MEXICO CITY — They were two of Mexico’s most flamboyant bad boys, symbols for many here of all that was wrong with this country in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Rafael Caro Quintero was a high-rolling drug lord sent to prison for the 1985 kidnapping, torture and slaying of an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Raul Salinas, the brother of a former Mexican president, was a free-spending playboy. He was convicted, and then acquitted, of the 1994 killing of a top politician. He was also suspected of stealing millions of dollars from the government.
But in recent days, the old criminal cases against these two characters have fallen apart, leaving many dismayed by what they perceive as the enduring dysfunction of the Mexican justice system.
Even though Mexican officials, with U.S. advisors and millions of dollars of U.S. aid, have focused in recent years on reforming the system, these two cases are likely to bolster the suspicion that the law still does not apply to the well-connected and the powerful — either because of their enduring influence, or the incompetence of those who pursue them.
Historian and academic Lorenzo Meyer in a magazine interview this week said the Salinas ruling last month was, in effect, a message to the Mexican people:
“Listen, you drooling pack of idiots, the true political situation is this … at the end of the day, we, the political class, understand the nature of corruption in this country, and it’s not going to change.”
Though spectacular meltdowns of major criminal cases are common in Mexico, these were standouts, with each suspect, in his way, shaping the course of history.
Salinas’ Champagne lifestyle — his numerous luxury properties, and millions stashed in overseas bank accounts — may have contributed to the public’s rejection of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, the once all-powerful institution that counted the Salinas family as influential members.
Caro Quintero was a legendary drug lord. A Times article from 1992 mentions how a witness in a criminal trial described him at a lavish party smoking cocaine on the back of a prancing horse.
On Friday, Caro Quintero, a founder of the Guadalajara drug cartel, was freed on a technicality after 28 years behind bars. A panel of judges declared that the slain DEA agent, Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, could not be considered a member of the diplomatic corps; as a result, the judges ruled, the case should not have been tried in federal court.
In Washington, the DEA said it was “deeply troubled” by Caro Quintero’s release and indicated the U.S. government would attempt to have him extradited to face charges in the United States.
“Caro Quintero was the mastermind and organizer of this atrocious act,” the DEA said in a statement, referring to the torture and slaying of Camarena. “We are reminded every day of the ultimate sacrifice paid by Special Agent Camarena.”
Although other drug kingpins and cartels have eclipsed the 61-year-old Caro Quintero, U.S. officials believe he has continued to run trafficking and money-laundering operations from prison. In June, the Treasury Department added several of his alleged associates to its so-called kingpin list, imposing sanctions on 18 people and 15 companies.
The Treasury Department alleged that Caro Quintero’s money was bankrolling, among other things, real estate projects, a luxury spa, a shoe store and a swimming pool company.
The cases against Caro Quintero and Salinas collapsed less than a year into the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose victory last year marked the return of the PRI after a 12-year absence.
The party ran the country as a quasi-dictatorship for much of the 20th century, a time when the courts were often used as a tool for the party’s political agenda. Peña Nieto promises that the party has become more transparent and democratic. But he will have to work particularly hard to prove it, given the sins of his party’s past old-school leaders, known as the “dinosaurs.”
Further complicating the situation is the fact that Peña Nieto is part of a political clique closely linked to the powerful Salinas family. Peña Nieto’s attorney general plans to appeal the ruling in the Salinas case. But that hasn’t stopped some from speculating that the fix is in.
“Damn if we aren’t returning to the times of Jurassic Park,” Twitter user Robert Cabrera Vera wrote Friday. "…a few days ago, Raul Salinas and now Caro Quintero.”
Salinas, whose brother Carlos Salinas was president of Mexico from 1988 to 1994, was exonerated last month of the charge of “illicit enrichment” by federal judge Carlos Lopez Cruz. Known as el hermano incomodo, “the inconvenient brother,” Raul Salinas dominated Mexican headlines for years for living like Mexican pasha, even though he was employed as a government bureaucrat.
He was also found guilty of the 1994 slaying of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, a PRI leader. Salinas spent 10 years in prison for the crime, but was acquitted and freed in 2005.
In acquitting Salinas of the illicit enrichment charge, the judge acknowledged that his assets certainly “grew substantially” for a government worker. But Cruz said prosecutors were unable to prove that the wealth was the result of “an improper public function.”
David Shirk, who heads the Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego, said Mexican prosecutors have a long history of sloppy work, because for years they didn’t have to do much to convince judges that the accused deserved to be found guilty.
“It’s like the Three Little Pigs,” Shirk said. “Mexican prosecutors were building straw houses — and they need to start building them out of brick.”
The U.S.-backed judicial reform program, which has not been fully implemented, will in theory force courts to follow evidentiary and procedural rules more closely, giving defense attorneys more opportunities to poke holes in flawed cases.
In a radio interview Friday, Caro Quintero’s former attorney, Jose Luis Guizar, said his client benefited from the bungling of federal prosecutors.
“The problem is that the prosecutors get to those places for reasons of cronyism, political friendships, and have everything but ability,” Guizar said.
The slaying of agent Camarena severely strained relations between Mexico and Washington in the mid-1980s. U.S. officials were furious at Mexican authorities, suspicious that there had been high-level cooperation with Caro Quintero and, at minimum, a cover-up by what was supposedly a friendly government.
It was years before Mexican law enforcement could regain any trust from the DEA and other U.S. counterparts, and the relationship is still regularly tested. DEA agents for years carried the memory of Camarena as a symbol of sacrifice and heroism in the face of dangers enhanced by official corruption.
“The decision [by traffickers] to kill a U.S. federal agent changed everything,” James Kuykendall, a retired DEA agent who was Camarena’s boss in Guadalajara, said in a telephone interview Friday from his home in Laredo, Texas.
Salinas has always maintained his innocence, saying that he took advantage of legal business opportunities presented to him as the brother of a president. The judge ruled that the government would have to return Salinas’ seized property if the attorney general loses the appeal. Mexican media reported that those assets include more than $17 million and 41 properties scattered throughout Mexico.
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.