The investigation of a murdered DEA hero has taken agent Hector Berrellez deep into the murky world of drug traffickers, corrupt Mexican officials, and possibly the CIA (see: parts I and II). His final witnesses take him into the killing room — and threaten not just the case, but his life.
By Charles Bowden and Molly Molloy
Illustrations by Matt Rota
THE TORTURE BEGINS
Raul is a soft-spoken man, his skin is smooth and unworried, a handsome face like something seen in cinema, not narco hit squads. He has moved on, and thanks to witness protection, he has embedded himself in America. He runs several small businesses and he has a new family. He has left the past behind, and he only talks now because agent Hector Berrellez has asked him to return to those days and tell what he saw and heard.
Raul comes from the state police. He recalls the same meetings as Berrellez’s other main informations — Godoy and Ramon—leading up to the kidnapping of Camarena, with the same cast of capos, law enforcement, major politicians, and the military. He remembers the day the Jehovah’s Witnesses rang the doorbell. They are praying to God to save them when the bullets tear into them.
“Now,” he allows, “it is a horrible thing but at the time it was what everyone was doing.”
He is at La Langosta restaurant when the two Americans enter and Caro Quintero orders them seized.
He hears Caro Quintero tell presidential hopeful Bartlett Diáz, “Remember us when you get up high.”
Twice Raul sees a different American agent at Fonseca’s home, the guy who comes for money and packs it in a garment bag. He says he’s there when Max Gomez and Bartlett Díaz come by for the money packed in cardboard boxes and Caro Quintero says, “Here’s your money, now let’s get to work.”
And he’s there at the house on Lope de Vega Street on February 7, 1985, the morning of Camarena’s capture. About 40 people have gathered including Caro Quintero and Félix Gallardo and their bodyguards. DFS personnel and state police also attend. At 12:30 p.m. a man shows up who is known to work at the American consulate and immediately the group focuses on the actual kidnapping of the DEA agent. The consulate figure tells Fonseca’s key henchman that everything is set according to the schedule “I gave you earlier.”
A caravan of four vehicles heads for the consulate. One car is dropped off as an escape option if things go bad, the others take up surveillance positions. Fonseca parks two blocks away.
Raul is in the car with the consulate employee who had insisted that Camarena would exit from the south door on Calle Libertad. It is sometime after 2 p.m. The consulate employee suddenly signals “Mira ese es [Look, there he is].” Raul and two other men exit the car and approach Camarena.
The henchman flashes his DFS credentials and says, “The comandante wants to see you.”
Camarena begins to reply, “When we are summoned and our services are needed it is done through…” This response is cut short when the officer sticks a gun into Camarena’s ribs and shoves him into the backseat of the car. Raul pulls Camarena’s jacket over his head and the man from the consulate drives the car back to the house on Lope de Vega Street. The henchman makes a brief radio announcement to those involved in the operation: “The doctor has seen the patient.”
When Camarena arrives, Fonseca and Caro Quintero are sitting with a Mexican army colonel on the patio. The henchman tells them, “You said it could not be done, but here he is.”
Camarena is blindfolded, but it must have been at this moment he realized he was likely to die. He could tell he was not in a police station for a meeting with a comandante.
Caro Quintero stands and says to Camarena, “Te dije hijo de la chingada que ibas a caer en mis manos [I told you, you son-of-a-bitch, that you were going to fall into my hands].”
Raul is puzzled. They sound as if they know each other.
Camarena says, “I’m of more use to you alive than dead.”
Caro’s half brother says, “Why did you betray me?”
Camarena is baffled. He says, “What are you talking about?”
“You got a lot of money.”
“I never got any money.”
Then Camarena says, “Let me talk to Caro, we understand each other.”
The half brother asks, “How do you know you were talking to Caro Quintero?”
“Who else would have me detained like this?”
Caro Quintero puts his arm around the blindfolded Camarena and walks him back to the room. The DFS comandante enters with a tape recorder.
All this transpires at a time when DEA insists it has no photograph of Rafael Caro Quintero and has no idea what he looks like. Later, Operation Leyenda — the name given to the investigation of Camarena’s death — will discover that $4 million had been paid to Camarena by Caro Quintero. Except the money never got to Camarena. It was intercepted by the Mexican federal agents who were supposed to deliver it. Camarena never knew about a bribe or that he had become the target of Caro Quintero’s wrath.
