One of Mexico’s legendary drug lords, a fugitive convicted in the notorious 1985 slaying of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent, is back in the narco business — at least that’s what U.S. prosecutors say.
This week, the FBI placed Rafael Caro Quintero, aging co-founder of the once-dominant, now defunct Guadalajara Cartel, on its 10 most-wanted list. It also announced a reward for information leading to his arrest: $20 million.
Caro Quintero, believed to be at least 65 years old, has been a fugitive in Mexico since 2013.
That’s when a Mexican judge sprang him from prison on a technicality after he had served 28 years of a 40-year sentence for drug trafficking and for the murder of the DEA’s Enrique “Kiki” Camarena. The judge ruled that Caro Quintero should have been tried in a state court, not a federal court.
His release enraged U.S. officials. Mexican authorities vowed to arrest him anew.
But the fabled mob boss, his exploits the subject of countless corridos, or ballads, immediately went underground.
U.S. prosecutors say Caro Quintero continued his drug-trafficking activity while in prison in Mexico and after his release.
On Thursday, they unsealed a new indictment against the veteran trafficker, known as “The Prince” and el narco de los narcos in Mexico, alleging his leadership role in smuggling heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamines into the United States between 1980 and 2017.
“We take the Caro Quintero situation extremely personally,” said Rusty Payne, a DEA spokesman in Washington. “He is someone who we desperately want to see face justice.”
According to the DEA, Caro Quintero has emerged as a co-leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, which was once headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, now jailed in New York.
Both men hail from the remote municipality of Badiraguato in northwestern Sinaloa state, deep in Mexico’s so-called “Golden Triangle” of illicit opium-poppy production. There, clan loyalties are tied to the multibillion-dollar smuggling industry.
The DEA would like to see Caro Quintero, like Guzman, extradited to the United States.
“We’re not going to stop looking for Caro Quintero until we find him and put him back behind bars where he belongs,” FBI Deputy Director David L. Bowdich said in a statement on Thursday.
Caro Quintero has given the Mexican press several interviews from hiding, depicting himself as an infirm retiree who did his time and is now hounded by U.S. and Mexican law enforcement helicopters, drones and assault squads.
“I don’t belong to any cartel,” Caro-Quintero told an interviewer from Mexico’s Aristegui Noticias news site, in an account published this month. “Whoever says [otherwise] is lying!”
He said that he had trafficked only in marijuana, and had long ago left that contraband trade behind. “Now that I’m out I don’t want to know anything about drugs. … I want to live in peace. … Everyone deserves a second chance.”
He suggested the allegations were based on information supplied by a cousin, Sajid Emilio Quintero Navidad (a.k.a. “The Cadet”), who pleaded guilty to drug-trafficking charges in January in U.S. District Court in San Diego.
“Sajid is lying!” Caro Quintero told the Mexican interviewer.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego declined to comment when asked whether Quintero Navidad was cooperating with authorities.
The article in Aristegui Noticias depicted Caro Quintero as an anguished “wild cat,” avoiding surveillance drones, “never sleeping in the same place and always in the countryside in a tent or sleeping bag.”
“During the day he wanders the mountain like a ghost, always looking at the sky,” it reported.
U.S. authorities call Caro Quintero one of the “godfathers” of Mexican drug trafficking and say he was directly responsible for Camarena’s kidnapping and murder. Camarena was bundled into a car on the streets of Guadalajara en route to lunch with his wife on Feb. 7, 1985.
His disappearance sparked a massive manhunt and triggered a crisis in binational relations, as a livid Reagan administration shut down most commerce through the U.S.-Mexico border.
The bodies of Camarena and his Mexican pilot, Alfredo Zavala, who was kidnapped separately, were found almost a month after the men were abducted. Their remains, dumped in the western state of Michoacan, showed signs of torture.
According to U.S. officials, Camarena was executed in retaliation for a 1984 raid by Mexican authorities on a vast marijuana plantation owned by Caro Quintero. The Guadalajara cartel blamed Camarena for the takedown and sought payback, officials say.
The Camarena case has inspired films, books and television miniseries.
The law enforcement crackdown following his kidnapping also led to the disintegration of the Guadalajara cartel, which originated in the 1970s and forged lucrative relationships with Pablo Escobar and other Colombian cocaine producers, and bribed Mexican cops and politicians. The syndicate later fragmented into regional drug gangs in Sinaloa state, Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere.
Nonetheless, the illicit drug trade from Mexico to the United States has continued to thrive, employing many of the cartel’s tactics and smuggling routes.
While Caro Quintero is still a fugitive, two other Guadalajara cartel cofounders — Miguel (“The Godfather”) Angel Felix Gallardo and Ernesto (“Don Neto”) Fonseca Carrillo — are serving long prison sentences in Mexico. Fonseca was transferred to house arrest in 2016 under terms granted to elderly prisoners with health problems.
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.