Mexico Captures Notorious Drug Kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero

MEXICO CITY — A drug kingpin convicted of orchestrating the torture and murder of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent was captured in northern Mexico on Friday, according to Mexican officials, bringing a case that has long been a source of tension with the United States one step closer to resolution.

The drug boss, Rafael Caro Quintero, was captured in a joint operation involving the Mexican marines and the country’s prosecutor’s office near the town of San Simón in the state of Sinaloa, Mexican officials said. Mr. Caro Quintero was found hiding in the bushes by a search dog named Max, according to a statement from the Mexican marines.

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said the United States would seek his immediate extradition.

Hours after Mr. Caro Quintero was detained, a Black Hawk helicopter crashed outside the nearby city of Los Mochis, killing 14 marines onboard. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said on Twitter that they had been involved in the mission to capture the former crime lord.

Two warrants had been issued for Mr. Caro Quintero’s arrest, officials said. He has been under indictment in federal court in Brooklyn since 2020 on several counts of drug trafficking, according to court records.

Mr. Caro Quintero was convicted of masterminding the 1985 killing of the D.E.A. agent Enrique Camarena, who was known as Kiki, and was placed on the F.B.I.’s 10 most wanted list in 2018, after he had been released in 2013 on a legal technicality. He has been on the run ever since.

In a move that took American authorities by surprise, Mr. Caro Quintero had served 28 years of his 40-year sentence when he was abruptly set free by a judge who ruled that he had been improperly tried in federal court rather than a state court for the murder of Mr. Camarena.

The torture and killing of Mr. Camarena, who had been working undercover, was considered an inflection point in Mexico’s violent war on drug cartels, and has long been a sore spot for U.S. law enforcement officials, as well as a source of friction with Washington.

Mr. Camarena’s brutal murder is considered one of the worst episodes in the history of the D.E.A., and the capture of Mr. Caro Quintero has long been considered within the agency as unfinished business.

“There is no hiding place for anyone who kidnaps, tortures and murders American law enforcement,” Mr. Garland said on Friday in a statement, thanking the Mexican authorities and adding that the arrest was “the culmination of tireless work by D.E.A. and their Mexican partners.”

The capture of the infamous drug boss, who was a founder of the now-defunct Guadalajara Cartel, came just days after Mr. López Obrador met with President Biden in Washington.

In a joint statement after the meeting, both leaders said they had “reaffirmed our commitment to work together to address major security issues affecting our nations, including the challenges of fentanyl, arms trafficking, and human smuggling.”

The capture of Mr. Caro Quintero is likely to be viewed as an important victory for Mr. López Obrador, who has presided over one of the bloodiest periods in Mexican history, despite promising to tackle crime and quell violence.

The arrest also suggests ongoing cooperation between U.S. and Mexican security forces, a relationship that has become increasingly fraught since Mexico approved legislation last year restricting the activities of foreign agents and lifting their diplomatic immunity.

The operation “requires a very fluid information exchange between the marines and American agencies,” said Alejandro Hope, a Mexico City security analyst. “It’s a sign that at least at this level, at the agency level, that cooperation persists.”

But despite its symbolic significance, analysts warn that the practical impact of Mr. Caro Quintero’s arrest will be limited, as he was likely no longer a major figure within the Mexican organized crime world, which has become increasingly fragmented in recent years and less centered around major cartel bosses.

“In terms of bilateral relations, as in satisfying D.E.A. pressure above all, it’s a big deal,” said Falko Ernst, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group. “But if you look at it from a perspective of what this does to armed conflict on the ground and actually providing solutions to the violence, he was still a player, but not a major piece.”

Within Mexican drug lore, however, Mr. Caro Quintero remains a towering figure. Known as the “narco of narcos,” he was a pioneer in producing and trafficking massive amounts of drugs into the United States.

According to his 2020 indictment, Mr. Caro Quintero led a vast trafficking network starting at least in 1980 that was responsible for the manufacture and export of “multi-ton quantities of heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, from Mexico into the United States.”

The organization was also responsible for shipping tons of cocaine from South America to the United States, according to the indictment, generating millions of dollars in profit that was then laundered back to Mexico.

The indictment also noted that leaders of the Caro Quintero organization “employed ‘sicarios,’ or hitmen, who carried out numerous acts of violence, including murders, assaults, kidnappings and acts of torture.”

By far the most infamous of those slayings was the murder of Mr. Camarena in 1985.

The D.E.A. agent had been working undercover in Mexico when he was abducted in February of that year. Mr. Caro Quintero had reportedly been on something of a rampage against the U.S. agency after Mr. Camarena helped uncover a massive marijuana plantation worth $160 million.

Mr. Camarena endured brutal torture before being murdered: A forensic expert said he was killed by blows to the face and head by a blunt object. His mutilated body was found bound hand and foot and wrapped in plastic bags on a ranch near the city of Guadalajara nearly a month later.

The murder, the first such killing of a U.S. agent on Mexican soil since both countries began cooperation on combating cartels, sent shock waves across both sides of the border and helped accelerate the war on drugs.

The killing inspired a “sense of revenge” and a desire “to disrupt Mexican drug trafficking in more personal ways and more drastic ways than ever before,” said Mr. Ernst, the International Crisis Group analyst. “It’s one of the key events” that helped influence “the whole strategy that was then formulated to go after the heads of these organizations.”

Mr. Camarena’s death has also become a touchstone in cartel lore, portrayed in multiple TV series, including most recently the hit Netflix show “Narcos: Mexico.” It is also bitterly remembered by the D.E.A., which named an office in San Diego after Mr. Camarena.

The drug prevention campaign Red Ribbon Week was also originally launched as a way to commemorate the fallen agent.

Mr. Caro Quintero initially evaded capture and fled to Costa Rica, where he was later tracked down by U.S. agents. After being returned to Mexico, he was tried and convicted of masterminding Mr. Camarena’s killing in 1989.

But a judge overturned the conviction in 2013, setting Mr. Caro Quintero free, after which he apparently went straight back into the business.

According to his indictment, the cartel leader helped traffic drugs into the United States multiple times between 2015 and 2016, including thousands of kilograms of cocaine as well as various amounts of methamphetamines, marijuana and heroin.

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