In 1985, a murky alliance of drug lords and government officials tortured and killed a DEA agent named Enrique Camarena. In a three-part series, legendary journalist Charles Bowden finally digs into the terrible mystery behind a hero’s murder.
By Charles Bowden and Molly Molloy
Illustrations by Matt Rota
The Murder of a DEA Agent
He curls up in the oxblood leather chair and stares off to the side. He is speaking softly as faces and screams rise up from the past. He seems gone now to some other place. His eyes are way off in Sinaloa, Mexico. The firefight has taken hours, later they will calculate that 20 thousand rounds are fired.
A man goes down.
He crawls to him.
He is safe now, a man speaking softly about the time when the guns fired. He is in a nice house now. Out the window, the horses feed beside the Shetland pony he keeps for the grandkids. When someone jumps too fast from one corpse in his past to another, he says, “Whoa, pony, whoa.” The big thoroughbred is 17 hands high, the brown body glistens with sheets of muscle. Sometimes, when the nights are bad, he walks down to the paddock
“Did you know they sleep standing up? They really do.”
But the cries and screams don’t go away. The trials do not go away. The man in the dark leather chair is suddenly crawling to the Mexican federal police officer. The raid on a drug ranch with the cooperation of Mexican federal police turned up a ton of coke and tons of marijuana, but now three federales are wounded. There is blood on the corn leaves. He stares at the red blood and remembers his mother’s warning. When she was 15, her own mother had cast her from the house for being with child and she lived with the gypsies in Mexico. They taught her to see the future in palms, read the cards, to stare into a crystal ball. So she tells her son who is now a DEA agent in Mexico that she sees danger, there is blood on the corn in the fields. That’s all she can say.
And he remembers it as he crawls to get the wounded Mexican federal cop.
Things string together in a way that is hard to see at first. When the firefight ends — because the Mexican army finally comes after a three-hour delay — Hector Berrellez is alive. He manages to pull the federal policeman to safety and has him flown up to a hospital in San Diego. A man named Guillermo González Calderoni, a Mexican federal police comandante who works at the beck and call of the elite and does their killings, is impressed by these actions and befriends Berrellez. The fight is celebrated by Berrellez’s agency, the DEA, and soon he is in Washington having a medal pinned on him by the attorney general. Berrellez continues his tour in Mexico and that leads to threats against his life and his family’s lives and so they are all pulled out and brought back to the U.S.
His higher-ups in Washington think of Berrellez when a high-profile murder investigation of a DEA agent named Enrique Camarena seems to stall, and put him in charge. After all, he had been in that firefight, he’d shown in his work that he knew Mexico — why else would he get death threats? And when his hard work on the Camarena investigation leads him back from Mexico to D.C., he gets a real warning, one he could not dismiss: that he’d better back off because his own government was behind this particular killing.
On February 7, 1985, Special Agent Enrique Camarena was abducted in Guadalajara, tortured, and by the morning of February 9, he was dead. The initial investigation led to arrests and convictions in Mexico and the U.S. but never determined exactly who killed him. Or why he was killed. On January 3, 1989, Special Agent Hector Berrellez was assigned to the case. By September 1989, he learned from witnesses of CIA involvement. By April 1994, Berrellez was removed from the case. Two years later he retired with his career in ruins. In October 2013, he goes public with his allegations about the CIA.
The blood is on the corn.
“I get depressed when I talk about the Camarena case. I was not a hero in DEA, maybe they thought I was not a team player.”
The big flat screen in the den is blank at the moment. Sometimes, Berrellez watches news and things but he can’t make it through a movie. He has a treadmill and stationary bicycle in the garage. He hits the weight room. Takes supplements. Got the horses, plans on adding chickens to his suburban ranch. He will feed them grain like his grandmother did. He will plant a garden. Things will feel clean again.
Berrellez grows wistful as he remembers the distance between what he became and what he hoped he would be.
He comes from the barrio of South Tucson, Arizona. His father lays bricks, his mother tells fortunes. Two brothers go into law enforcement, one works construction, one becomes a teacher, and the other brother finds heroin and is in and out of prison for decades.
Hector’s first job is as a small-town cop. He ends up arresting people he came up with in his neighborhood. Someone in their family gets cancer, or they get hooked on the needle and then they take to robbing and petty drug dealing. Hector believes in the law but he’s not blind to the hard choices people face. He moves up to the highway patrol. Then DEA.
He explains that in the DEA there are the suits, and the gunslingers. He is not a suit.
In Mazatlán, he is working with the federal police force and the DFS, the Mexican Directorate of Federal Security, an investigative agency patterned on the FBI and trained by the CIA. They pick up three drug traffickers and fly out over the ocean. There is a ranch with a load of marijuana and the three know where it is. He thinks they are going to scare them.
