The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) just added one of Mexico's most legendary drug lords, Rafael Caro Quintero, to its list of most wanted fugitives. But 40 years after his heyday, is the one-time kingpin really still in the game?
Quintero, also known as the “Narco of Narcos,” was one of the founders of Mexico’s first monolithic criminal organization, the Guadalajara Cartel. He was arrested in 1985, accused of the torture and assassination of an agent of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) named Enrique “Kiki” Camarena. The gruesome murder caused lasting outrage among US law enforcement.
Despite being sentenced to 40 years in a Mexican prison, Caro Quintero was suspiciously granted early release in 2013 due to a technicality. Mexico almost immediately issued an order for his re-arrest. The US State Department offered a reward for information leading to his capture, and the DEA put him on its most wanted list.
Now, after nearly five years as a fugitive, Caro Quintero is back in the spotlight. On April 12, the FBI added him to its list of the agency's ten most wanted fugitives.
(FBI video on Rafael Caro Quintero's addition to the most wanted list)
Caro Quintero has been in the public eye recently after giving an interview to Aristegui Noticias, in which he denied still being in the drug business.
“I’m not part of any cartel," he said. "I’m never going back to drug trafficking.”
But the recent wanted notice alleges that 65-year-old holds "an active key leadership position directing the activities of the Sinaloa Cartel and the Caro-Quintero Drug Trafficking Organization within the region of Badiraguato, Sinaloa, Mexico.”
The US State Department is offering a reward of up to $20 million for information leading to Caro Quintero's arrest. By comparison, the department offered a reward of up to $5 million for Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, one of the world’s biggest drug lords, before his arrest in 2016.
InSight Crime Analysis
The naming of Caro Quintero as one of the FBI's most wanted is likely related to his alleged role in the brutal torture and slaying of Camarena. The fallen agent is considered by many in US law enforcement to be a hero, and Caro Quintero's early release was percieved as an insult.
“There was an opinion that [Caro Quintero] was going to be arrested pretty soon” after his release in 2013, former top DEA official Mike Vigil told InSight Crime.
If Caro Quintero were arrested, there is a strong possibility that the United States would seek his extradition on charges related to Camarena's murder. But the FBI’s allegations that Caro Quintero is still active in Mexico’s underworld suggest that drug trafficking activities may also have brought him back to the attention of law enforcement.
These claims have been surfacing for some time. In 2016, some accounts hazily linked Caro Quintero to power plays and attacks against El Chapo and the Sinaloa Cartel. Yet such theories remain shaky to this day, for a number of reasons. The DEA's most recent National Drug Threat Assessment report named him as one of the main leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel.
(The DEA's 2017 report showing Caro Quintero among the leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel)
Vigil, who spent much of his time as a federal agent in Mexico, said Caro Quintero may value his freedom over a stake in the drug trade.
“I’m not convinced he’s been trafficking drugs,” Vigil said. “He’s old, he’s sick. He knows if he’s recaptured he’ll die in prison.”
Caro Quintero may also be out of touch with the realities of today's underworld, which differs sharply from that of the 1980s. Over the past several decades Mexico’s cartels have become more fragmented and more violent, with different factions constantly battling for control. The idea of Caro Quintero wading into the chaos and taking the reins with the current bosses’ consent is hard to imagine.
Even if the one-time "Narco of Narcos" is still involved in crime, his clout may also be overestimated. An article published by the Combating Terrorism Center several months after his 2013 release concluded that if Caro Quintero had any remaining influence, it would probably be restricted to money laundering.
"Caro Quintero’s importance today is likely mostly symbolic given his age and apparent lack of influence in drug trafficking operations in recent years. It is possible, however, that Caro Quintero still has clout when it comes to the money laundering side of cartel operations," wrote author Malcolm Beith.
Will the FBI’s move hasten Caro Quintero’s capture? Vigil believes that he has managed to evade arrest by hiding out deep in the rugged mountains of Sinaloa, where he was born, and may be protected by local communities. If he does not leave that shelter, the challenge for Mexican and US enforcement will be much greater.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the FBI was offering a $20 million reward for the capture of Caro Quintero. This is actually a US State Department reward.*