to be careful about how much they revealed about Camarena's life and his wife, Genoveva, and three sons. A DEA agent was present during interviews with the family and refused to reveal the whereabouts of his family or the ages of his sons.

When Camarena joined the Calexico police department before moving on to the DEA, Mrs. Camarena said that she worried about him. But her concern for her son mounted when he joined the DEA.

"I told him that this kind of work is too dangerous. But then he said that God would watch over him. And I gave him my blessing before he left and whenever he would come home to visit," said the mother.

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

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

On the Jan. 7 visit Mrs. Camarena last bestowed her blessing on her son. Exactly a month later, on Feb. 7, Camarena was abducted in Guadalajara.

Exactly one month after the abduction, on March 7, the family was officially notified that Camarena's body, found on a ranch near Guadalajara, had been identified.

Mrs. Camarena said that the number seven also played a part in her older son Eduardo's death.

"He left for Vietnam on the seventh day of the month. He died on the 17th, and we buried him on the 27th. I don't understand why this number has turned out to be so unlucky for me," she said.

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.

Camarena's father, Daniel, sat outside the hours Friday drinking beer and talking to friends while his former wife met with news reporters. Family friends say that the couple divorced when Camarena was still a young boy.

The father is a carpenter and said that he lives in Los Angeles.

Gonzales described Camarena as an overachiever who strived for excellence.

He got tested right away when his family arrived penniless and poor from Mexico and he passed the test. He was tested numerous other times subsequent to that and he never failed. "Even in death I don't think you can say that Kiki failed," Gonzales said.

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