The murder of young DEA agent Kiki Camarena in 1985 became an international incident — and an obsession for his agency (See: Part I). Hector Berrellez spearheads the hunt for those responsible, called Operation Leyenda. What his sources tell him changes everything.
By Charles Bowden and Molly Molloy
Illustrations by Matt Rota
THE DIET OF A DON —
LOTS OF BEEF AND HOT PEPPERS
Jorge Godoy, the first eyewitness from the house where Camarena was murdered, sits in an anonymous office in an anonymous strip mall in Southern California. He leans over a computer and scans the blocks and byways of Guadalajara on Google Earth. Here, he points, and here and here and here, as he locates the many houses of Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, also called Don Neto, the man he served for about a year.
Godoy wears Dickies slacks, a blue shirt, glasses, and his fleshy face glows with excitement as he virtually prowls the streets where he was young and someone to be reckoned with.
He was in his mid-20s then, when the abduction, torture, and murder of the DEA agent upended his world. He is an encyclopedia of a subject seldom broached by agents or the press: the care and feeding of leaders in the drug industry. You must know the right brandy to pour, how to ease the tobacco out of a cigarette and replace it with cocaine paste (basuco). He sweats while describing the rigor required of a bodyguard who can never be off duty, the stamina needed to keep the ashtrays empty and the liquor and drugs circulating at fiestas that can last three or four days. And he has the intelligence to understand that while justice is merely a word, power is real.
Godoy’s future had looked quite different once. He went to Bell High School in Los Angeles. His mother had nursed Vietnam veterans in a hospital in Guadalajara. Jorge was determined to be a soldier. But after he graduated from high school, the U.S. Army rejected him because he was illegal. So, in 1979, he returned to Guadalajara. A friend there worked with the state attorney’s office and told Godoy he could get him on with the state police.
He looks up and says of that time, “I believed in doing justice. I had a noble heart. And I wanted to be a policeman.”
He was 17. He goes straight onto the force.
He is assigned to work with the federal police as they fly in helicopters searching for marijuana fields. They have maps with fields marked, and the maps have a simple purpose: “These ones we investigate, these we do not.” Those who pay have their crops protected, those who do not pay have their crops destroyed to satisfy the Americans.
There is a day when Godoy is a young cop and Rubén Zuno Arce, son of one of the city’s most prominent families, comes out of his fine house on Lope de Vega Street and discovers two federal policemen apparently on stakeout. He dispatches each cop with a bullet to the head. Zuno Arce has been known to DEA as a heroin trafficker since 1975. Zuno Arce’s father, former governor of the state of Jalisco, is recently dead, his body buried in a cemetery adjacent to the airport. Godoy learns that the body is being exhumed and will be reburied elsewhere; he knows Zuno will be there to observe the procedure. So Godoy and his partner drive to the airport to arrest the cop-killer. On the way, they get a call from dispatch: “Do not arrest Rubén Zuno Arce. If you do, we cannot protect you.” This is part of Godoy’s preparatory schooling before he becomes a bodyguard to Fonseca.
Later Godoy will see Zuno Arce at the parties and meetings of the drug capos. The Zuno family were founders of the University of Guadalajara, capital of the state of Jalisco. At one of the narco-fiestas, the current governor of Jalisco arrives in a dress and blond wig as a kind of wink at the proprieties of hanging out with international criminals. And virtually all of the capos have federal police credentials to ease their way through roadblocks.
The fundamentals of this system do not change. The drug world meshes with the government in a joint operation that shares money and power. The government hosts those traditional elites who have had their boot heels on the necks of the poor since long before the market for heroin, cocaine, and marijuana inflated the national economy in Mexico. The drug capos rise from the underclass, briefly flourish, then vanish into prisons or graves. The system, and the rich who thrive on the system, they endure for generations. This is the way it has always been, and for Jorge Godoy the police work and the assignment to Ernesto Fonseca’s bodyguard detail are his big chance to rise.
