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I'm John Kuban, the host of Real Niarchos, the sister podcast, The Real Dictators Show, follows the hunt for history's most infamous narco criminals. If you like this episode in Search of a Real Narco in your podcast app and subscribe for weekly episodes.
February 7th, 1985, one thirty pm. Enrique Camarena of the US Drug Enforcement Administration sits at his desk in the American consulate in Guadalajara, Mexico, Qiqi, as he's known, has been out here for three years, but he and his young family are about to be rotated out of Mexico. Their bags are all packed for San Diego. Kiki picks up the phone and calls his wife, Mika. He's been working a lot lately and hasn't seen much of her or their three sons.
How about one last lunch visit to their favorite restaurant? Can takes a seat at a table set for two, the smell of Chinese food wafts out from the kitchen. She's seen the menu plenty times before. It stays unopened on the table. Her husband should be joining her shortly.
Kiki steps out the doors of the American consulate building. He walks down the street in the midday sun towards his car is parked just up ahead. He rummages in his pockets for his keys across the street, a group of men, their conversation sounds frantic. One of them points straight at kicking the men across the street. They look a bit like Mexican police. They come right up to Agent Camarena. One of them stares him in the eye. Then drops his gaze downwards.
The man is pointing a pistol at Kiki, careful to keep it concealed from the members of the public passing by. Kiki has no option but to get in their vehicle. It's the first time in U.S. history that a DEA agent has been abducted on foreign soil, in many ways, this is the defining moment of the war on drugs. Risk is always there for DEA agents in the field, but drug lords tend to stop short of actually enacting violence against American citizens.
It's one thing to threaten DEA agents. It's another thing entirely to carry out that threat. There's only one man in Mexico who could have pulled off such a brazen act, someone the DEA have been tracking for nine years. Noise represents Real Narcos, the podcast series that takes you to the front line with special agents and law enforcement pursuing the world's most dangerous narco criminals. In this episode, we'll delve deep into Kiki Camarena story, we'll follow the Drug Enforcement Administration to Mexico on the hunt for a drug trafficker who sits above all others is a deadly spider at the center of a web of corruption, a man intertwined with the upper echelons of the Mexican establishment with unprecedented status and influence.
He breaks the rules in unspeakable ways, getting away with it again and again. These guys are the real deal and this is real narcos. He had a lot of very high ranking, very important politicians, government officials, that he paid for protection at the same time the entire and while a lot of police department was on his payroll, so they protected him, his drugs are destroying millions of Mexican and American lives, but he's still well protected. Bringing him down is virtually impossible until he steps so far over the line, he feels the full force of the U.S. government.
Well, basically, they were all going to flee because they knew that the full weight of the US government was going to be brought to bear. Drugs are menacing our society. They're threatening our values and undercutting our institutions. They're killing our children. We've taken strong steps to do something about this horror. Thirty seven federal agencies are working together in a vigorous national effort. And by next year, our spending for drug law enforcement will have more than tripled from its 1981 levels.
Last year alone, over 10000 drug criminals were convicted and nearly 250 million dollars of their assets were seized by the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Administration. He rules his empire by any means necessary and is responsible for a singularly brutal act of violence against a U.S. agent in the field. There were signs of torture, there were broken bones, and there was a hole in his skull that could not have been made by a bullet. You're hearing a man being tortured, being murdered, and you're hearing him beg for his life.
At one point, he says on the tapes, I have my children, you know, don't murder me. He's begging for mercy. And he wasn't afforded any mercy.
This arch puppet master looming over the drugs trade is known as the Mexican godfather. His real name is Miguel, Felix, Giada. Do you understand the abduction of DEA agent Kiki Camarena? You have to understand what's going on in Mexico in the mid 1980s. Why are American agents like Camarena there in the first place? By 1984, the cocaine trade has reached its peak. Tons upon tons of high purity coke are smuggled into the USA. Eight million Americans are hooked on the white powder from South America.
