MEXICO CITY (AP) — The United States’ motivation to track down infamous drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero has never been in doubt — hence the $20 million reward for information leading to his capture – there was less certainty about the commitment of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who had made clear his lack of interest in prosecuting the drug lords.
Yet on Friday, three days after López Obrador and US President Joe Biden met at the White House, the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s most wanted target was being held in Mexico.
The man believed to be responsible for the murder of a DEA agent more than three decades ago was chased out of the undergrowth by a bloodhound as Mexican marines drove deep into the mountains of his home state of Sinaloa.
The arrest was costly: fourteen Mexican marines died and another was injured when a Navy Blackhawk helicopter crashed during the operation. The Navy said it appeared to be an accident, with the cause under investigation.
Mexico’s attorney general’s office said in a statement on Friday that Caro Quintero had been arrested for extradition to the United States and would be held at the Altiplano maximum security prison, about 80 km west of Mexico City. .
DEA Administrator Anne Milgram celebrated the capture of a man most despised by U.S. officials for the torture and murder of DEA Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985. “Our incredible team of the DEA in Mexico has worked in partnership with Mexican authorities to capture and arrest Rafael Caro Quintero,” she said in a message to the agency Friday night. “Today’s arrest is the result of years of your blood, sweat and tears.”
Cooperation between the DEA and Mexican navies had led to some of the most high-profile captures during previous administrations, but not under López Obrador, noted security analyst David Saucedo.
“It seems to me that during the private talks between President Joe Biden and Andrés Manuel (López Obrador), they surely agreed to re-deliver high-level drug traffickers, who had been suspended,” Saucedo said.
Both presidents face domestic pressure to do more against drug traffickers. With Caro Quintero’s arrest, “narcos are being captured again and I believe that was clearly what was actually needed,” Saucedo said.
US Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar said in a statement on Saturday that no US personnel were directly involved in the tactical operation that led to the drug lord’s capture. “Caro Quintero’s arrest was exclusively carried out by the Mexican government.”
Samuel González, who founded the organized crime bureau in Mexico’s attorney general’s office and is now a security analyst, said the capture may not have a major effect on Mexico’s organized crime map because Caro Quintero was not as powerful as it was decades ago, and that might even generate more violence in territories like Sonora, on the US border.
But he said that for the benefit of López Obrador, the arrest “shows proof that there is no protection for capos” by his administration.
González believes Caro Quintero has long been a thorn in the bilateral relationship, but said “without a doubt” his capture was the result of recent negotiations in Washington.
“The Americans never stopped pushing for his arrest,” González said.
US Attorney General Merrick Garland and Salazar expressed their gratitude for Mexico’s capture of the man accused of killing Camarena – a case that marked a low point in US-Mexican relations.
“This achievement demonstrates Mexico’s determination to bring to justice someone who terrorized and destabilized Mexico during his time in the Guadalajara Cartel; and is implicated in the kidnapping, torture and murder of DEA Agent Kiki Camarena,” Salazar said in a statement late Friday.
Garland said the US government would seek his immediate extradition.
“My hope is that with the capture of Caro Quintero, it will resolve a lot of tension between the DEA and Mexico,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations.
The Mexican navy and attorney general’s office carried out the operation deep in the mountains that straddle the border between the states of Sinaloa and Chihuahua, several miles from any paved road. They found Caro Quintero, with the help of “Max”, hiding in the brush in a place in Sinaloa called San Simon.
López Obrador said the helicopter that crashed in the coastal town of Los Mochis supported the operation against Caro Quintero. U.S. officials expressed condolences for the fallen Marines.
Caro Quintero was from Badiraguato, Sinaloa, the same township as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, which later formed. Caro Quintero was one of the founders of the Guadalajara Cartel and, according to the DEA, was one of the main suppliers of heroin, cocaine and marijuana to the United States in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Caro Quintero had blamed Camarena for a raid on a huge marijuana plantation in 1984. The following year, Camarena was kidnapped in Guadalajara, allegedly on the orders of Caro Quintero. His tortured body was found a month later.
Caro Quintero was captured in Costa Rica in 1985 and was serving a 40-year sentence in Mexico when an appeals court overturned its verdict in 2013. The Supreme Court upheld the sentence, but it was too late – Caro Quintero had was removed from a waiting vehicle.
Caro Quintero was added to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List of 2018 with a $20 million reward for his capture.
López Obrador had previously seemed ambivalent about his case.
Last year, the president said the legal appeal that led to Caro Quintero’s release was “justified” because no verdict had been reached against the drug lord after 27 years in prison. López Obrador also described a subsequent warrant for his re-arrest as an example of American pressure.
“Once released, they had to search for him again, because the United States demanded that he should not have been released, but legally the appeal was justified,” López Obrador said.
Presidential spokesman Jesús Ramírez said at the time: “The president was simply saying that it was a legal aberration that the judge had not issued a verdict against Mr. Caro Quintero after 27 years…but he did not was not advocating his release”.
Mexican journalist Anabel Hernandez twice interviewed fugitive Caro Quintero in the mountains of northern Mexico without revealing the location. Caro Quintero claimed in these interviews that he was no longer involved in drug trafficking.