By 1983 he is introduced to Rafael Caro Quintero and to Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo at the Lebanese Club in Guadalajara. His corrupt commander explains, “These guys are going to be your bosses.” The group at the club includes officers from the Mexican Directorate of Federal Security (DFS), an investigative agency patterned on the FBI and trained by the CIA, and federal police. Antonio Gárate Bustamante, who later becomes an informant in the Camarena investigation, is there. During the meeting, a subordinate arrives and announces: “The mission is accomplished, we killed the guy.” Godoy will learn that fiestas do not interrupt the schedule of executions. Cigarettes are loaded up with basuco and money is handed around. He’s told to use a little coke in order to be sociable, but not too much.
Godoy enters a world without regular hours. He is to live with Fonseca and be on duty 24 hours day, seven days a week. If Fonseca got up in the middle of the night, so did Godoy.
“I would be there like a watchdog.”
The drug capos own several restaurants. After they arrive no one can enter or leave. To make up for the inconvenience, they pick up the tab for everyone. At the houses, women take care of the cooking. The bosses often have several women and each will have her own house, and a basuco-smoking priest takes care of the multiple marriages. Sometimes during the day, Fonseca would be in his room with a woman — “He looked like a Christmas tree with all his jewelry.”
The fiestas require lots of steaks. The leaders come from Sinaloa and they crave the diet of a vaquero: beef, hot peppers. And a lot of seafood, grilled or in soups. It is not a fancy diet — no matter how rich the capos get, they prefer corn tortillas to flour. They want their coffee dark and very strong.
It’s a humdrum life, the millions in drug profits sloshing around become just one more detail. There is a room where Fonseca stores ready cash and Godoy speculates that the rats chew through at least a million dollars a year that sink to the bottom of the pile. The parties roar in and consume three or four days. Godoy must attend to a room where guests can have all the drugs and liquor they desire. And women.
A big fiesta goes on for two or three days in June 1984 at the Rancho La Rosa, a property belonging to Fonseca’s half brother. The guest list catches Godoy’s eye: El Cochiloco, Rubén Zuno Arce, Sergio Espino Verdin (DFS chief in Guadalajara), Félix Gallardo, Caro Quintero, the governor and the attorney general for the state of Jalisco, and others. On the second day of the fiesta, Fonseca sends men to the airport to pick up a guest, a man suspected of murdering Fonseca’s son in February 1983. He was kidnapped in San Diego. He is taken to the back part of the ranch. Fonseca has the knife blade heated and the torture begins with the man’s chest. He begs for the torture to stop. About two weeks later Godoy finds him chained and emaciated in a marijuana storeroom/dungeon on yet another ranch. A week later he is taken to a freshly dug grave just outside the city. The volley of gunfire blows part of his head off. In the grave, his handcuffs are removed and he was covered with lime.
Godoy turns to another bodyguard and asks, “Why are we here? We’re cops.”
The man says, “Do you want to be next in the hole?”
Once he enters this world, Godoy realizes he cannot leave alive. Also, he realizes he cannot complain since he is here on police assignment.
“Of course, I was afraid. I am a human being,” says Godoy.
Two things are constantly going on: People steal from the boss or the boss suspects people are stealing. Either may result in death. There is accountability but it is a very primitive accounting system. Beneath the rhetoric of a War on Drugs, or transnational criminal organizations, there is someone like Don Neto — ill-educated, ruthless, and cunning. This is the world agent Kiki Camarena seeks to penetrate in his work, one most Mexicans are walled off from. This handful of men all hail from a few villages in the state of Sinaloa. No one from DEA could dream of going undercover into a Mexican drug organization — they would not last a minute before their accents gave them away and their lack of a decent family tree made them outcasts.
The War on Drugs in the United States is about management pretending it can rationally police an industry. In Mexico, it is about a corrupt state pouncing on a new and huge revenue stream. For an agent in DEA, it is about getting a leg up in a career by experiencing a foreign posting before returning home to climb the slippery bureaucratic ladder. By the mid-1980s, the links between the drug industry and the Mexican state were clearly established and hidden in plain sight. Likewise the links between the Mexican DFS — an agency trained and penetrated by the CIA — and the leadership of the drug industry.