One of the Mexican cops says, “We are not joking. If you don’t know, we’re going to throw you out of the plane.”
Berrellez figures they will take a guy to the edge of the open door and lean him out.
The cop gets up, takes the bound prisoner to the door, and boots him out.
Then he says to the other two prisoners, “You guys want to go out or you want to talk?”
They give up the half-ton load.
Berrellez had seen guys murdered, but the airplane toss felt much colder.
This is the DEA that formed him.
He is not a suit.
Now it is a different world. When Berrellez was in DEA, the new guys out of the academy would show off their weapons — “Hey, look at my Sig, and they gave me this machine gun.” Now guys come out of the academy bragging about their laptops.
“I loved being undercover. I loved being an actor and playing the part.”
But then, something changed.
He says, “I was no hero.”
In the living room hangs an oil painting of his failure. It is a painting of his grandchildren and his son, who shot himself.
“I thought the case would make my career but it destroyed my career. When I got the case I thought I was going to be a shooting star. Other agents were jealous of me because I was meeting with the attorney general.”
He remembers listening to the tapes of Camarena’s torture over and over — tapes collected after the murder, which eventually passed from Mexican authorities to the CIA and, eventually, to DEA.
Lines ring in Berrellez’s head.
Please comandante don’t burn me anymore.
Berrellez first took me into the Camarena case one evening in 1998, but he insisted then that everything was off the record.
He says, “I was very afraid.”
He says, “I was a coward.”
Now he is ready to talk.
No, you aren’t telling me anything, you son of a bitch! (Blow)
No, that is what I am reading, what I remember from the report.
The head of DEA in 1989 is Jack Lawn; he came out of the FBI to become acting deputy and then the boss. Lawn grows frustrated with the lack of progress in the Camarena murder case. After his death, Camarena morphed into a hero. He was awarded the Administrator’s Award of Honor — the DEA’s highest — and his picture was on the cover of Time magazine. A national commemoration, Red Ribbon week, is established in his memory, and elementary schools across the country hold events to warn children about the dangers of drugs.
Berrellez had caught the eye of some of his higher-ups when he was asked to kidnap a cousin of Rafael Caro Quintero, one of the founders of the Guadalajara drug business along with Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo. It was to be a black operation without the knowledge or consent of the Mexican government or of DEA in Mexico City. Berrellez set up the abduction through his contacts in the Mexican military. But then it was blocked by Washington. Berrellez noted this intervention by his superiors. His bosses noted his initiative. Then came the call from Jack Lawn, head of DEA.
Lawn says, “Hector, we’ve been running this case for four years. I need witnesses who were actually at the torture house. That is your first priority.”
Berrellez tells Lawn the big people involved are Mexican federal agents. He says that he’d seen meetings for example in Mazatlán between the governor of Sinaloa and the trafficker El Cochiloco (the crazy pig), which were attended by 20 military men in uniform plus members of the federal police and of DFS.
“I need Spanish speakers who have worked in Mexico and know the culture and the corruption.”
“Pick your team.”
“I’ll need 20 agents. And a snitch budget of $3 million a year.”
“Why so much money?”
“So we can recruit army generals, federal agents, and drug people. And once we use up an informant we must move them to the U.S. or they will be killed.”
He is told to go to the DEA office in Los Angeles and set it up. He will report directly to Washington.
Soon Berrellez has his agents and his snitches. The first year he exceeds his $3 million budget.
“I was getting more information than the CIA.”
WITNESS IN THE KILLING ROOM
I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
Do you want me to make you remember?
As the case rises up from the shadows in Mexico, Berrellez leans on a DEA informant, comandante Antonio Gárate Bustamante of the Jalisco State Police. Gárate knows everyone, especially those in the drug business. Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, one of the other founders of the Guadalajara cartel, officiates as padrino de bodas — best man — at his wedding. Gárate becomes a factory for recruiting witnesses in the Camarena case.
But he is not enough. To get the answers he needs, Berrellez must find people who were in the torture room, he has to get inside the killing ground. He hears about a man who owns a string of brothels in Guadalajara and regularly supplies women for the many parties thrown by drug capos of the area, including Fonseca Carrillo, Felix Gallardo, Caro Quintero, and Manuel Salcido Uzueta, El Cochiloco. He has this man recruit informants, which leads Berrellez to Jorge Godoy, who worked for Fonseca Carrillo, as a bodyguard and body servant.
Berrllez calls Godoy from Los Angeles. He asks Godoy if he believes in God, says that he is a very religious person and he promises Godoy that if he comes up to the United States he will be paid and will not be arrested. Godoy comes. While Berrellez is driving him to the safe house at Big Bear in the mountains east of Los Angeles, Godoy assumes he is being taken into the woods to be executed. Berrellez tries to calm him. Twenty years later, Godoy trembles as he recalls his fear during that ride.
