A one-time Mexican drug lord accused of ordering the murder of a DEA agent will join the FBI’s 10 most wanted list, law enforcement officials announced Thursday.
U.S. authorities have sought Rafael Caro Quintero’s extradition for decades. The former head of the Guadalajara Cartel trafficked Mexican marijuana and Colombian cocaine into the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. He was indicted by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles in 1988 for allegedly masterminding the kidnapping, torture and murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985. He also faces federal drug trafficking charges.
Now the State Department is offering $20 million for information leading to Caro Quintero’s arrest.
“This kind of worldwide publicity is crucial to catching dangerous criminals like Caro Quintero and bringing them to justice,” FBI Associate Deputy Director David Bowdich said at a joint press conference with officials from State, DEA and the U.S. Marshals Service.
Bowdich recalled Camarena’s courageous efforts to infiltrate Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficking networks, saying the renewed push for Caro Quintero’s arrest would “ensure justice for Agent Camarena and his family.”
“We’re not going to stop looking for Caro Quintero, ever,” Bowdich said.
The DEA insists that since his release from a long-term Mexican prison term, Caro Quintero has risen to become the number two person in charge of the Sinaloa Cartel, the largest drug trafficking organization in the Americas.
Caro Quintero, 65, denies having returned to drug trafficking since his release. And the aging fugitive trafficker is now a shell of his former self, according to an interview with Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández for HuffPost published earlier this month. He lives in a roving campsite in the mountains of Sinaloa, plagued by the fear of drones flying overhead and hobbled by a diseased prostate that he refuses to operate on for fear of getting caught.
But acting DEA Administrator Robert Patterson said that Caro Quintero had attempted to “rewrite history” in the interview.
“What he claims is vengeance is actually the governments of Mexico and the United States jointly working to hold him accountable,” Patterson said. “He’s not just an old man living out his final days.”
Shortly after the press conference, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York unsealed an indictment alleging that Caro Quintero continued leading a criminal enterprise to smuggle marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines into the U.S. through last year.
The indictment accuses him of running the “Caro Quintero Drug Trafficking Organization,” rather than the Sinaloa Cartel. It also accuses him of murder conspiracy and firearms charges.
I’m unconvinced that he’s involved [in the Sinaloa Cartel]. He’s on the run. The last thing he wants to do is get back on the radar screen again. He’s old and ill. His freedom at this point in time means more than money. But he should be on the most wanted list because of the murder of Kiki Camarena, and he should serve the rest of his life in prison for that murder. Mike Vigil, the former head of DEA operations.
The DEA had already named Caro Quintero as one of its top three most wanted fugitives before Thursday’s announcement. But adding him to the FBI’s most wanted list amps up the pressure on Mexican authorities to turn him over if they arrest him again.
Mike Vigil, the former head of DEA operations, remained skeptical that Caro Quintero had returned to trafficking.
“I’m unconvinced that he’s involved [in the Sinaloa Cartel],” Vigil told HuffPost. “He’s on the run. The last thing he wants to do is get back on the radar screen again. He’s old and ill. His freedom at this point in time means more than money. But he should be on the most wanted list because of the murder of Kiki Camarena, and he should serve the rest of his life in prison for that murder.”
Caro Quintero spent 28 years in a maximum security prison in Mexico. But a Mexican judge ruled that he’d been improperly charged in federal court and ordered his release in 2013, allowing him to walk out in the middle of the night.
Three months later, a panel of judges there overturned the order to release him and Caro Quintero still faces prison time in the country.
But if Mexican authorities do recapture him and turn him over to the U.S., it might not be a straightforward process.
Extraditing traffickers to the U.S. often becomes politicized in Mexico, where some political leaders bristle at the notion that justice should be outsourced. And relations between the two countries have deteriorated since the election of President Donald Trump, who often rails against Mexico in speeches and on social media. Mexico extradited the notorious former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán the day before Trump took office, in a move that some viewed as a way to give the credit to the outgoing Obama administration.
U.S. Department of State Deputy Assistant Secretary James Walsh declined to discuss the extradition process, and the other law enforcement officials highlighted their positive relationships with Mexican counterparts.
But with left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador leading the field for Mexico’s upcoming presidential election, the relationship between the two countries could become more difficult still.
“I don’t think they’re going to give him up,” Vigil said, who viewed it as more likely that Caro Quintero would first finish out his sentence in Mexico if arrested. “And if the rhetoric and all the issues continue, politics will definitely play a role as to whether or not he comes ― especially if López Obrador becomes president,” he added.