A third of all homicides are drug related. This is a war America cannot afford to lose. The US government has thrown its resources into battling the Colombian drug cartels responsible for originating the flood of cocaine. The Drug Enforcement Administration, the DEA, dispatched agents to the front line to join Colombian police and military. The Colombian cartels have been hit hard. The demand for Coke is unabated into this void, Half-Step new adversaries much closer to home, just across the border, in fact, the Mexican cartels.
By the mid 1980s, almost the entire flow of drugs through Mexico into the United States is controlled by one man. Is full head of dark hair is pushed off, his face is pale skin, raised cheekbones and deep brown eyes, give him a haunting, slightly gaunt look. He's just 39 years old. A former police officer goes by the moniker of El Padrino. The Godfather. This is Miguel, Felix Gallardo. Elaine Shannon is an investigative journalist and author.
She's a renowned expert on the narcotics trade. There were violent criminals. This was the mafia they controlled certainly Jalisco state, they controlled states all along going up to the border and it made inroads into Mexico City to the top of the Mexican federal judicial police would be like controlling the FBI in the United States. When you have the Mafia controlling the FBI, then you've got a problem. DEA Agent Mike Vigil is part of the task force whose job it is to stem the tide of coke and marijuana entering America.
The center of the universe for Virgil and his colleagues used to be Colombia. But by the mid 80s, their attention is being drawn to Mexico. Times have changed. The drug trade is evolving. After spending over a decade in Mexico, the will later become one of the most decorated and senior agents, the head of DEA international operations, no less. And Felix Bayardo, he sees a vicious enemy. Miguel Felix K.R., though, was an individual that would take lives without any provocation and without his associates knowing about it.
You had sons of his associates killed. He had family members killed when the family's Colorado was the head of the Guadalajara cartel. He controlled drug trafficking throughout Mexico. And it was not a lot of cartels at that point in time. He was the capo there to the cop or the boss of all bosses, and he controlled all of the routes along the two thousand mile US Mexico border. You know, he was the undisputed head of drug trafficking in Mexico.
He had no other competition and he decided what had happened, what went on. And later he subdivided Mexico and gave authority to other individuals dividing the territory, so to speak.
This is the situation in 1984. Everything goes through Felix Gallardo Alejandrina. But how did he rise to this point to become the puppet master of the Mexican drug trade? Let's take a little trip back in time to the 1940s. The young Felix Gallardo grows up on a ranch in Sinaloa, a state in northwestern Mexico. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, while he's a kid, his family are poor, but he's got big ambitions.
He studied business in college and becomes the state police officer in his early 20s. But he won't stay on this side of the law for long. Corruption is everywhere throughout the Sinaloan police force. It's just a fact of life.
One of the things that you have to understand in Mexico is that the state and local police departments are rife with corruption. The corruption there is endemic. The Mexican military nor the Mexican federal police will work with state and local police departments because they're bought and paid for by the drug traffickers. Now they report to the governors of the respective states. But make no mistake about it, they are corrupt. So you can't give them any information. You can't work with them.
And in this case, it really highlighted the fact that they were there to support drug traffickers and not to carry out their responsibilities as law enforcement officials. Smart, ambitious and ruthless Toyota quickly climbs the ladder of power and corruption. Before long, his bodyguard to the governor of the state of Sinaloa, the Ebola Sanchez Celie's, he became a state judicial police officer and eventually became the bodyguard to the governor of the state of Sinaloa at the time, Leopoldo Sanchez Sallie's.
And it was through this governor that he started to meet a lot of very high ranking politicians and officials from Mexico that would help protect him and give him guidance in terms of his drug trafficking activities. Felix Gallardo isn't satisfied with being just another guy on the payroll, he's hungry for more, more power, more money, a lot of Mexican cops feel the same way.
So they might take a few bribes, turn a blind eye once in a while. But Gallardos aspirations go well beyond being someone else's stooge. He's been observing the drugs trade from one side of the line. Now he wants to cross over and become a player in the trade himself. Traditionally, Mexican drug lords grew marijuana and smuggled it over the border into the United States. Cocaine was the domain of the Colombian drug barons. They smuggle their product by air and sea through the Caribbean.