Raul is in and out of the torture room. He says he sees Max Gomez, aka Félix Rodriguez, in there asking questions. [ED NOTE: Rodriguez, who famously presided over the execution of Che Guevara and later played a leading role in garnering support and training for the Nicaraguan contras, denies any involvement with the interrogation, torture, and execution of Kiki Camarena.]
The various interrogators — at least three — have different questions.
— What does DEA do in Guadalajara?
— Investigate narcotraficantes.
— Why did he not carry a gun?
— We don’t kill people here.
Ramon hears questions about Mexican politicians and the secretary of defense. There are also questions about Bartlett Díaz, who looks in on the interrogation at least twice; the governor of Jalisco does likewise.
While Camarena is being tortured, Alfredo Zavala Avelar, his pilot on the Zacatecas raid that so angered the capos, is brought in. Raul sees men jump from the bed and onto Kiki’s back. He hears the man’s ribs break. He was brave, he never begged for mercy, Raul says. He just complained about the pain.
Fonseca leaves early on in the torture. When he returns Ramon and Raul both tell him things have gotten out of hand, that the torture is too severe and Camarena looks like a man who might die.
Fonseca angrily confronts Caro Quintero and says, “This was not the plan.”
At one point Fonseca leaves with his entourage and goes back to his own house where, in a rage over how things have turned out, he fires a burst from his AK in his own entryway.
Eventually a doctor named Humberto Álvarez Machaín arrives and looks in on Camarena. He tells Caro Quintero that the man will die unless taken to a hospital. Caro Quintero says he does not care, that the man double-crossed him and would pay for it. But meanwhile the doctor is to keep him alive so that more questions can be answered.
Out in the living room the group is now assembled: Bartlett Díaz (cabinet secretary of gobernación), General Arévalo Gardoqui (secretary of defense), Miguel Aldana (the head of Interpol), Félix Rodriguez, Sergio Espino Verdin (head of DFS). There’s also Juan Matta Ballesteros, a Honduran trafficker and CIA link through his airline company called SETCO, which is supplying the contra rebels in Nicaragua, and others.
Raul, hungry after a long day, ducks into the kitchen for some beef tongue with sauce.
Someone wants to know if a decision has been reached on killing Camarena. Raul hears them say, “As we found out through our own means, I wanted you to hear the same words from his own mouth. That they were going to put a stop to drug trafficking in the state of Jalisco.” Secretary Arévalo Gardoqui looks worried and Raul overhears him say that the bodies of Camarena and Zavala must be well hidden. Bartlett Díaz announces that things are going well and in the right direction but he speaks such sophisticated Spanish that most of the drug traffickers have a hard time following him. Finally, Caro Quintero says, “Don’t worry, we are going to kill all of them anyway. You [Bartlett Díaz] are going to make it all the way to the top. We need you at the top.”
MORE POWERFUL IN DEATH
About 10 o’clock in the morning of February 9, Fonseca returns with his bodyguards to the house on Lope de Vega Street. Camarena is dead. Caro Quintero and Fonseca yell at each other. Both groups of bodyguards bring up their guns. And then the moment passes. The organization in Guadalajara faces an unexpected ruin. Enrique Camarena was right: He is far more useful alive than dead. Camarena and Zavala, the pilot, are buried in a park on the edge of the city. Zavala is still alive when they pile on the dirt. Later, when the local prosecutors tell the drug people things are getting too hot, the bodies are moved to another state so that they can be found by the Americans who seem crazed over the matter.
In the days after Camarena’s disappearance, DEA agents and bosses converge on Guadalajara from all over the hemisphere. The U.S. Customs commissioner orders every vehicle entering the U.S. from Mexico to be stopped and searched, effectively shutting down the border and causing diplomatic blowback from both Washington and Mexico City. A month passes before the bodies of Camarena and his Mexican pilot emerge from shallow graves on a ranch 70 miles away and across the state line in Michoacán.
In the meantime, Caro Quintero flies from Guadalajara to Caborca, Sonora, then wends his way to Costa Rica. On April 4 he is arrested in his mansion there and returned to Mexico where he is sentenced to 40 years in prison. Extradition requests from the U.S. are denied. Then, in August 2013, he is released on a technicality after serving only 28 years. Mexican authorities claim they have no idea of his current whereabouts. In the U.S., billboards appear alongside major highways advertising a $5 million reward for information leading to his apprehension.
