MEXICO CITY -- Notorious drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero, convicted in the 1985 kidnap and murder of an American narcotics agent, was freed from prison Friday after serving 28 years for a crime that vexed U.S.-Mexican relations for decades.
Special Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was working for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, based in the city of Guadalajara, when Caro Quintero allegedly ordered him killed. Camarena went missing in February 1985, as he left the U.S. consulate. His body, showing evidence of torture, was eventually discovered near a ranch in western Mexico’s Michoacan state, along with that of the Mexican pilot he flew with to hunt marijuana fields.
A tribunal spokeswoman said Friday that judges determined Caro Quintero was improperly convicted on federal charges when a state court should have been the proper venue. Because he had already served 28 years in prison, Caro Quintero was freed despite other existing charges.
Photographs on Mexican TV showed a silver-haired Caro Quintero, now 61, walking Friday around 2 a.m. from a medium security prison in the state of Jalisco, where he reputedly had lived a life of semi-luxury.
The Camarena killing strained relations between Mexico and Washington. U.S. officials were furious at Mexican authorities and suspicious that there had been high-level cooperation with Caro Quintero and, at the minimum, a cover-up of the crime by what was supposedly a friendly government.
It took years before Mexican law enforcement could regain any modicum of trust from the DEA and other American counterparts, a relationship that is still regularly tested. DEA agents for years carried the memory of Camarena as a potent 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.
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 prison; 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 companies.