But over time, the US Navy and Coast Guard started getting their act together. It got harder to smuggle on planes and boats into Florida, so attention switched to the land and to get drugs to America from Colombia by land. You can't avoid Mexico. Gary Hart, who gets his break by using established marijuana and heroin smuggling lines into the US to transport Colombian cocaine is not content with being a middleman, a smuggler. He wants to be a full scale dealer himself.
So he insists that the Colombians pay him in both cash and cocaine when they started moving through Mexico.
The Mexicans, who are very good at organized crime themselves, said, well, OK, you can pass through our country, but you're going to pay us and you're going to pay us in cocaine as well as money.
Coyote, who takes a fat slice from each shipment of cocaine from Colombia, a full 50 percent to sell on himself.
They said, well, we're just going to control this trade ourselves and we will use the Colombians as suppliers, but we will control the markup in any retail market where the profit is. It's better than just growing the raw material.
By the mid 70s, Kaieda is doing OK for himself. More than OK is a mid-sized smuggler. He's turning over millions of dollars every year. He's made enough to live comfortably for the rest of his life. If he left the game now. Chances are the authorities would leave him alone. But that's not the way Gaieties sees it. Why stop when you could become the biggest drug lord in Mexico? Is guy out of this operation grows, so does this cash flow.
More cash means more visibility, he needs to launder his income. That means setting up legitimate businesses to cover his tracks. It's a genius way of turning drug money into investment in the Mexican economy.
Mike Vehle and his colleagues in the DEA recognize the scale of this move. He was a psychopathic killer, but he was very cunning. He was a very good business man. He sat on the board of directors of banks. He owned hotels, he owned ranches, and that he was spending in excess of 50 million dollars a year in terms of paying political bribes, because no drug trafficking organization is going to be able to survive without corrupt officials providing protection and support to those entities.
Bribes and money laundering. The two ways to get the higher ups in the Mexican government to turn a blind eye to your illicit activities. But sometimes money isn't enough. Sometimes the tactical move is the brutal move, and Gallardo is not afraid to annihilate his rivals.
Everything was calculated know he was not an individual that was just going to conduct wholesale violence. He did it very surgically because very much like the Italian organized crime figures out of the United States, he knew that the wholesale violence would be bad for business, but that he was not above taking lives when he had to.
It won't be long before Guerrero has one thousand assassins on his books in Mexico and the US. He's got a firm hand on trafficking and distribution is hit. Men have authorization to eliminate anyone who doesn't pay up or who tries to muscle in on his business from trafficking is a huge story because it's huge money.
A lot of Americans, particularly in the 70s and 80s, didn't think of it as a major organized crime. They thought of it as a vice party, drugs, reefers, joints. It was all funny, but it wasn't funny when you started adding up the hundreds of millions of dollars and then the billions that were going into the coffers of very bad people. These were murderers. These were people who killed whole families. These were people who chopped up their enemies and put the parts in bags and left and places.
These were people who tortured and these ultimately were people who financed militant groups.
The city of Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco, it's known as the pearl of the West, the sound of mariachi bands rings through the streets. The local specialty of Gosta wafts through the air. Temperate climate, leading university, renowned art scene on the surface. This is picture postcard Mexico. But underneath this veneer, the cogs are whirring and the country's biggest drug distribution operation because Guadalajara is Gallardos HQ.
Diana Washington Valdez is an award winning journalist and author from Texas. She's an expert on the Mexican cartels and the cross-border drugs trade.
So it's been a beautiful city and bustling with all kinds of touristy and economic activity. It also became the home base of Mexico's major drug traffickers at the time, the godfathers of drug trafficking. Back then, it was like the new generation of the Mexican drug trafficker that had begun to expand the business venture beyond the Mexican borders and beyond the borders of North America as well. The drug traffickers. At that time were amassing a vast fortune of money and looking for ways to to invest it, to protect the assets and to set up structures to be able to continue the drug operation even if one of them was taken out.
