DEA agent 'Kiki' Camarena's Mexico slaying called a game changer

MEXICO CITY -- The former boss of slain
DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena says
the 1985 killing was a game changer, both
in how the U.S. worked with Mexico on
narcotics enforcement and how the
traffickers themselves operated.
James Kuykendall, who served as resident
agent in charge in the Drug Enforcement
Administration’s office in Guadalajara in
the 1980s, recalled Camarena’s slaying
after learning that the drug lord convicted
in the crime was freed from prison Friday
on a technicality.
An appeals tribunal ruled that Rafael
Caro Quintero was improperly convicted
on federal charges, when the proper
venue should have been state court. The
tribunal ordered Caro Quintero, who has
been in prison for 28 years of a 40-year
sentence, released and the conviction
voided. The prosecutor’s office in Jalisco,
the state where Caro Quintero was serving
time, confirmed he walked free about 2
a.m. Friday.
“The decision [by traffickers] to kill a U.S.
federal agent changed everything,”
Kuykendall, now retired, said in a
telephone interview Friday from his home
in Laredo, Texas.
For one, he said, it made the bosses in
Washington realize the dangers that
agents in the field faced and the apparent
complicity of the Mexican government in
protecting and facilitating drug
traffickers. The killing seriously strained
U.S.-Mexican relations. The U.S. all but
shut its border with Mexico for a period,
and Mexico eventually imposed
restrictions on DEA activities inside the
One upside may have been that traffickers
who had swaggered unabashedly about
Guadalajara were forced to lie low, at
least in the short term, Kuykendall said.
“Before Kiki was killed, the traffickers
lived and worked with impunity and with
[government-licensed] bodyguards,” he
said. “They did whatever they damn well
The agents in the Guadalajara office knew
they were being watched and felt under
threat, Kuykendall said. The car of one
had been machine-gunned just weeks
before Camarena was kidnapped. But he
said their complaints and requests for
more security fell on deaf ears in
Washington, a charge that has been aired
“There were warnings,” he said. “We
knew we were in danger.”
Camarena vanished on Feb. 7, 1985, after
leaving the U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara
to meet his wife at a restaurant. A month
later, the search ended when
investigators, purportedly acting on an
anonymous tip, went to an area in
western Michoacan state where they found
the tortured bodies of Camarena and a
Mexican pilot he frequently worked with
on aerial hunts for marijuana fields.
Including Caro Quintero, about two dozen
people were eventually convicted in
Mexico in connection with the Camarena
case, as well as seven in U.S. courts.
Now 61 and silver-haired, Caro Quintero
is ranked among the legendary founders
of Mexico’s most important drug-
trafficking cartels. U.S. officials believe he
has continued to run trafficking and
money-laundering operations from inside
In June, the U.S. Treasury Department
added several of his alleged associates to
its so-called kingpin list, imposing
sanctions against 18 people and 15
His former attorney, meanwhile, said
Friday that he believed the reputed drug
lord was held in prison for such a long
time for purely political reasons and
because of U.S. pressure. Jose Luis Guizar
suggested that some of Caro Quintero’s
convicted accomplices should also go free.
“In this case, politics did not permit the
imparting of justice,” the lawyer said in a
radio interview.
It was not immediately clear whether the
U.S. would pursue an extradition claim
against Caro Quintero.