He becomes a song:
I am Rafael Caro Quintero
I have new plans and new secrets
to live as a person of honor
Life is tough when you are charged this is true
the moments in prison too
Ernesto Fonseca, another head of the Guadalajara drug business, at first lies low on a farm outside of town, then flees to Puerto Vallarta where he rents a house from the chief of police. He moves with a small army of pistoleros including Jorge Godoy and Raul — Ramon has already deserted because he realizes Fonseca is finished. Godoy is there to keep his boss supplied with basuco-fortified cigarettes and to ferry in tumblers of cognac. Fonseca had five tapes of the torture with him but he keeps listening to one tape over and over. On it a Cuban is questioning Camarena.
When the raid finally comes on April 7, Fonseca tells his men to be calm, that everything has been arranged. Raul hides behind a stove and escapes wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and sleeps on the beach for a couple of nights until the heat passes and he can get a friendly bus driver to take him back to the city without paying the fare. While hiding, he sees a bus go by with Fonseca and the others as prisoners. Fonseca is sentenced to 40 years, but rumors have recently circled that he too will be released.
Trafficker Miguel Félix Gallardo stays free until 1989, possibly because of his deep ties to DFS and through it to the CIA and possibly because his cocaine connections remained vital for the ruling class in Mexico. He also is eventually sentenced to 40 years.
Rubén Zuno Arce has become a blemish on the family name. He is convicted in the U.S. in 1992 and he gets two life sentences — he dies in prison in 2012.
Manuel Bartlett Díaz went on to rig the 1988 presidential election that gave Carlos Salinas the presidency, a post that Bartlett Díaz was slated for until the Camarena case made him too hot. Because of an outstanding warrant to appear before a Los Angeles grand jury, he has not been willing to enter the U.S. for decades. He continues to serve in the Mexican senate.
Most of the less noted individuals associated with the Camarena murder are killed or vanish into Mexico. One of the reasons for those involved to come north and cooperate with Operation Leyenda was that they faced certain death if they stayed in Mexico.
The case is closed. Except for a nagging matter. No one is exactly sure why Camarena was killed.
THE WHITE TOWER
Berrellez has just taken over the Leyenda investigation when he hears of him. His informants tell him about this tall white guy known as Torre Blanca (the white tower), down there in Guadalajara. They say he is DFS but he’s really CIA.
Berrellez arranges a phone call and Torre Blanca explains it isn’t the way it might look, that he was ordered to work with drug guys.
— Who ordered you?
He says he won’t talk about that on the phone.
Lawrence Harrison comes up to the U.S. in September 1989. In his initial debriefing, he explains that he holds a rank in DFS. He had handled all the communications for the drug leaders in Guadalajara — Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, Rafael Caro Quintero, Miguel Félix Gallardo, and El Cochiloco.
He says he attended classes at the University of California at Berkeley but was not officially enrolled and he also attended some classes in the law school there. Then, in 1968, he is recruited by the CIA, trained, and sent to Mexico. At first he teaches English at the university in Guadalajara and makes friends with members of leftist student groups. He offers to do some legal work for them. Then he notices that every time he reports something about a student radical, that person seems to disappear.
He is eventually recruited by DFS, which sends him into the drug world of Guadalajara where he guards shipments of marijuana and cocaine, and then because of his electronics skills, he becomes the communications expert for the capos. Eventually he moves into cartel boss Ernesto Fonseca’s home so he can be on call 24 hours a day. In 1990 in Los Angeles, Harrison testified in one of the trials of those involved in the murder of Camarena. Asked about the official DFS badge carried by Ernesto Fonseca and his men, he said, “I saw it first…in the last part of 1983. They used it to sniff cocaine in their office.”
It is a simple arrangement: He is a CIA operative embedded in DFS and assigned by DFS to assist and guard major drug people in Guadalajara. And everyone involved seems to know who he really is. He listens to thousands of their communications. He attends their parties. Raul sees Harrison around Fonseca’s house all the time and reports that the tall American is fond of coke and basuco. In his DEA debriefing in 1989, Harrison says, “By that time, I’d figured it out that it was a very strict cooperation between the government and the traffickers. By that time it would have been very difficult to get out. I mean real difficult.” (In 2006, Harrison will reach into his desk drawer, take out a photograph of two DFS officers and show it to me. The men are with a motorcycle, one used in the murder of a well-known Mexican columnist named Manuel Buendia, author of the book The CIA in Mexico. I ask if I can have the photograph. He smiles and puts it back in his desk drawer.)