I fell ill, died, comes off whatever dirty money flows from gaieties wallet into legitimate businesses all over Guadalajara. Now, even if his drug businesses were to collapse, Guerrero has a safety net. He's the power behind banks and real estate. Soon, Felix Gaieties enterprises are making close to five billion dollars a year. The wealthy or a drug trafficker gets the bigger the target on their back. The lesson from the Colombian cartels is that cooperation is better than competition.
The ever astute diro joined forces with two other Mexican kingpins to form the Guadalajara cartel.
The first of these business partners is thirty two year old Rafael Caro.
Quintero is fond of open neck shirts. His face is permanently composed in a frown. He has an outstanding handlebar mustache. Above sits a bushy mop of dark hair. Quintero is put in charge of the cartel's marijuana plantations.
Rafael Correa Quintero again came from Sinaloa and he was a thug. And he started to work with a lot of his uncles that were in the drug trade. His drug of choice in terms of distribution was marijuana. He had the very significant cultivations throughout Mexico. He was able to build artesian wells in the middle of the desert so that he could ever achieve these marijuana fields, but that he was a ranking member of the well, had a cartel as well, along with our Nesto Fonseca.
Carter, you and me guys bellyaches cartel. He was very cold blooded. And and what made him a liability to the cartel was the fact that he was a Coke addict, the one who was probably the most public was out of control, who was very flamboyant, very flashy.
The other two stayed in the background and preferred to stay that way and lived almost modestly by cartel standards. That kind of Quintero was a tough talking guy ready to use guns and bring in his security guards to her encounters with the law enforcement alongside Caro Quintero and Felix Gallardo, the other partner in the Guadalajara cartel is fifty four year old or Nesto Fonseca.
Fonseka takes care of heroin cultivation and transportation, the third member was Nesto Fonseka and his nickname was Donetta, which means a good price. That means bargain guy. It's like these guys used to see on television who would be shouting about their bargain rugs or their bargain cars, except he was the bargain doper. He was something of a clown. He'd like the good life. He was flashy, flamboyant. He's a redneck. Basically, I'm from Appalachia. So I think of these guys the way I think of some of the hillbillies back home.
These were completely unlettered guys, but very cunning and not to be crossed. Right from their inception, the Guadalajara cartel is a powerful force in Latin America. So powerful that the rumors swirled that the CIA approaches them with a request for help. At this time, the Central American country of Nicaragua is ruled by the socialist Sandinista government.
This doesn't fit the US government's plans for the region, so they fund anti-communist rebels, but getting weapons into the hands of guerrilla fighters in the Nicaraguan jungle requires local allies.
If you believe the rumors, are this an interesting character because he is in some intelligence reports tied to the CIA during the Iran-Contra period. He is the one that some Mexican sources say developed a liaison with the CIA in order to do his part to support the Contras during the war in Nicaragua. And so the drug trade became a vehicle to raise money, to buy weapons, to arm the Contras. The CIA was very interested in making sure that the Contras had the resources in order to be successful in the drug trade, was used as a conduit to provide that.
This became a big scandal in the United States, that he is the person in that cartel that is most closely aligned with those efforts shall find. Caro Quintero allegedly operated a ranch in eastern Mexico that was used by the Contras as a training ground. Another unusual tie in with government operatives for a government operation in another country being assisted or supported by the drug trade in Mexico.
We'll probably never know whether these rumors of the CIA collusion are true. Whatever the case may be with the CIA, the DEA isn't about to get in league with Godot anytime soon. They're hell bent on bringing him down along with his cross-border trafficking network. As gaieties cartel rakes in tens of millions of dollars per year, the DEA is a fresh wave of agents to Mexico in a bid to turn the tide of the drug war.
Among them, a young narcotics agent who arrives to work in Guadalajara in 1981. His name, Enrique Camarena, known as Kiki. Kiki Camarena was born in Mexico, but is a proud American citizen. Moved to the US as a child growing up in the border town of Calexico, California. He gets his college degree in criminal justice and joins the US Marines. With his military background, he's an ideal candidate for the DEA in 1974, he becomes a special agent.
