MEXICO CITY (AP) — Notorious drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero, who was behind the 1985 killing of a US agent for the DEA, was captured by Mexican forces on Friday nearly a decade after leaving a Mexican prison and going to prison drug trafficking, the Mexican Navy said it had returned.
Caro Quintero was arrested after a search dog named “Max” found him hiding in undergrowth during a joint operation by the Navy and the Attorney General in the city of San Simon, Sinaloa state, the Navy said in a statement. The site was in the mountains near Sinaloa’s border with the northern border state of Chihuahua.
The National Arrest Register of Mexico listed the time of Caro Quintero’s arrest as around noon. There were two pending arrest warrants against him and an extradition request from the US government.
Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office said in a statement late Friday that Caro Quintero had been arrested on extradition charges and was being held at the Altiplano Maximum Security Prison about 50 miles west of Mexico City.
A very short video segment released by the Navy showed Caro Quintero – his face blurred – in jeans, a sopping blue shirt and a baggy khaki jacket, being held by men in camouflage uniforms with assault rifles on both arms.
A Navy Blackhawk helicopter carrying 15 people crashed near the coastal town of Los Mochis during the operation, killing 14 of those on board, the Navy statement said. The available information indicated that it was an “accident” the cause of which has not yet been determined, the statement said.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said via Twitter that the helicopter crashed just before landing after supporting those who carried out the capture of Caro Quintero. He expressed his condolences to the families of the victims and said the crash was being investigated.
Caro Quintero was released in 2013 after 28 years in prison when a court overturned his 40-year sentence for the 1985 kidnapping and murder of US Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena. The brutal murder marks a low point in US-Mexico relations.
Caro Quintero, the former leader of the Guadalajara cartel, had meanwhile returned to the drug trade and unleashed bloody turf wars in the northern Mexican border state of Sonora.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has claimed he is not interested in arresting drug lords, preferring to avoid violence.
But the arrest came just days after López Obrador met US President Joe Biden at the White House.
Tensions had arisen between the Mexican government and the DEA after Mexico enacted a law restricting the US agency’s activities. But recently the new head of the DEA was granted a visa in Mexico, which US officials took as a sign of progress in relations.
Shortly before Caro Quintero’s arrest on Friday, US Ambassador Ken Salazar told a gathering of reporters that there had been progress in security relations.
“I’ve been in meetings with the Secretary of State and the Security Cabinet, along with all of our agencies, including the new head of the DEA, who sits to my right,” Salazar said. “So if we weren’t welcome here in Mexico, that wouldn’t happen.”
An appeals court overturned Caro Quintero’s verdict in 2013, but the Supreme Court upheld the verdict. By then it was already too late; Caro Quintero was taken away in a waiting vehicle.
He was on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, with a $20 million reward for his capture through the State Department’s Narcotics Rewards program. He was included in the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted Lists in 2018.
Caro Quintero was one of the major suppliers of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana to the United States in the late 1970s. He blamed Camarena for a 1984 marijuana plantation raid. In 1985, Camarena was kidnapped in Guadalajara, allegedly on the orders of Caro Quintero. His tortured body was found a month later.
Late Friday, US Attorney General Merrick Garland expressed the US government’s deep gratitude to Mexican authorities for the arrest of Caro Quintero and offered his condolences to the Mexican military personnel killed in the helicopter crash.
“There is no hiding place for someone who is abducting, torturing and murdering American law enforcement agencies,” he said in a statement. “Today’s arrest is the culmination of DEA and its Mexican partners’ tireless work to bring Caro-Quintero to justice for his alleged crimes, including the torture and execution of DEA Special Agent Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena. We will seek his immediate extradition to the United States to face trial for these crimes in the very justice system that Special Agent Camarena died defending.”
Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations, said Caro Quintero was probably the last to operate independently, despite rumors that he was back with the Sinaloa cartel.
Caro Quintero was from Badiraguato, Sinaloa, the same area as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the former leader of the Sinaloa cartel who is now serving a life sentence in the United States. He eventually became one of the “godfathers” of the Mexican drug trade.
Vigil said he was surprised by Caro Quintero’s arrest given López Obrador’s stated disinterest in prosecuting drug cartel leaders, but added that the DEA would never stop looking for someone to have killed an agent.
“We haven’t done much[to capture Caro Quintero]in recent years, especially when[López Obrador]came in and immediately began dismantling much of the infrastructure and bilateral US-Mexico ties related to drug trafficking,” Vigil said.
In Sonora, one of the states hardest hit by Caro Quintero’s efforts to reclaim his territory, there was hope his arrest might help.
“I think there might be calm in Sonora in general, and yes, relief for us because I think the disappearances are going to slow down,” said Cecilia Duarte, an activist with a team of volunteer searchers in Sonora who are searching for the secret graves search for the missing. Some activists have been threatened and even killed in Sonora amidst Caro Quintero’s turf wars with the sons of “El Chapo”.
But, Duarte said, Caro Quintero “is only part (of the conflict), the conflict does not end.”
Associated Press writers Mark Stevenson and María Verza in Mexico City contributed to this report.