The story connecting Mexico’s infamous Guadalajara Cartel to the United States’ top spy agency in the 1980s is not fiction, even if the assertion that the agency helped kill a US drug agent probably is. A look at the publicly available documents shows that the US worked closely with at least one member of the cartel, but that it was not the infamous Mexican intellectual author of the murder.

At first glance, they seemed like wild assertions: in October, the Mexican magazine Proceso and Fox News, based on interviews with two former agents and a former contractor, said the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had executed Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985, after Camarena discovered the agency’s plan to finance the CIA’s proxy army in Central America, the Contras, using illicit drug funds. 

The details were sketchy — reports of a CIA asset recording the torture session came via Mexican informants, for instance — but the sources were strong. Ex-DEA agent Phil Jordan once headed the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC); Hector Berrellez was a DEA supervisor on the case; and Tosh Plumlee was a former CIA contract pilot who worked with SETCO, a Honduran-based airline owned by Honduran drug trafficker Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros.

In separate interviews with the El Paso Times, Jordan and Berrellez said they went public because they only recently confirmed allegations of the CIA involvement in the Camarena murder.

On November 2, Proceso followed up with a story drawing from a public event in which other former DEA agents confirmed the connections between the CIA and members of the cartel but denied assertions the agency was involved in Camarena’s murder.

On November 9, the magazine offered still more details, via an interview with Plumlee, of the alleged connections between the US spy agency and the Guadalajara Cartel’s Rafael Caro Quintero, the convicted intellectual author of the Camarena murder. According to previous accounts, Camerena was tortured and murdered by the cartel as revenge for uncovering a massive marijuana operation.

Plumlee claimed he had flown Caro Quintero to Guatemala after the murder because, according to the former contractor, he was “protected” by the White House. From there, the trafficker made his way to Costa Rica where he was captured and sent back to Mexico. There he was convicted to 40 years in prison.

Interest in the case revived in August when Mexican authorities released Caro Quintero from jail 12 years before the end of his sentence. The court overturned this decision in early November, and authorities are searching for Caro Quintero anew.

There is, however, little documentation to back up the claims of CIA involvement and the statements of the sources are not all rock solid. Plumlee, for instance, says the man he flew to Guatemala did not identify himself.

In a statement to Fox News, the CIA vehemently denied the story, and previous investigations into Iran-Contra and CIA dealings in the region have not included the Guadalajara Cartel. In a famous Inspector General’s reporton alleged CIA ties to traffickers issued in 1998, for example, there is no mention of the Guadalajara Cartel, Caro Quintero or anything else related to the case.

And while the story is still percolating via Proceso, it has not picked up momentum in the United States for reasons that are clear: it is still thin. 

A New Protagonist

While all the emphasis is on Caro Quintero’s and possibly the CIA’s starring roles in Camarena’s death, the real protagonist of this part of the story is the Honduran drug trafficker Matta Ballesteros and his company SETCO — the only formally established links between the Guadalajara Cartel and the CIA.

According to the most complete account of his life in Julie Marie Brunck and Michael Ross Fowler’s “Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation: Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America,” Matta Ballesteros worked his way from petty street thief in Tegucigalpa to contraband and drug trader.

Drawing heavily from news accounts, they say in 1970 he was arrested in Dulles Airport with 25 kilos of cocaine. A year later he escaped from a Florida military holding facility and made his way back to Honduras where he began moving emeralds and drugs, among other illicit products. His networks reached to the top of the Honduran military, who helped him kidnap and kill his former partners-turned-rivals, Mary and Mario Ferrari, in 1977.

Shortly thereafter he became the key bridge between the Guadalajara Cartel and the Medellin Cartel.He bought large tracts of land and set up companies in Honduras, among them SETCO. As well as trafficking his goods, the airline moved shipments for the State Department and the CIA, according to a 1988 congressional report (pdf).

“Beginning in 1984, SETCO was the principal company used by the Contras to transport supplies and personnel to the FDN [Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense, a Contra faction], carrying at least a million rounds of ammunition, food, uniforms, and other military supplies to the Contras from 1983 through 1985,” the report says.

The report — which came from the so-called Kerry Committee Report, named for then Senator and now Secretary of State John Kerry who led the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s inquiry into US support for the Contras — adds that other US agencies knew of SETCO’s role in trafficking drugs.

“A 1983 Customs Investigative Report states that ‘SETCO stands for Services Ejecutivos Turistas Commander and is headed by Juan Ramon Mata (sic) Ballesteros, a class I DEA Violator,’” the Kerry report states. “According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (sic), ‘SETCO Aviation is a corporation formed by American businessmen who are dealing with Matta and are smuggling narcotics into the United States.’”

A ledger from the report shows the State Department paid $185,924.25 to SETCO between January and August of 1986, a year after Camarena was killed and Matta Ballesteros was a known suspect in the case. 

Differing Timelines

The Proceso stories argue the CIA had a direct relationship to the Guadalajara Cartel via corrupt Mexican police, which appears, by all accounts, to be true. But it also reconstructs the Matta Ballesteros story to fit its narrative. Specifically, it says a CIA asset named Felix Rodriguez — who famously claims to have presided over the capture and murder of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Bolivia in 1967 — brought Matta Ballesteros to Mexico and introduced him to the Guadalajara Cartel for the express purpose of moving cocaine to the United States to fund the Contras.

However, this is inconsistent with what’s known about Felix Rodriguez’s and Matta Ballesteros’ histories. Rodriguez, according to the independent counsel Lawrence Walsh’s report on the Iran Contra affair, did not become a clandestine coordinator for Contra aid until 1985, well after Matta Ballesteros had begun working with the Guadalajara Cartel.  

To be sure, Matta Ballesteros was in Mexico since at least the early 1970s. In 1974, he was arrested for drug possession there. By the late 1970s, after being released from jail, he had worked his way through the distribution chain and become a key operative of the Guadalajara Cartel.

By the mid-1980s, Mexican and US media referred to him as the Guadalajara Cartel’s boss. After he was captured and jailed in Colombia, Medellin Cartel operatives paid a bribe estimated to be in the millions to get him out.

From Colombia, he made his way back to Honduras where despite the international warrant for his arrest, he enjoyed a very public life. His business and political connections attended parties at his lavish mansion and he gave handouts to the poor from his doorstep.

An Ironic Ending

Matta Ballesteros’ nexus with the Guadalajara Cartel eventually caught up with him. In April 1988, Honduran army officials along with US Marshals picked him up after his morning jog, then bundled him into an airplane and took him to the Dominican Republic. From there he was flown to the US where the marshals officially arrested and charged him with the kidnapping and murder of Camarena.

During his trial, neither he nor his lawyers ever raised the CIA’s possible connections to the cartel or the agency’s possible role in the murder of Camarena. Matta Ballesteros was eventually sentenced to multiple life sentences in a US prison where he remains to this day.

So, conspiracy theories aside, the record shows an indirect connection between the CIA and the Guadalajara Cartel via Matta Ballesteros and possibly a more direct connection via the Mexican police. However, the assertion that the CIA presided over the murder of a DEA agent seems — with the documents that are publicly available now at least — more conspiracy theory than reality.  

The research presented in this article is, in part, the result of a project funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Its content is not necessarily a reflection of the positions of the IDRC. The ideas, thoughts and opinions contained in this document are those of the author or authors.

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...