Kiki Camarena had been an American Marine. He then joined DEA. This is a common pattern. DEA and the Marines are pretty similar institutions in many respects. They have relatively low budgets compared to the other services, law enforcement agencies. They are driven by passion and individual know how they take care of their comrades. They're very aggressive and they don't take no for an answer. Qiqi arrives in Guadalajara keen to hit the ground running. The Marines are used to going in hard and getting the job done, but it won't be so easy to make an impact in Mexico.
The DEA are reliant on the cooperation of their Mexican hosts.
Qiqi soon learns that this job is about constantly navigating the web of corruption. It's damn difficult to get stuff done, but Qiqi still makes a strong impression on the boss spearheading the team in Guadalajara. Agent in charge James Kirkendall.
I met when I first went to L.A. and I had heard of him before, but I had never met him. I got there in February of nineteen eighty two and Kiki was already there. He'd been there for about two years. Kiki was about 10 years younger than I am and would have been. He was a quiet person who was very devoted to his job, but he was a good husband and father and a sense of humor. He was a good guy to work with.
We were three to five people most of the time. And when they transferred out, well, it left him and I just being the two that were there the longest, became closer. And he liked to work. And I like to work. So I wouldn't say inseparable, but we were very close to each.
Kirkendall is a wily Southerner who commands the respect of his agents as an experienced man in the field. Originally from Laredo, Texas, he began his law enforcement career as a Border Patrol agent, but he's a DEA man through and through. When the organization was created in 1973, he became one of its first agents in Guadalajara.
He's immediately impressed by the dedication and intelligence of young Kiki Camarena.
He was not the lead agent in the office. He was one of the agents in the office. The agents were free to do anything they wanted to. They had a lot of autonomy. So Qiqi, because he was a little more enterprising, a little more interested and was a little more successful and stayed there a little longer, he became better known. He just seemed to stand out a little bit more. But I think without a doubt that his visibility probably created the interest of the drug trafficking groups in Qiqi before they know it.
The weeks and months have flown by and it's nineteen eighty five now. Kiki's time in Mexico is drawing to a close. He's been here for three years. In truth, despite his best efforts, he's not got all that much to show for it. A few bucks here and there, some pretty significant ones. Agent Mike Vehle worked with Kiki in Mexico for a time. They crossed paths over the years and knew each other well, as well as colleagues.
They were friends. Agent Hill remembers one raid in particular that he and Qiqi conducted together, we conducted a raid on a very isolated ranch and Kaberuka Sonora in the northern part of Mexico. The ranch was actually owned by Rafael Embattle. And we use the Mexican army. But the Mexican army didn't have a truck to take the soldiers. And so I went to a farmer and actually got a cattle truck, ran to the cattle truck for seven dollars and washed it out.
But the Mexican soldiers in there drove to the ranch. And as we approached the ranch, there were several individuals that were providing security using an AK 47. So we came under fire.
They scattered and one of them decided to shoot it out with us and he was brought down by a fuse, a lot of. And we found about 20 tons since Omiya marijuana that was contained in a boxes in the barn belonging to that ranch.
It's a job well done.
But honestly, Kiki and his DEA colleagues are no closer to pinning down the shady kingpins behind the tidal wave of drugs crashing into the southern United States. Except this one piece of intel, it could be huge. It's potentially too big, who knows what dark forces in the Mexican government might be awoken where this information to go public. The Americans rely on the goodwill from their Mexican hosts and they don't want to make them look bad. Can't remember seeing it for the first time, an informant gave him a heads up posing as a marijuana buyer.
Kiki traveled into the countryside of the Zacatecas state. Then he saw it stretching out in front of him as far as the eye could see, a field after field of lush green marijuana plants, a weed plantation of over 1000 acres, the largest in history. This farm alone supplies about one third of the total U.S. market street value two and a half billion dollars. Camarena takes the Syntel to his boss, James Kirkendall, the agent in charge, sanctions and aerial reconnaissance mission, Camarena and Kirkendall straight across the airfield runway towards a waiting light aircraft.