Agent Enrique Camarena is not murdered by a rogue operation, but by a system. This system is everywhere and yet it is invisible, as everyone pretends it does not exist.
MEETING ON MURDER
Beginning in the early fall of 1984, Godoy attends four meetings that center on the growing losses of the organization and what do about it. The belief grows that the problem lies with some out-of-control DEA agent whose name is unknown. The meetings draw a large group of the powerful from the drug trafficking organization, the police, the military and the political establishments of Mexico City and Jalisco. And there are Cubans at some of these meetings, including, according to Godoy, one named Max Gomez.
Because the powerful must have others wait on them, they find it impossible to keep people like Godoy completely out of their meetings since someone must freshen the drinks and empty the ashtrays. So you have people of no consequence hearing the thoughts of people with a great deal of consequence. You have someone earning $560 a month listening to men making deals worth tens of millions.
None of these meetings have any significance for Godoy. He is learning his new job and his new boss and hoping for a better future. He has medical issues — a bad back, kidney problems — and these probably concern him more than the four meetings that result in a plan that leads to the murder of Enrique Camarena.
The first meeting took place in late October or early November at Las Americas hotel in Guadalajara and addressed how to identify and kidnap an unnamed DEA agent. According to Godoy and other Leyenda sources, Manuel Bartlett Díaz attends. He is the cabinet secretary of gobernación, the second most powerful political office in the country. This post puts him in charge of DFS and it is widely believed that he will be the next president of Mexico. Also there are Secretary of Defense General Arévalo Gardoqui, Miguel Aldana Ibarra—head of Interpol in Mexico as well as the head of the federal police, the governor of Jalisco, local commanders of state and federal police, military officers, and the drug traffickers Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, Miguel Félix Gallardo, Rafael Caro Quintero, Rubén Zuno Arce, El Cochiloco, and dozens of bodyguards. Godoy is stationed at the door to the suite where the two-hour meeting takes place. He periodically enters the suite with drinks, cocaine, and snacks.
Secretary Arévalo Gardoqui reports that DEA is leaning on the military to destroy fields they have already taken under protection and this situation must be resolved. Bartlett Díaz is concerned for his political future because he has signed DFS credentials for many of the traffickers in the room and this could be a problem in his bid for the presidency of Mexico. The meeting ends with a consensus that a bribe must be offered and if this fails, the agent must die.
A second meeting is held at the end of November 1984. By this time another marijuana operation in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua called Rancho Búfalo has been raided. It employed 10,000 field hands and operated with the blessing and protection of the Mexican army. During its careful cultivation, army officers had constantly visited the gulag of fields to check on progress. Secretary Arévalo Gardoqui and Bartlett Díaz did not attend this meeting, but the local drug people, law enforcement, and politicians did. Heated words flew between Caro Quintero and the governor over the delay in identifying the DEA agent. Fonseca tried to calm things at the meetings by presenting a gold-plated AK-47 to the governor of Jalisco.
About a week later another meeting resolved nothing.
In all Godoy works four meetings and he overhears enough to worry him. He is with Fonseca when the call comes about Búfalo and Fonseca says the shit is going to hit the fan. If a DEA agent is taken it will lead to big trouble.
Godoy stands before me, leans forward, his eyes bulging, he wants to be understood, he is better than the stories he tells, he was meant to have a different life than the one that unfolded in his hands. He has the air of a man who knows he will not be believed but who refuses to change his tale.
A man, clearly an American, is on the telephone pole behind one of Fonseca’s houses, this is in December 1984. Godoy tells Fonseca of the man and to his surprise Don Neto seems not to be alarmed. He says the man is working for him. On a separate occasion the same man comes to the house and leaves with two garment bags stuffed with cash. Godoy has learned not to ask questions.
There is this other moment. Godoy sees two men come to Fonseca’s house. One is Manuel Bartlett Díaz. The other is the Cuban called Max Gomez.
The money for the payoff is ready and stored in cardboard boxes normally used for egg cartons.