Godoy is part of a small army of witnesses who are kept isolated from one another and who usually have no idea that others are stashed in the U.S. and have also become informants. They will be fresh, they will not have a chance to compare stories. They know little of the investigation because it asks questions that hardly matter to them. Enrique Camarena was a foreign agent in their country poking into their business. His torture is not significant. In Mexico, it is well known by everyone that if you are picked up by the police, you will be tortured. If you are picked up by the drug traffickers, you will be tortured. And often the same person works for the police and for the traffickers. Godoy is a perfect example: He is a policeman for the state of Jalisco who is assigned by his comandante to be Ernesto Fonseca’s personal bodyguard. He is on official assignment, on a good career track with bonuses, because Fonseca is a caring boss. And this DEA agent Enrique Camarena fell into his life like a live grenade and blew it up.
Berrellez understood that there is only one way to get to the actual killers — the powerful men who live in safety and who order their murders done for them — and that is through people like Jorge Godoy.
Years later, Godoy leans forward, his breath on my face, his eyes bulging.
“Look at me, look at my eyes” — he points two fingers at his eyes — “do they look like the eyes of a man who shoots someone in the back of the head? No, no, I only shoot in the front, not in the back.”
He is standing, leaning forward. This matters, whether it is true or not. Only in the front, not the back. Such assertions allow these men to hang on to shreds of conscience.
The informants, over 200 of them, the witnesses produced by recruiters Berrellez paid in Mexico, they are unsavory to most people because they have made careers out of crime. And some of the key witnesses had killed U.S. citizens without regrets. Prosecutors hesitate to put a man on the stand who had been part of a team that tortured and murdered two American couples, raping the wives in front of their husbands first. None of this is unusual in a criminal justice system that makes deals with the devil every day.
Berrellez finally decides out of all the informants maybe 10 could be used as witnesses. The others are simply too compromised to withstand cross-examination. But when the Camarena case began to rupture, it was not because of the crimes of the witnesses. The case ran into trouble because of what the witnesses said and the people they talked about.
They take the investigation into that room where Enrique Camarena is screaming. Because they were in the room.
Hector Berrellez and Enrique (Kiki) Camarena never met in person, but they knew each other. They would talk on the phone about mutual cases; they shared certain things. Both were hyphenated Americans who were going to prove they were red white and blue, determined to rise in the newly minted DEA. President Richard M. Nixon had just declared the war on drugs, and the agency suddenly bloomed from several hundred to several thousand.
The DEA was the perfect arena for the ambitions of agents like Berrellez and Camarena. Mexico was a natural for them because of their language skills and because Anglo agents could hardly go undercover. Camarena was born in Mexicali, did two years in the Marines, worked as a firefighter and cop, and in 1974 he joined DEA. In 1980, he was assigned to Guadalajara. In DEA, a foreign tour was essential for advancement. His ticket was punched.
Kiki Camarena was not a gunslinger. There are rules for DEA agents in Mexico. They can carry a weapon, but only during the day. And they can’t fire unless fired upon. In the fall of 1984 two men are assigned to help in Guadalajara. They are warned by Camarena and by the head of the station to avoid La Langosta restaurant. The place was known to be a hangout for the drug capos and it was dangerous. So the two new agents go to La Langosta for lunch every day for a couple of months, just to see if they can provoke the narcotraficantes into a shoot-out.
Camarena was brave but he would never have done anything so stupid as taunting the drug people.
He favors a lot of street work, building a case informant by informant. He learns of huge marijuana plantations growing in the state of Zacatecas, this at the very same time in 1984 that the United States is touting the success of its marijuana eradication program in Mexico.
Rafael Caro Quintero, one of the heads of the Guadalajara business, gives a comandante in the Mexican military 50 million pesos to buy some ranches and provide protection. He plans in one operation to produce 1.5 tons per hectare, about 2.5 acres. The supervisors on the ranches make $290 to $580 a month, laborers get triple their normal wages. Three different types of marijuana are grown. Camarena starts off slowly, gathering information and reporting everything on inner-agency DEA-6 reports. The documents from those spring months in 1984 relate endless details on the booming marijuana operation. Except the actual location of the fields. That remains a secret. But this much is known: Caro Quintero is still in his 20s, and he’s worth possibly a billion; he uses two or three choppers up near the border to ferry his crops into the States.
