EXPLAINER: 37 years later, Mexican drug lord to face justice

Jul 18, 2022, 9:31 PM | Updated: Jul 19, 2022, 9:54 am

In this government handout photo provided by Mexico's Secretariat of the Navy, agents escort drug trafficker Rafael Caro Quintero, in Sinaloa state, Mexico, Friday, July 15, 2022, captured deep in the mountains of his home state. It was a 6-year-old bloodhound named “Max” who rousted Caro Quintero from the undergrowth. (Mexico's Secretariat of the Navy via AP)

(Mexico's Secretariat of the Navy via AP)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — The capture of fugitive drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero was hailed by U.S. authorities as an example of cooperation with Mexico in the fight against drugs. But in fact Caro Quintero had been the source of 37 years of tension between the two countries.

Caro Quintero was one of the primary suppliers of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana to the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Mexican marines captured him in the mountains of northwest Mexico Friday.

Mexico had been slow in going after the former leader of the Guadalajara cartel for killing U.S. DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985, as well as several other U.S. citizens around the same time.

The U.S. had to nearly shut down border traffic to pressure Mexico to go after Caro Quintero in the 1980s, but even then the Mexican legal system wasn’t able to hold him in jail: in 2013 he walked out of prison on an erroneous decision by a Mexican appeals court, and had returned to his drug trafficking operations.

This time, Mexico has made it clear that Caro Quintero was arrested with the intention of extradition. His lawyers, however, quickly signaled through their court filings that the extradition process will be drawn out and it could be many months before he is seen in a U.S. courtroom.


Caro Quintero had blamed Camarena, the DEA agent, for a raid on a huge marijuana plantation that Caro Quintero’s cartel ran in northern Mexico in 1984. The next year, Camarena was kidnapped in Guadalajara, allegedly on orders from Caro Quintero. “What they wanted to do is they wanted to get information from Kiki relative to the investigations that the DEA was conducting in Mexico. They wanted to know who the informants were, that they were handling. They wanted to know the addresses where the agents live,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations. “So they wanted to extract as much information from Kiki through horrific torture. And it was finally a blunt instrument blow to the head that caused Kiki Camarena’s … death.” His tortured form was found a month later.


People today are accustomed to hearing about warring drug cartels in Mexico. It is hard to imagine the first generation of drug lords in Mexico in the 1980s: there was only one big cartel, the Guadalajara Cartel, and Caro Quintero, Fonseca Carrillo and Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo ran it. People like Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman worked for them at that point — as did as many as 4,000 agricultural workers pressed into service growing marijuana on the gang’s 1,350-acre (545 hectare) marijuana plantation. “Given the fact that the cartel was the only cartel in Mexico in the eighties, they operated with complete impunity because they were paying off many, many individuals within the Mexican government for protection,” said Vigil. “So they figured that they could do whatever they damn well please as long as they paid money for protection.”


In August 2013, an appeals court in Caro Quintero’s home state overturned his 40-year sentence in the killing of Camarena and a Mexican government pilot. The panel of judges argued a state court should have overseen the case, not a federal one, and ordered his immediate release from a maximum-security prison. Mexico’s Supreme Court annulled the order releasing him months later, saying Camarena was a registered U.S. government agent and therefore his killing was a federal crime and had been properly tried. An arrest warrant was issued for Caro Quintero, who was long gone. Questions still swirl around his late-night release: Mexican prosecutors, who by law should have been notified, weren’t notified until hours after he was released in the middle of the night and disappeared in a car that had been waiting for him.


Caro Quintero was added to FBI’s 10 most wanted list in 2018, with a $20 million reward for his capture. Mexican security analyst David Saucedo believes that the sudden renewed interest in his arrest may have stemmed from the deadly wave of overdoses in the United States from the synthetic opioid fentanyl. “I think that the FBI did that because of the deaths being caused in the United States due to fentanyl consumption,” said Saucedo. “When Caro Quintero got out of prison he takes up drug trafficking again and established the Caborca cartel in Sonora. But his criminal activities include shipping fentanyl.”


Caro Quintero was notified this weekend that a process to extradite him to the United States has begun, but his lawyers have already filed for court injunctions that could stretch the legal process out over months, and perhaps years. He will wait out the process in a maximum security prison west of Mexico City. A grand jury in the Eastern District of New York indicted Caro Quintero in 2017 on a number of drug trafficking charges, as well as for conspiring to murder those who posed a threat to his narcotics activities.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Eugene and Linda Lamie, of Homerville, Ga., sit by the grave of their son U.S. Army Sgt. Gene Lamie...

Associated Press

Biden on Memorial Day lauds generations of fallen US troops who ‘dared all and gave all’

President Joe Biden lauded the sacrifice of generations of U.S. troops who died fighting for their country as he marked Memorial Day with the traditional wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.

1 day ago

OpenAI's CEO Sam Altman, the founder of ChatGPT and creator of OpenAI gestures while speaking at Un...

Associated Press

ChatGPT maker downplays fears they could leave Europe over AI rules

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman on Friday downplayed worries that the ChatGPT maker could exit the European Union

2 days ago

File - Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, left, and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman arrive to the White House for a ...

Associated Press

Regulators take aim at AI to protect consumers and workers

As concerns grow over increasingly powerful artificial intelligence systems like ChatGPT, the nation’s financial watchdog says it’s working to ensure that companies follow the law when they’re using AI.

4 days ago

FILE - A security surveillance camera is seen near the Microsoft office building in Beijing, July 2...

Associated Press

Microsoft: State-sponsored Chinese hackers could be laying groundwork for disruption

State-backed Chinese hackers have been targeting U.S. critical infrastructure and could be laying the technical groundwork for the potential disruption of critical communications between the U.S. and Asia during future crises, Microsoft said Wednesday.

5 days ago

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks in the East Room of the White House, May 17, 2023, in Washington....

Associated Press

White House unveils new efforts to guide federal research of AI

The White House on Tuesday announced new efforts to guide federally backed research on artificial intelligence

6 days ago

FILE - The Capitol stands in Washington D.C. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)Credit: ASSOCIATED...

Associated Press

What it would mean for the economy if the US defaults on its debt

If the debt crisis roiling Washington were eventually to send the United States crashing into recession, America’s economy would hardly sink alone.

7 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Internet Washington...

Major Internet Upgrade and Expansion Planned This Year in Washington State

Comcast is investing $280 million this year to offer multi-gigabit Internet speeds to more than four million locations.

Compassion International...

Brock Huard and Friends Rally Around The Fight for First Campaign

Professional athletes are teaming up to prevent infant mortality and empower women at risk in communities facing severe poverty.

Emergency Preparedness...

Prepare for the next disaster at the Emergency Preparedness Conference

Being prepared before the next emergency arrives is key to preserving businesses and organizations of many kinds.

SHIBA volunteer...

Volunteer to help people understand their Medicare options!

If you’re retired or getting ready to retire and looking for new ways to stay active, becoming a SHIBA volunteer could be for you!

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.

Comcast Ready for Business Fund...

Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

EXPLAINER: 37 years later, Mexican drug lord to face justice