The release of Rafael Caro Quintero from a Mexican prison in August 2013 was a blow to US-Mexico relations, the reputation of the Mexican justice system, and the drug war.
Caro Quintero had been imprisoned since 1989 for drug trafficking, murder, and perhaps most importantly the abduction, torture and killing of Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, an agent for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). When Caro Quintero was freed in August 2013 — a federal court overturned his sentence because he had been tried in a state court rather than a federal one — the US State Department offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest, while the Mexican Attorney General’s Office also issued a new warrant for his apprehension.
Whether Rafael Caro Quintero still has clout in the Mexican cartel underworld is uncertain. Born in La Noria, Sinaloa, on October 3, 1952, he is widely considered to be one of the godfathers of the Mexican drug trade; upon his release from prison, one Mexican newspaper referred to him as the “narco of narcos.” Yet he is 61-years-old, and the Mexican drug trafficking landscape has changed immensely since the days when he was in charge. Rather than one or two cartels controlling operations, the situation is far more fluid today, with numerous groups and upstart organizations controlling production and distribution.
This article reviews Caro Quintero’s rapid rise in Mexico’s drug underworld, reveals his significant ties to the Sinaloa Federation, and attempts to dissect his activities since his release from prison in August 2013. It finds that 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.
A Rapid Rise
In the 1980s, Caro Quintero was considered a pioneer. He allegedly oversaw operations for the Guadalajara Cartel at Rancho Bufalo, a vast marijuana plantation in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua with an annual production value of roughly $8 billion. In its prime, the Guadalaraja Cartel was the only drug trafficking organization in Mexico, with a corruption network that spanned the country. Headed by Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, the Guadalaraja Cartel was responsible for forging the ties to Colombian drug trafficking networks that exist to this day. By the age of 29, Caro Quintero had reportedly amassed a fortune of $500 million, 36 houses and some 300 companies in the Guadalajara area.
An indictment issued in the Central District of California in June 1989 named Caro Quintero as a member of the now defunct Guadalajara Cartel. Caro Quintero’s residence was identified as the location where DEA agent Camarena was tortured and killed. The US Treasury Department identified him as the “mastermind” behind Camarena’s abduction and murder. He was also accused of distributing tens of thousands of tons of marijuana throughout Mexico and into the United States. Upon his arrest in 1985, shortly after the killing of Camarena, Caro Quintero was charged with murder and sentenced to 40-years in a Mexican prison.
In recent years, in part due to his imprisonment but also as a result of the Guadalajara Cartel’s apparent demise, Caro Quintero has remained off the radar. In June 2013, shortly before Caro Quintero’s release from prison, the US Treasury Department released information on him and his primary associates, which linked Caro Quintero closely to Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul”, an alleged high-ranking member of the Sinaloa Federation.
The link is significant since it alleges that Caro Quintero still has criminal ties to one of the men widely believed to be a likely successor to the throne of the Sinaloa Federation. Throughout his life, Esparragoza Moreno has kept a low profile and moved horizontally and vertically between both the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels, effectively utilizing his role as an adviser to “stay in the background,” as one US official explained. Indeed, in many press releases issued by the Mexican government that list the country’s most-wanted drug traffickers, Esparragoza Moreno is often left out. At one point in the late 1990s, he was thought to be both a high-ranking member of the Juarez Cartel and a high-ranking adviser in the Sinaloa cartel. The cartels’ relationship at the time was considered to be fluid and disorganized, allowing Esparragoza Moreno to utilize his diplomatic and strategic skills to position himself in both organizations at the same time. It is a feat that has not been duplicated by any other major cartel figure.
SEE ALSO: El Azul Profile
Of all the Sinaloa Federation’s senior leaders, Esparragoza Moreno is the one who appears to have suffered the least pressure from the recent years of law enforcement operations. Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada’s son, Vicente, is currently on trial in Chicago, and dozens of Sinaloa cartel lieutenants have been arrested or captured. Drug capo Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel Villareal was killed in a 2010 shootout with the Mexican military, while Arturo Beltran Leyva (also known as “El Barbas”) was killed in a bloody raid on a Cuernavaca apartment complex in December 2009; his brother Alfredo (also known as Mochomo) is in prison. Edgar Valdez Villareal (also known as “La Barbie”) is in a Mexico City prison awaiting extradition. El Mayo is still free, but Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, the most-wanted trafficker in the world, was captured on February 22, 2014, countering conspiracy theories that the Sinaloa Federation was being protected by the Mexican authorities.