Harrison could see the future coming at Fonseca in the run-up to Camarena’s murder. He says to Don Neto, “‘Why don’t you just get out of this business? You have enough money, why don’t you just take it all and leave?’ And he told me that there couldn’t be any trouble with the Americans… There was some kind of secret understanding… They could do anything that they wanted with the Americans and anything they wanted with the Cubans. They were both trying to get them to cooperate with them, in, in, some kind of refueling stops.”
Harrison becomes the turning point for Hector Berrellez. He’d heard talk of the CIA and drugs for years. When he was stationed in Mazatlán, he’d get tips about airfields where large planes landed in the night. He’d report this to DEA and be told to ignore the matter.
And when he’d started in with Operation Leyenda he ran into more talk of flights and airfields, report after report from informants that CIA-leased aircraft were flying cocaine into places like the air-force base in Homestead, Florida, and the Marana airfield north of Tucson, long believed to be a CIA base. And that these planes were flying guns south. So he had six suspect pilots testify to a grand jury. He got them full immunity. They all said the same thing: that they’d flown loads of cocaine into the United States for the CIA.
Still, something inside of Hector Berrellez refuses to believe this.
He sends Harrison to Washington to be polygraphed by DEA. Over the course of three days, Harrison passes on every question.
Berrellez writes a DEA-6 and in this report spells out the links Harrison makes between the drug world, DFS, the Mexican government, and the CIA. He is told never to do that again. His job, he is informed, is to investigate the Camarena murder, not to investigate a sister agency. DEA realizes the significance of these charges, he is told, and so any such information must be kept out of the DEA-6s, which are discoverable by the defense, and should only be written into secret internal DEA memos. These memos will be given to a separate task force that will look into the matter.
So for the rest of the Leyenda investigation that is what Hector does: He segregates all the information about the CIA to secret memos that go into a separate channel where he believes a separate team is looking into it.
Harrison, for his part, tells him many things and yet leaves many questions unanswered. He is a person who prides himself on his mind — Hector soon thinks he is a genius. He knows almost everything except the details of the Camarena case. Because in September of 1984, five months before Camarena’s abduction and murder, Harrison takes nine rounds in an ambush by 50 members of the state police in Jalisco, all this because Fonseca suspects he’s been stealing. His only link with the case is that Camarena visits him in the Guadalajara hospital in September 1984. Harrison is guarded by state police. He refuses to tell Camarena anything since such a move would be certain death.
Later, on a long car ride with two agents, before moving his family to the U.S. permanently, he tells the DEA three things. He says that the Guadalajara cartel was starved for information, that they had no good intelligence on DEA. They could never have figured out that Camarena was the one costing them money and drugs. He said someone had to have told them. “I’ll tell you what, other authorities were there during the Camarena interrogation. They had to have said to them, look this is the guy that screwed you… This is the one that wants to put you away.”
The second thing he said was that Fonseca thought the plan was to interrogate Camarena, not to kill him, and that the agent died because Caro Quintero killed him despite the plan.
And finally, he made the point that in all his time around DFS or the drug capos he never knew them to tape anyone. He seriously doubted that they could even run a tape recorder. Harrison was emphatic: They had to be taping the interrogation for someone else. “I don’t think the CIA would’ve gone directly, they would’ve sent the Mexicans. The CIA are not so stupid, [that] they were gonna go in there themselves. They are gonna send some of their own minions in there.”
“MY SON, THE CIA KILLED CAMARENA”
While Hector Berrellez is running Operation Leyenda, DEA director Jack Lawn asks him if he could deliver Dr. Humberto Álvarez Machaín from Guadalajara to the U.S. so he can stand trial for his role in keeping Camarena alive during his torture. The initial plan to pay Mexican agents to capture Álvarez Machaín falls through, but soon after, in April 1990, the doctor is tossed from an aircraft onto the tarmac at the El Paso, Texas, airport where Berrellez is waiting to arrest him. Later, Álvarez Machaín is on trial in Los Angeles, but the circumstances surrounding his abduction cause serious diplomatic repercussions. In 1993, newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton voices his distress over DEA’s role in the kidnapping to the president of Mexico. Berrellez hears from friends in Washington that the new U.S. administration is considering extraditing him to Mexico. For Berrellez, this means certain death.
By this time, Berrellez says, Operation Leyenda had filed a bale of memos linking the CIA to drugs, to the Camarena case, and to the criminal bosses in Guadalajara. He had given briefings to the brass in D.C., linking the political leaders of Mexico to the drug traffickers and to the murder of Camarena. When Berrellez first walked his superiors in DEA through the allegations about Bartlett Díaz, they laughed at him. The suits could not believe such a man would be at a house full of drug thugs. And Berrellez now had three witnesses to meetings that planned the kidnapping and the list of those at the meetings — a list that included Bartlett Díaz, other high government officials, and Cubans known to work for CIA. And he had the Mexican Directorate of Federal Security (DFS) — a creation of the CIA — all over the crime.