Godoy hears the drug traffickers tell Bartlett Díaz and Gomez: “We are doing what we said we would do. Now we are waiting for you to do what you said you would do.”
The cardboard boxes hold about $400 million, in the basic unit of $100 bills, about 8,800 pounds of cash.
Godoy was there, he carried the cardboard boxes filled with money. He saw the two men. He knows that Max Gomez plays a key role in getting support for the Nicaraguan contras. He knew that Rafael Caro Quintero had a ranch in Veracruz that was being used as a training camp for the contras.
Godoy senses he is heading into dangerous territory. In January 1985 he takes sick leave. He can see the Camarena killing getting closer and he does not want to be near that event.
Godoy is not alone in his apprehension. Miguel Félix Gallardo finds the other heads of the Guadalajara operation too impetuous for their own good. He tries to pull Fonseca and Caro Quintero back. But Caro Quintero cannot be tamed. He is a 30-year-old billionaire who does not believe in limits. Fonseca, a man from the mountains of Sinaloa, has the caution of a peasant. So he buys a ranch to hedge his bets.
The ranch he buys was said to belong to Satan. There was a bridge of devils with three stones missing and to cross that bridge was to sell your soul to the devil. Fonseca crossed the bridge. Pentagrams adorned the chapel. Black magic was provided by priests. A rooster is killed, Don Neto drinks the blood. All this is very secretive — Fonseca would vanish into the chapel for rituals, his guards waiting outside. He held orgies fueled by cocaine.
Jorge Godoy says, “Fonseca was very successful in selling his soul.”
It is every man for himself in this uncertain world.
Godoy’s boss in the state police is a man named Ramon. They had both risen through the ranks in the organization, Ramon having answered a newspaper ad, then gone through the academy and worked various details such as supervising the ambulance corps. Then in late 1983 he was assigned to work security for Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo.
Like Godoy, Ramon witnesses the co-mingling of the criminal world and the Mexican state. He will also claim to attend to visitors like Manuel Bartlett Díaz and Max Gomez. Ramon has killed and tortured and nearly 30 years later, he remembers these things clearly and talks in a calm voice. He wears conservative wire-rimmed glasses, his shirt and trousers are neatly pressed, his gray hair is cropped close. Our meeting takes place in the same strip mall in Southern California where Godoy told his story.
Ramon says, “Let me tell you a story that will explain what life was like with Fonseca.” He was holding another fiesta packed with politicians and narcos. Three female singers are providing a variety of entertainment for this party. Fonseca is smoking basuco cigarettes when he calls Ramon over.
Fonseca says, “Go get my half brother, tie him up and kill him. I’m the only rooster in this house.”
“You want me to bring him to you?” Ramon asks.
“No, kill him out back.”
Ramon clearly sees the problem. If he executes the half brother, how will Fonseca feel once he sobers up?
He finds Fonseca’s son-in-law, who tells him he really doesn’t want to do this.
But Fonseca is stubborn. He says “I already gave the orders.”
The moment passes and is forgotten the next day.
But Ramon sees his dilemma: If he’d killed the half-brother, Fonseca would have had him killed later.
Ramon caught glimpses of Fonseca’s power. Once he is sent in an armored Mercedes to pick up a singer at a hotel. He idly looks in the glove box and discovers the registration is in the name of José López Portillo, the president of Mexico from 1976 to 1982. Fonseca explains that the car was a gift to him from the president. About this time, Ramon says they are making regular shipments of kilos of cocaine to then president Miguel de la Madrid, the man who has vowed to clean up the corruption of the administration of Lopez Portillo. He is told that de la Madrid is a cocaine addict.
Ramon hesitates, and explains that the stuff about the presidents is not something he ever really wanted to tell because he knows it is unbelievable. There is a time during that fall of 1984 when then President de la Madrid and his predecessor Lopez Portillo both visit Fonseca in Guadalajara. They stay an hour or two, he says, and smoke basuco. He never finds out what the meeting was about.
