The Obama administration responded Sunday to the prison release of a Mexican drug lord who was serving 40 years for the 1985 kidnapping, torture and murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena.
“We are deeply concerned by the release of Rafael Caro Quintero from prison in Mexico,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. “We remain as committed today in seeing Quintero and others involved in this crime face justice in the United States as we were in the immediate aftermath of Kiki Camarena’s murder and will work closely with the Mexican authorities on this.”
The grisly murder of a U.S. Drug Enforcement agent in Mexico, back in 1985, was a milestone in the decades-long war on drugs. And the horror of that crime resurfaced this past Friday, after a Mexican court ordered the early release of the drug kingpin who masterminded that killing. Rafael Caro Quintero served 28 years of the 40-year sentence.
Caro Quintero also is wanted on charges in the U.S.
The Association of Former Federal Narcotics Agents in the United States said it was “outraged” by Caro Quintero’s early release and blamed corruption within Mexico’s justice system. “The release of this violent butcher is but another example of how good faith efforts by the US to work with the Mexican government can be frustrated by those powerful dark forces that work in the shadows of the Mexican ‘justice’ system,” the organization said in a statement.
Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was a DEA agent based in Guadalajara. He led Mexican authorities to a 220 acre ranch known as El Bufalo in Chihuahua, owned by Caro Quintero. Law enforcement officials burned more than 10,000 tons of marijuana, totaling a loss of about $160 million. In retaliation, Quintero ordered the capture of Camarena and his pilot Alfredo Zavelo Avelor. Both were brutally tortured and murdered.
It took several weeks of intense searching for officials to find the bodies, and it was really a line that the traffickers had never crossed before, to actually kill a U.S. federal agent.
The incident injected a deep level of mistrust between the US and Mexico. The U.S. believed that some Mexican authorities helped the drug lord to escape temporarily until eventually he was caught in another country.
Mexican authorities did not release a full decision explaining the reasoning of the three-judge panel which released Quintero on a technicality Friday.
Mexican and current and former US officials alike expressed deep skepticism that correct procedures were followed in the decision to free Caro Quintero.
Former DEA officials familiar with the Camarena case said they doubted that Caro Quintero had walked free simply due to a legally well-founded reexamination of his case. They noted a history of bribery in Mexico and a continuous need for US pressure on Mexican authorities to keep drug cartel leaders behind bars.
“There’s some collusion going on,” said Edward Heath, the DEA’s regional director for Mexico at the time of the Camarena killing. “This guy is a major trafficker. This guy is bad, a mean son of a gun.”
Some suggest that the release is part of Mexico’s recent push to rebalance the Mexican legal system in favor of defendants’ rights, from both law-enforcement officials and the independent judicial system. Mexico’s Supreme Court has issued several recent rulings overturning cases while saying due process wasn’t followed.
“What we are seeing here is a contradiction between the need of the government to keep dangerous criminals behind bars and its respect of due process,” said Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. “The United States wants Mexico to comply with due process but it is likely that due process was not followed when many criminals were caught 10 or 15 years ago.”
Mexican courts and prosecutors have long tolerated illicit evidence, such as forced confessions, and have frequently based cases on questionable testimony or hearsay. Such practices have been banned by recent judicial reforms but past cases, including those against high-level drug traffickers, often have many legal violations.
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