Inside the manhunt for drug lord loathed by U.S. law enforcement
If you were a 61-year-old drug lord who was just released from prison after 28 years, but had a fresh arrest warrant hanging over your head, where would you go? Plenty of people in the office of Mexico’s attorney general, PGR, are asking themselves that question at this very moment. They are frantically searching for Rafael Caro Quintero, one of most notorious drug lords of the 1980s, after he was suddenly released from jail on a technicality in August. And they have no idea where he is.
On Tuesday the PGR confirmed it had issued a “red notice” to all 190 members of Interpol, designating Caro Quintero as an international fugitive. The notice was a follow-up to a provisional arrest warrant sent by the US Justice Department to its Mexican counterpart, which could eventually result in a formal request for extradition.
Caro Quintero was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 1989 for the murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985. As the capo of the Guadalajara Cartel, Mexico’s principal drug trafficking outfit at the time, Quintero was responsible for trafficking $5 billion per year of marijuana and heroin to the United States.
The murder of Camarena severely strained US-Mexican relations, and to this day is a sensitive topic among law enforcement officials north of the border. Consequently, US authorities were horrified when a federal judge released Caro Quintero on Aug. 9, citing a technicality in the original trial that seemed to come from out of the blue.
To add insult to injury, it took the former drug lord less than 24 hours to vanish into thin air. Because the release order was so sudden, the provisional arrest warrant came too late—several days after Caro Quintero left prison—and Mexican prison authorities had no choice but to let him go.
“Unfortunately we don’t know where he is at the moment. If I did, I’d already have him arrested,” said attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam at the time. The Mexican government was clearly caught by surprise at Caro Quintero’s release, and the PGR has formed a special team to search for him.
Where exactly Caro Quintero might be at the moment is anyone’s guess. But now that he’s vanished, it will be a difficult task to find him, says security expert Jorge Chabat of the Mexico City–based CIDE research group. “He would be in a place that’s easy to hide, like the mountains of Sinaloa,” Chabat says. “It all depends on the money he has. It’s not difficult to stay out of sight in Mexico, as long as you have the resources.”
For his part, Mayor Angel Robles of Badiraguato, Caro Quintero’s birthplace in the Sinaloa state, considered the cradle of Mexican drug trafficking, says he has “no indication” that the fugitive kingpin is hiding out in the rugged mountains surrounding his town, nor has he noticed any “extraordinary law enforcement activity” in the area.
“It’s all speculation,” Robles says.
Embarrassment and the need to pacify rage over Caro Quintero’s release are enough to put the PGR on full alert, but there is also a strong fear that he may pick up where he left off. In June, the US Treasury Department listed 15 businesses and 18 people, including six family members, as part of an extensive money laundering operation linked to the fugitive drug lord. Most of those businesses and properties are based in or near Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco, where Caro Quintero reigned supreme in the 1980s under the moniker “El Principe” (“The Prince”), a reference to his extravagant lifestyle.
“It’s pretty clear that Caro Quintero is still operating in the business,” says Javier Oliva, a national security investigator at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “There is evidence that he still has resources and that his family manages them.”
According to the Treasury Department, Caro Quintero’s money laundering operations include a gas station, a restaurant, a spa and most importantly Grupo Fracsa, a real estate company involved in the construction of a luxury apartment building in the city of Zapopan, on the outskirts of Guadalajara. Mexican newspaper El Universal reported earlier this week that high profile buyers such as soccer stars Rafa Marquez and Adolfo el Bofo have acquired apartments in the building, which was designed by José Francisco Serrano, this year’s winner of the Mexican national architecture award.
It’s quite a portfolio for a man who spent the last 28 years behind bars, and it has many worried that Caro Quintero could have the capacity to re-establish himself as a force in Mexico’s drug trafficking world.
“He spent a lot of time in jail, so it’s difficult to imagine him still being a top player in the business,” says Chabat. “There are other actors in charge now. I do think it’s probable he still has a role to play, though.”
So does The Treasury Department, which that one of Caro Quintero’s partners at Grupo Fracsa is Juan José Esparragoza Moreno, nicknamed “El Azul” (“The Blue One”), one of the top figures in the Sinaloa Cartel, as offshoot of the Guadalajara Cartel that is now Mexico’s largest and most powerful criminal organization. Sinaloa is led by Joaquín “El Chapo” (“Shorty”) Guzmán, the world’s most wanted man since the death of Osama Bin Laden. Guzmán, Esparragoza and fellow Sinaloa captain Ismael Zambada were all once members of the Guadalajara cartel. Chances are good that Caro Quintero may have reconnected with his former colleagues.
“I’m not sure if he will be able to regain the sway he had before,” says Oliva. “But he knows new groups, and he still has old connections.”