Camarena learns that at least 10 groups are putting in big growing operations — including one organization that is cultivating 11,250 acres. The investors are drilling water wells everywhere for $100,000 each. One farm just brought in 16 tractors. The reports become an inventory of fields and equipment as Camarena records an economic boom out on the land — a beehive of activity denied by two governments. Caro Quintero sends 60 tons of fertilizer for his fields, and racks of AK-47s for protecting the crop. Five hundred laborers arrive from Culiacán in Sinaloa. The DEA-6s become lists of names, cars, acreages. Small notes appear: “Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo had a ton of cocaine stashed in Caborca, Sonora, Mexico.” The maids in Hotel El Camino in Caborca saw automatic weapons when they cleaned the rooms. Once the marijuana traffickers left a 150,000-peso tip for the hotel cook, close to $900 U.S.
The detail collected by Camarena in the spring of 1984 is the driving wheel within the world of cartels, drug lords, and the War on Drugs, details of the toil and calculation necessary to bring in the crop, any crop. There are always the cherished stories — for example, one about when Caro Quintero bought a Learjet in Tucson, Arizona. When he was told the price, he wrote the first two numbers on a check and then handed it over to the Learjet salespeople with instructions to fill in the right amount of zeros. But beneath this folklore is the cold calculation of how many tons of fertilizer is required, what seeds should be bought and how many, where the wells must be dug and how wide apart the rows should be — three feet — for proper cultivation and harvest. And there is work and risk.
On May 11, 1984, Camarena learns that Caro Quintero has arrived in Fresnillo, Zacatecas. He comes with 60 DFS agents traveling in nine vans and 15 Mercury Gran Marquis. He brings with him 360 million pesos and starts handing out bonuses to the staff.
The party ends in late May when DEA in Mexico pressures the Mexican authorities to take action against the operation in Zacatecas. Camarena and a Mexican pilot, Alfredo Zavala Avelar, have made over-flights to locate the fields. The head of Interpol in Mexico leads the raid. He will later be indicted for the murder of Enrique Camarena and Mexican authorities will claim he was found with a kilo of cocaine in his desk. Actually, at the time of his arrest in March 1990, he was talking with Berrellez about coming north to testify for Operation Leyenda and tell all about the kidnapping and murder, something he could surely do since he attended the meetings that planned the crime. Comandante Guillermo Gonzalez Calderoni, who Berrellez befriended after the raid in the cornfield of Sinaloa, had planted the cocaine. He had wiretapped his phone, heard the conversations with Berrellez and, as he later told Hector, he could hardly allow an agency chief to come north and spell out the direct links between the Mexican state and the drug organizations. The head of Interpol vanishes for years into the silence of the Mexican prison system.
This digression is not a digression. It is the turf that Kiki Camarena wanders while making drug cases in Mexico and it is the treacherous ground that gets him killed.
During the raid, 20 tons of marijuana are seized and enough seed confiscated to plant 6,500 acres. About 177 people are arrested, but a tip from Mexican police enables almost everyone of consequence to get away.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
After the Zacatecas raid, Camarena has an idea that he puts into the hopper of possible DEA tactics. He has busted huge loads and this does not matter. He has taken down big operations and this does not matter. There is never a shortage of people willing to run the risk of moving a load to the U.S. There is never a shortage of product since nothing can come close to the money to be made in growing marijuana or poppies or moving cocaine. And prison matters not at all. Mexico offers such a bleak future to so many of its citizens that a prison cell or a coffin are worth the risk if there is a chance, however slim, of finally getting ahead.
So Camarena suggests going after the money.
Let the capos raise their crops and harvest their product. Focus on the money. Vacuum their bank accounts. This is the origin of Operation Padrino. Starting in 1983, there are sudden seizures of money from bank accounts belonging to the Guadalajara drug bosses in cities across the U.S. and Europe. To justify the seizures, the DEA court documents always cite an unnamed informant, the term of art inside the agency is SOI — source of information. So, the drug guys had to wonder: Who was this SOI tipping off DEA and enabling them to seize money from their overseas accounts?
The leaders of the billion-dollar drug industry in Mexico had their own sources inside DEA. So why couldn’t they stop the leak that was draining off their hard-earned profits? The drug bosses also knew that they paid for and worked under the protection of Mexican DFS and that DFS was trained by and functioned as an arm of the CIA in Mexico, and that CIA had people embedded within DEA. It was into this murky world — thanks to the initiative of Kiki Camarena — that Operation Padrino begins to drain millions from secret drug-fueled bank accounts in the U.S. and Europe.
In April of 1984, a month before the raid on Zacatecas, Phil Jordan of DEA is visiting Guadalajara to inspect the DEA station there. He spends most of his time with Camarena. He soon notices that every time he and Kiki go out, they are tailed. Camarena explains that the tail is DFS. He appears perfectly calm about this reality.
Ten months later, he will be dead.