When Ramon came north to testify as part of Operation Leyenda, his first interrogations were very intense. His stories about presidents visiting the drug world threatened the decorum of the investigation. It was not simply a matter of belief, it was a matter of careers. For U.S. agents and federal attorneys it was hard to envision anything but trouble from pursuing claims that a foreign head of state was involved in using drugs and in providing favors and government protection for the drug traffickers.
But to get into the room where Enrique Camarena is screaming, where he will eventually be sodomized with a tire iron, where his words become difficult to understand because his jaw is shattered…to get into that room we must consider the unbelievable. If you think governments cannot deal drugs, you will never make it into that room. If you believe heads of state will not deal with criminals, you will not ever get into that room. If you doubt that matters of state can ride roughshod over law enforcement, then the room will remain beyond your reach. To make it into that room you must give up some of what you now are, just as when Enrique Camarena got into that room, he realized he’d been living in a fool’s paradise. Only now had he entered the hard and burning ground his career had blinded him from seeing.
For years, the obvious has been obscured by the claim that it was unbelievable. No one who is president would be seen with criminals. No U.S. agency would partner with criminals. And no policy to aid the contras would flow out from the White House and wash through the drug world of Guadalajara.
Once you say “that can’t be” you limit the possibilities of the world and turn your back on the hard work that goes into producing the misery around us.
THE THUNDER BEFORE THE STORM
Ramon has a similar tale to Godoy’s of the series of meetings leading up to the kidnapping. Two days before the abduction he recounts a meeting at Caro Quintero’s house with Bartlett Díaz and Secretary Arévalo Gardoqui. The governor of Jalisco is there, so is senior trafficker Miguel Félix Gallardo.
Ramon says, “If you are not there in this environment of fear and death, it is impossible to understand.”
There is a morning toward the beginning of December 1984 that makes his point. It is 9 or 10 a.m. and the doorbell rings. Fonseca’s son-in-law looks out and thinks the people outside who look like Americans might be DEA. Ramon relays this message to Fonseca who gives an order: “Get them.”
They find two American couples around the corner.
Only one of Fonseca’s men spoke a little English.
“Who are you?”
The Americans don’t understand. They are told the men are police, which is in part true.
They say they are missionaries preaching the word of God.
They are taken back to the house, where Fonseca orders them hauled off to some apartments he owns. At one point they try to break free but they are easily caught. They are then stripped naked — to make escape more difficult — and thrown into a van and driven to a ranch a few miles outside the city. The men are put in horse stalls, the women in one of the bedrooms. One of the women is quite young and attractive and she catches the eye of her captors.
They are Jehovah’s Witnesses from the United States and they had been going door to door spreading the gospel. The men and the women are brought together. Two more men from Fonseca’s group arrive. The women are raped in front of the men. Ramon says he complained to Fonseca that the new arrivals “had started fucking them.” Fonseca laughed. The older missionary had been in Vietnam, he became aggressive and showed courage. The younger woman is raped repeatedly and the men then slide a rope back and forth between her legs until she is bleeding. Fonseca spends the afternoon smoking basuco.
That night Los Dormidos (the sleepers) arrive. They are the burial crew. In the morning, the American couples stand on the edge of open graves, beg for their lives, and are shot to death. Their bodies are never found.
That is the life and the work.
As Ramon explains, “There was no good part of it. There was always a lot of pressure. I was afraid every day. It is not an easy thing.”
He never let his work for Don Neto contaminate his Catholic faith. “I kept it separate,” he explains. “You become even more of a believer. In my work as a policeman the belief becomes more important because you have to do bad things, beat people, torture them. A lot of the violent things police do comes from fear.
“Torturing people, that was the worst part. There’s a lot of priests who have a lot to answer for because they sell their beliefs for money. They have to answer to God.”
All this requires a good night’s sleep. Fonseca would get up to check on his guards, often as many as 15 of them. A man is helpless when asleep and yet even with cocaine he cannot always be awake.
On the last day of January, a month before Camarena is murdered, Fonseca ordered the men to caravan to La Langosta — the same restaurant where two young DEA agents had dined almost daily in October and November hoping to bait some drug guys to a shoot-out. This night in January, there was a meeting of the usual Guadalajara capos: Fonseca, Caro Quintero, Cochiloco, Félix Gallardo, Zuno Arce, and others.
