During the wee hours of Aug. 9, 2013, Mexican drug kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero strode out the main entrance of the Puente Grande maximum-security prison. His well-dressed legal team accompanied him as he took in his first breath of air as a free man since 1985. A judge had ruled that he had been improperly tried in the kidnapping, torture and murder of an agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Caro Quintero claimed that he left the drug business in 1984, but U.S. prosecutors said he had never stopped. On April 12, 2018, the reward for his capture was raised to $20 million, and he was added to the FBI's list of Ten Most Wanted Fugitives. The U.S. government is clearly paying a lot of attention to a drug kingpin who was in prison for 28 years. So who is Rafael Caro Quintero and why does he still matter?
When — not if — Rafael Caro Quintero is recaptured, the United States will probably apply heavy pressure for his extradition. He would be the latest in a long list of high-profile Mexican cartel leaders to be sent to the United States, including his longtime associate Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera. But like the extradition of Guzman, removing Caro Quintero from his organization could once again throw the Sinaloa Federation out of balance.
Freed on a Technicality?
The release of Caro Quintero, one of the founders of the Guadalajara cartel, almost five years ago sent shockwaves not only through Mexico City, but also through Washington. Enraged U.S. officials who had previously requested his extradition saw the court order freeing him as an example of corruption in the Mexican judiciary instead of an effort to protect the rights of a defendant. A judge in a Jalisco state court had ruled that his trial in a federal court for the murder of DEA Special Agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena was a violation of due process. Because Camarena was not a diplomat or an internationally protected person, the judge said, Caro Quintero should have been tried in state court — not federal — for the murder.
Mexico's Office of the General Prosecutor General obtained an arrest warrant for Caro Quintero on Aug. 14, but the cartel leader stayed one step ahead of the authorities and disappeared. In November 2013, the U.S. government offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his recapture. That amount failed to compel anyone to divulge his whereabouts or bring him to justice.
Beans and Corn or Pot and Poppies
Caro Quintero was born in Badiraguato, Sinaloa, most likely in 1952 — he has used numerous birthdates during his criminal career. The sparsely populated municipality is in a remote and mountainous part of western Mexico. It has long had a reputation for producing outlaws and for being the cradle of Mexico's narco culture. The tough people that inhabit this rugged portion of Mexico's "golden triangle" learned long ago that they could make far more money raising marijuana and opium poppies than growing subsistence crops like corn and beans. Other sons of Badriguato who rose to become prominent traffickers include Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera; the Beltran Leyva brothers; and Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno (aka El Azul), one of the principal leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel. Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, along with Caro Quintero and Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo ("El Padrino," or the Godfather), formed the leadership of the Guadalajara cartel.
That association formed one of the first large and powerful cartels to emerge in Mexico. It controlled narcotics production from the golden triangle down the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range into the Tierra Caliente region. It also controlled border crossings into the United States from Tijuana to Juarez. Although the group established its headquarters in the city of Guadalajara, it may be more appropriate to refer to it as "the original Sinaloa cartel," because most of its influential members hailed from that state.
In addition to the Badiraguato faction, other major traffickers came from the region. Felix Gallardo was from Culiacan, as were his nephews, the Arellano Felix brothers; Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada Garcia; and Amado Carrillo Fuentes (nephew of Fonseca Carrillo). Hector Luis Palma Salazar was from Mocorito, Sinaloa.
For decades, narcos had raised marijuana and poppies and trafficked their produce to the United States. They didn't become rich and powerful cartels until the smuggling routes for cocaine from South America to the United States moved from the Caribbean to Mexico. The Guadalajara and the Gulf cartels were the first two powerful Mexican groups to emerge from this shift in trade.
The Fall of the Guadalajara Cartel
By 1985 the Guadalajara group may have grown too big for its own good. That year the group killed DEA agent Camarena, who had cost the cartel millions of dollars by disrupting its drug production and smuggling operations. The cartels had learned that they could literally get away with the murder if the victims were Mexican cops, soldiers, politicians and journalists. But the torture and murder of a DEA agent led the U.S. government to declare war on the Guadalajara cartel. The might of the U.S. government rapidly came to bear on the organization. When the Mexican government appeared to not be cooperating sufficiently, the DEA began conducting direct actions inside Mexico. The agency snatched two suspects and brought them to the United States, and it even rendered Juan Matta-Ballesteros, a Honduran drug lord and the Guadalajara cartel's contact with the Colombian cartels. He is serving multiple life sentences in the United States.
