Kiki Camarena would work in different assignments with the DEA: first in Calexico, then Fresno, until in 1981 when he was assigned abroad to Guadalajara, Mexico.
Although the DEA was barely 10 years old in 1981, the United States has had a history of dealing with narcotics since the beginning of the 20th century. They worked with their counterpart groups in other countries, most notably in Canada and Mexico, sharing information and tactics. By the 1970s this policy of building an international police network gave way to a more direct approach of “Americanizing” drug policy.
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By the 1980s, drug production and smuggling was at an all-time high in Central and Latin America, and the United States fought back the way it knew best how: by extending her laws beyond her borders. The DEA would be the crux in this. President Ronald Reagan had declared his “War on Drugs” and DEA agents were sent to do battle all across the world, regardless if the other country wanted them there.
Kiki Camarena went straight to work in Guadalajara. Working undercover, he sought to disrupt operations of large-scale marijuana plantations all over Mexico. In 1984, Camarena, acting on a tip, led 450 Mexican federales to Rancho Búfalo, the largest marijuana plantation in Mexico, and razed it to the ground. The plantation produced over eight billion dollars’ worth of cannabis annually and was operated by Rafael Caro Quintero.
Caro Quintero was a dangerous man. The US government estimated that he was pulling in at least $5 billion a year in drug money. What made him even more dangerous was that he was one of the heads of the Guadalajara Cartel, who controlled the major drug routes going to the United States. They worked with the Colombian cartels, most notably the Cali cartel, and were paid in cocaine.
Kiki Camarena looked at the enigma that was the Guadalajara Cartel and wanted to crack it open. He formed his own network, slowly inching towards his goal of taking down the heads of the group. He was dangerously close; by February 1985, he was three weeks from being reassigned out of fear that he had become a target for the cartels; a fear that would come to be well-founded.
On that fateful day, Kiki Camarena left the DEA office within the American consulate in Guadalajara to grab lunch with his wife, Mika. He was walking towards his truck when five armed men shoved him to a waiting Volkswagen, before speeding away.
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The next day, Mika called the consulate to report that her husband was missing. American response was swift and violent: DEA agents scrambled to find Camarena by any means necessary. Reagan used the tyranny of United States diplomacy to force Mexico’s cooperation, even going so far as to close the border between the two nations.
That’s not to say the DEA had it easy. The Guadalajara cartel enjoyed success under the protection of the Mexican police and politicians. They were not about to let Americans tear down the source of their profit that easily.
Six days into the search, DEA agents got a tip that Caro Quintero was about to board a plane in Guadalajara. They acted quickly to intercept him, but corrupt police got to Caro Quintero first, letting him escape while the DEA watched. Caro Quintero would even taunt the DEA, goading them to “bring better weapons” next time before taking a swig of Champagne. There was nothing to be done as the trail went cold.
The breakthrough came a month after Camarena’s disappearance. Agents drove to a ranch in La Angostura, Michoacán and were met with a bloody scene. Mexican federales had arrived first and created a bloodbath to mask cartel involvement, setting up the owners as scapegoats for Camarena’s kidnapping. Eventually, the agents found what they came for, and their worst fears were realized: they had found Kiki Camarena.