Ramon enters, the bosses are at a table in the rear. He takes a seat near the door, Caro Quintero comes by and joins him, telling him to eat a lot since it is all free tonight. Caro looks up and sees two Americans poke their heads through the door.
Ramon grabs one, Caro Quintero the other.
They take the men into the back where Caro breaks his pistol over the head of one of them. A group of men begins to work them over with knives and ice picks. John Walker is a Marine twice-wounded in Vietnam. He has come down from Minnesota to Guadalajara to live cheap and work on a novel. Alberto Radelat is a dental student and friend down for a visit. Ramon helps to hold the men down while they are tortured. Eventually, he has enough and goes outside the restaurant. The torture continues. Both men have their throats cut, but Walker breaks free and runs through the restaurant and out the front door where Ramon helps to bring him down. The sheets of blood flowing off him ruin Ramon’s clothing. Caro Quintero emerges from the restaurant and orders Los Dormidos to get rid of the bodies. He then fires about 70 rounds from his AK-47 into the Guadalajara night.
In the past 30 days, Ramon has had a hand in the murder of six Americans. There has been no reaction. In each case, Ramon and the others assumed the victims were DEA.
Enrique Camarena will be snatched off the city streets the next week. Caro Quintero tells the assembled group in the parking lot that they have done really good.
Ramon tells Fonseca he has to find some clean clothing.
He later says he felt odd being congratulated for murder.
It is the beginning of February 1985. There have been a series of meetings between leaders of the Mexican government, law enforcement, the military, and members of the drug industry and nothing adverse happens. Americans die and nothing happens. There is a deal on, it is plain to see. Something between the U.S. and the capos. Ramon does not know details. He obeys orders.
It takes months before he can understand the presence of Max Gomez, the Cuban. The first time he saw him was in the summer of 1984 when he came by with an army colonel from Mexico City, Ramon says, delivering some AKs and grenades. Fonseca said, “This guy is from the CIA, take care of him.” Ramon takes the two men into the living room. By now, he has learned that Max Gomez’s real name is Félix Rodríguez. Rodríguez fought at the Bay of Pigs, famously presided at the execution of Che Guevara, and later trained killers in Vietnam as part of the Phoenix Program. Then he moved into the Central American wars and played a leading role in garnering support and training for the Nicaraguan contras.
Gomez says, “I used to be slender like you when I was in Vietnam.” He tells Ramon he knows how to give massages, would he care for one?
Ramon says no thanks, you might be a maricón, a homosexual. They all laugh. Fonseca takes Gomez/Rodriguez into the other room and when they return, Ramon says, the Cuban is carrying a bag of money.
The second time Ramon sees him is in February 1985, two days before the abduction of Camarena. Fonseca leads a caravan from his house to Caro Quintero’s. There he sees Gomez/Rodriguez in a room with Secretary of Gobernación Bartlett Díaz and others. He stays outside with the guard while the talk goes on for an hour and a half.
The third time is at a house on Lope de Vega Street on the day of Camarena’s kidnapping. Camarena is already there and being tortured in a back room. Ramon says he sees the man called Max go in and out of that room, he hears him ask questions of Camarena.
—Who do you know in the government that is involved?
—What generals do you know are involved?
Ramon remembers now, how he’d seen the man called Max in the past in the company of the American man he had seen on the telephone pole at Fonseca’s house in December 1984. He remembers the time he’d gone to the trunk of the Grand Marquis on Fonseca’s orders and retrieved a half million dollars for the American.
It hangs there — an American agent taking half a million in cash from Fonseca, a Cuban questioning Camarena as he is tortured. The delivery of AKs and grenades, the flash of initials: CIA. There are so many reasons to disregard this testimony: It comes from killers. It calls into question legitimate governments and the men and women who serve them. The stories of the killers brought north by Hector Berrellez during Operation Leyenda serve no good purpose.
Unless you are Kiki Camarena being tortured in a back room in Guadalajara for doing your job.