Its propellers already spinning. They're greeted by the pilot, Alfredo Zavala. The plane Kruse's just below the cloud line. Kirkendall is on the lookout for any telling signs in the landscape, anything that indicates marijuana planning. Then he sees it, he obtained an aircraft and the two of us flew up there with him and we flew around and found most of these fields. They didn't make any sense that they would be anything else out there in the desert. And they had wells near them and some had electricity.
In some cases, the electric wires went right by the villagers and didn't furnish electricity to the village, but they would furnish the plant. So our our information was verified as US agents on foreign soil. The DEA has no authority to make arrests in Mexico. All agents on the ground can do is pass intelligence on to their Mexican counterparts and hope for the best.
This particular tip off is too big for the Mexican authorities to ignore a few weeks later, four hundred and fifty Mexican national police supported by DEA agents, descend on the weed farm. Some of the plantation guards stay to fight. Most turn and run. A few hours later, the entire crop has been burned to the ground. Kiki can leave Mexico with his head held high. This is the bust of a lifetime. It's a major triumph for the DEA, but he's upset a lot of important people.
Guerrero and his cronies are baying for blood. Someone will be made to pay at Bank of Ireland.
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Rafael Caro Cantarell is the cartel's head of marijuana, it's his plantation that's up in flames, his responsibility, Quintero is furious. He lashes out in the world.
There were two writers who were there to do research and try to keep their thought. There were intelligence operatives and he had them abducted and allegedly reported murdered. And they also do travel to Jehovah's Witnesses who are going door to door probes going on. I think in the mind of someone, Robert Caro Quintero was to reduce threats to himself while under the influence of drugs. He was known to be a drug user. And so that certainly clouded his judgment.
Coke crazed and paranoid Control's first strike is way wide of the mark.
Innocent lives are the victims of his anger is second strike will be much more accurate. Well, the drug lord plots his next move, there's a homecoming planned for Kiki Camarena. Two months after the momentous marijuana bust, Kiki is due to meet his wife Mika at a local restaurant. He never arrives.
I remember very vividly that his partner and boss, Kirkendall, had told him it's time to go kicky. We're way out front and there's nobody behind us. And so he put in for a transfer. He was going to go back to the states where he felt like he could do something and he felt paralyzed in Mexico because he couldn't get any of the cops to do anything.
The next morning, Agent James Kirkendall is woken by a call. I got a phone call about six o'clock in the morning from another agent in the office that was really close friend of Kiki's from the past guy named Shaggy and Shaggy had received a phone call from Miss Camarena, from his wife, telling him that Kiki had not come home the night before. She had expected him to arrive late, but in fact, he hadn't arrived at all. So she was worried and she called Shaggy and Shaggy called me.
And between the two of us, we knew that something had to be wrong. If Kiki had had stayed out all night, he would have been with us or we would have known he was going to be staying out all night. He was not a womanizer. So, I mean, definitely concerned us. Shaggy then took his wife and went to his house to comfort Mrs. Camerino. And I went to the DEA office in the consulate to see what I could find there.
When I arrived at the consulate across the street was Kiki's official vehicle. It was parked where it had been parked the night before. The last time I had seen it, it had not moved. The door was unlocked and I went up to the consulate into our offices and into his office. And everything looked pretty much the way I had seen it the day before. So I began to make phone calls, called in the other officers, other agents and secretaries.
Everyone came to the office. Everyone began to look for and begin to try to find some trace of him. I would have been the morning of the 8th February, I think in eighty five.
Then they started running around calling people to see if anybody had seen Kiki, and pretty soon they decided nobody had and he was gone and something bad was happening.
In the next episode of Real Narcos, the search for Kiki Camarena continues on the runway at Guadalajara Airport in the shadow of a luxury private jet, DEA agents are caught in a Mexican standoff with the godfathers. Right hand man and a farmer in the remote Mexican countryside makes a gruesome discovery. Real Niarchos is a noisy podcast and World Media writes co-production hosted by me John Kuban series is created by Pascall, who's produced by Joel Dutil. It's been edited by James Tindell Music by Oliver Bane's from Fly Brigade.
The sound mixer is Tom Pink. If you have a moment, please leave us a review on Spotify, Apple podcast, Stitcher or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.