The US Treasury Department considers top Sinaloa figure Esparragoza Moreno and Caro Quintero to be “long-time trafficking partners.” (see chart below) It also named several companies, all located in the vicinity of Guadalajara in central Mexico, as belonging to Caro Quintero as fronts for illicit activity. This is significant in that it indicates he may still be involved in the drug trafficking business in some way, even if only with respect to financial ties. Regardless, the financial networks of Mexico’s drug traffickers are perhaps the most important element of their illicit activity. As the drug trafficking patterns shift and products change, and focus moves from marijuana production to heroin, for example, the money continues to flow and needs to be laundered.
Money laundering is likely Caro Quintero’s relevance in the Mexican drug trade today. It is unlikely, given his many years of imprisonment, that he has any influence in the business of drug trafficking itself — in spite of dated reports that he retained clout while imprisoned.
The Caro Quintero affiliated companies named by the US Treasury Department include real estate ventures, gasoline retailers and agricultural businesses, indicating that money laundered by Caro Quintero is not small in quantity (in some instances regarding the Mexican drug cartels, the US Treasury Department has named smaller businesses, even daycare centers, as money laundering fronts, and these quite clearly can only sustain smaller quantities of illicit cash; agricultural enterprises and real estate tend to provide cover for much larger quantities of illicit funds).
Also notable is the number of companies designated as connected to Caro Quintero by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Sanctions have been placed on some 20 companies, suggesting that Caro Quintero still maintains a network through which to launder his money, rather than simply having a few outlets through which to keep movable cash.
Where exactly Caro Quintero is located may be the clue to deciphering how much influence he still has in the drug business — if he is located in a large cartel-ridden city like Guadalajara or Culiacan, it is likely he remains connected to the drug world and its leadership. If he is in the hills of Sinaloa, however, then he probably has little influence.
Shortly after his release from prison, and following the US announcement regarding information leading to his capture, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office (PGR) — which disagreed with the court decision to set him free — released a so-called red notice, alerting Interpol to his status and officially designating him as an international fugitive. The Mexican authorities admit they do not know his whereabouts. “We had him and then he escaped [our grasp],” Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said shortly after Caro Quintero’s release.
Caro Quintero, however, has reached out to the authorities himself. In late 2013, he sent a letter to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto asking that Mexican authorities not bow to US pressure. He has already served his time, he claimed, saying that his family does not deserve more “persecution.”
Still in Pursuit
Caro Quintero’s brother, Miguel Angel, was extradited to the United States in 2009 and charged a year later for conspiring to import marijuana and racketeering. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison in Denver in 2010. As a result, it is not likely that the authorities will feel the need to apprehend Rafael Caro Quintero to break down a family network. However, given that the Mexican Supreme Court has overturned the lower court’s decision to set him free, not to mention the fact that Sinaloa leader Guzman claimed to have recently spoken with him, it is likely that Mexican authorities will continue to assist the United States in seeking his capture.
SEE ALSO: El Chapo Profile
It is also quite likely that in light of Sinaloa leader Guzman’s declarations, US authorities may decide that Caro Quintero still has clout in the drug trafficking world and put pressure on Mexico to re-arrest him. One former DEA official recently told the El Paso Times that ruling out Caro Quintero as the “jefe de jefes” (boss of bosses) was impossible given the influence he had in the past. This indicates that at least some in the US intelligence community continue to view Caro Quintero as a serious threat. With that in mind, it is highly unlikely that Caro Quintero will spend the rest of his days living quietly in the hills of his home region of Sinaloa.
*Malcolm Beith is a freelance journalist and author of The Last Narco: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, the World’s Most Wanted Drug Lord. A former general editor at Newsweek International, he has also written for Foreign Policy, The New Statesman, The Sunday Times and Foreign Affairs, among other publications. He has just completed a Master’s Degree in War Studies from the University of Glasgow.