The DEA quickly tracked Caro Quintero to one of his residences in Costa Rica, and he was arrested and shipped back to Mexico for trial. Fonseca Carrillo was arrested by the Mexican military at his estate in Puerto Vallarta a few days later. (The Mexican military was involved in operations against drug lords long before the presidency of Vicente Fox.) Felix Gallardo was able to keep a low profile and evade capture until 1989, but with his arrest, the Guadalajara cartel leadership had been gutted.
And the Guadalajara cartel broke into smaller parts, some of which would later become well-known in the United States. The Arellano Felix brothers set up shop as the Tijuana cartel, Amado Carrillo Fuentes would lead the Juarez cartel, and El Chapo, El Azul, El Mayo and the Beltran Leyva brothers would form the Sinaloa Federation.
Doing Business From a Prison Cell
Although Caro Quintero had been imprisoned since 1985, a prison cell for a cartel leader in Mexico is not necessarily the same as prison cell in the United States. From 1983 until 2001, El Chapo was able to run his organization from his luxury cell in Puente Grande. He used couriers and cellphones to keep on top of his business empire. His 2001 breakout stood in stark contrast to Caro Quintero's departure. Caro Quintero walked out, while his longtime friend and business associate El Chapo escaped hiding in a laundry basket from the prison, which didn't lose its lenient atmosphere with his getaway.
During May 2017, Mexico's Grupo Milenio published a video that was apparently taken at the prison in 2016. In the video, Jose Luis Gutierrez Valencia, a member of the powerful Valencia family behind the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion, is seen drinking whiskey with his armed bodyguards and other people while listening to a Norteno band that had been brought inside the prison to perform. Cellphones abound. Therefore, a narco chief like Caro Quintero could have quite possibly maintained command of his criminal organization while in Puente Grande.
The accusations are also not new; two months before Caro Quintero went free, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control placed sanctions on several people associated with him, including his wife, his children, his daughter-in-law, his personal secretary and a number of businesses in Guadalajara reportedly connected to him. The U.S. office claimed they were involved in a continuing criminal enterprise.
Indeed, in an indictment from the Eastern District of New York from Jan. 20, 2017, which was unsealed on April 12 to coincide with Caro Quintero's addition to the top 10 list, the U.S. Department of Justice charged that he was able to maintain control of his criminal organization while in prison. It also says that he has been heavily involved in the narcotics trade since he left prison. The indictment lists a number of instances in 2015 and 2016 when large shipments of marijuana, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine sent by his organization were seized after entering the United States.
Dirt Poor and on the Lam
In December 2013 Caro Quintero sent a public letter to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto stating that the United States was unjustly persecuting him and his family. It also claimed that he stopped trafficking drugs in 1984; he echoed that claim in a 2016 video interview with Proceso TV and in other statements. However, in that video in which he claimed to be out of the crime business and to be in dire economic straits, he was wearing a cap from 5.11 Tactical, a high-end U.S. tactical gear company — an interesting choice of apparel for someone claiming to be a poor farmer.
Caro Quintero has deep connections to the people in Sinaloa's mountains. After his attempt to flee Mexico in 1985, the death of Arturo Beltran Leyva in Cuernavaca in 2009, and the arrests of El Chapo in Mazatlan in 2014 and in Los Mochis in 2016, he might believe that he is safer in the mountains. But with a $20 million price now on his head and a spot on the FBI's top 10, it is only a matter of time before he is captured again no matter where he is.
As noted in the Threat Lens annual cartel forecast, the Sinaloa cartel leadership was able to weather a large challenge from a faction led by Damaso Lopez Nunez in 2017. With the extradition of El Chapo in January 2017, Lopez Nunez was emboldened to make his play for supremacy. Putting down his insurrection has brought some degree of stability to Sinaloa in 2018, but the organization still remains fragile. The capture or death of Caro Quintero could again destabilize this tenuous balance.