Mexico frees former drug lord

One-time kingpin Caro Quintero was released after serving 28 years for murdering a US agent, outraging US officials

Members of the Army patrol the surroundings of the Puente Grande State prison in Zapotlanejo, Jalisco State, Mexico, Friday.
Hector Guerrero

A Mexican court ordered infamous drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero be released from prison after serving 28 years for the 1985 murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique Camarena, officials said Friday.

U.S. law enforcement officials expressed outrage over Caro Quintero’s release and vowed to continue efforts to bring him to justice.  

The U.S. Department of Justice said it found the court's decision "deeply troubling.” The DEA said it "will vigorously continue its efforts to ensure Caro Quintero faces charges in the United States for the crimes he committed."

The court in the western state of Jalisco overturned Caro Quintero's 40-year sentence Wednesday on grounds that he should have been tried in a state rather than a federal court, while the Federal Judiciary Council said the court's decision was motivated by already serving time on other drug-related charges.

The Mexican Attorney General's Office said it was not immediately clear if there were a current request to extradite him to the United States, where he still faces active charges.

Caro Quintero is still listed as one of the DEA's five top international fugitives, and U.S. authorities believe he continues to control the laundering of drug money from behind bars.

"Caro Quintero left the prison in the morning," an anonymous prison system source told Agence France Presse.


The 61-year-old is considered the grandfather of Mexican drug trafficking after establishing a powerful cartel based in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa. The cartel later split into some of Mexico's largest cartels, including the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels.

Mexico's relations with the U.S. were badly damaged when Caro Quintero ordered Camarena kidnapped, tortured and killed, purportedly because he was angry about a raid on a marijuana plantation in Mexico.

Camarena was kidnapped in Guadalajara, a major drug trafficking center at the time. His body and that of his Mexican pilot, both showing signs of torture, were found a month later, buried in shallow graves.

American officials accused their Mexican counterparts of letting Camarena's killers get away. Caro Quintero was eventually hunted down in Costa Rica.

Due process

But Caro Quintero wasn't tried for drug trafficking, a federal crime in Mexico. Instead, Mexican federal prosecutors, under intense pressure from the U.S., hastily put together a case against him for Camarena's kidnapping and killing, both state crimes.

"What we are seeing here is a contradiction between the need of the government to keep dangerous criminals behind bars and its respect of due process," Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University, said.

"The United States wants Mexico to comply with due process but it is likely that due process was not followed when many criminals were caught 10 or 15 years."

Samuel Gonzalez, Mexico's former top anti-drug prosecutor, said the U.S. government itself has been promoting judicial reforms in Mexico aimed at respecting procedural guarantees for suspects, an approach Gonzalez feels has weighted the balance too far against prosecutors and victims.

"This is all thanks to the excessive focus on procedural guarantees supported by the U.S. government itself," Gonzalez said. "I warned them that they were going to get out, and they are all going to get out," he said referring to long-imprisoned drug lords such as Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, who is also serving a sentence related to the Camarena case.

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City had no immediate comment on the court's decision.

In June, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions against 18 people and 15 companies that allegedly moved money for Caro Quintero.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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