Berrellez had done his job too well.
By 1993, he is being investigated by DEA for coaching witnesses to commit perjury. Godoy later testifies that he had lied to Mexican authorities while in custody there — downplaying his role and omitting certain eyewitness accounts — for fear of retribution before he was brought to safety in the U.S. as a protected witness. And Berrellez faces extradition to Mexico for carrying out a kidnapping that was requested by the head of DEA.
“I knew they were trying to destroy me.
“I drank every day, it was a stress reliever. I liked it.
“I used to bring the tapes of the torture home and listen to them, listen to him crying and begging for his life. I listened to them 20 or 30 times. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep. The way they would ask him questions was very morbid. Very cold.
“They’d ask, ‘You want to go back to your family?’
“ ‘Yes. Yes.’
“ ‘You have to cooperate.’
“ ‘Please comandante, don’t hurt me anymore.’
“You hear screams.”
Fellow agents contact him with offers to help him escape.
His world is crashing down around him.
And then his old friend Guillermo Gonzalez Calderoni comes back into his life. Berrellez and Calderoni had gotten to know each other after the firefight in the cornfield of Sinaloa that got Hector a medal from the attorney general. By the time Berrellez took over Operation Leyenda, Calderoni had become the personal hit man for the president of Mexico and had murdered opposition leaders in the run-up to the 1988 election. He knew where the bodies were because he’d put them there. He was the conduit between the president of Mexico and the head of the Gulf Cartel. That is, until the president decided Calderoni was keeping too much of the drug money for himself. By the late 1980s, DEA analysts estimated Calderoni’s private fortune at over a billion dollars.
He eventually fled to the U.S., bringing $400 million with him. Mexico tried to extradite him in 1994, but Berrellez appeared on his behalf at court — to the displeasure of his superiors. Berrellez’s testimony would help convince the federal judge to throw out the Mexican government’s extradition request. During the hearing, Calderoni expressed his gratitude to Berrellez by explaining what he knew about the Camarena case. He said that the money seizures from Operation Padrino, the DEA project to seize traffickers’ money, were one of the motives for snatching Camarena. The money not only went into the pockets of Caro Quintero, Fonseca, and other Guadalajara drug people. Much of it was funneled into the purchase of weapons and other support for the contra army in Nicaragua — a cause very dear to the Reagan administration though outlawed by Congress. If this money stream was permanently cut off, the U.S. proxy war in Nicaragua would suffer. Calderoni warned Hector to back off the Camarena case, telling him in Spanish, “My son, the CIA killed Camarena. Hector, listen, the CIA was working with the drug guys to get money for the contras. Félix Rodriguez [Max Gomez] was working with Juan Matta Ballesteros. Kiki was to be picked up, but they went too far and they killed him.”
KILL THE MESSENGER
In 1998, I looked up Hector Berrellez for a story on Gary Webb, the investigative reporter who two years before had written a series called “Dark Alliance” on the CIA, cocaine, and the contras for the San Jose Mercury News. The stories had been denounced by mainstream media and ended Webb’s journalism career. As I wrote then in Esquire, “Gary Webb’s ‘Dark Alliance’ broke an old story.” Webb had written the truth, but he never recovered from the attacks on him, falling into a deep depression and eventually committing suicide in December 2004.
[ED NOTE: Webb told Bowden in Esquire in 1998 that if Berrellez had gone public in the fall of 1996, when his stories were being erased by the media, he would have been like a savior to him. “Because he would have shown what I was reporting was not an aberration,” Webb said then, “that this was part of a pattern of CIA involvement with drugs. And he would have been believed.”]
Hector first took me into the case in 1998, but would not go on the record. The threat of being extradited to Mexico was still very real.
“I didn’t want to talk more then because I was very afraid,” Hector says now. There was still a warrant for his arrest in Mexico for his role in the abduction of Dr. Álvarez Machaín.
Then, in August 2013, Mexico released Rafael Caro Quintero from prison. “The liberation of Caro Quintero gave me the window I needed to get this story out,” he says.
In Hector’s mind, there are limited scenarios that explain why Enrique Camarena was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. One is Operation Padrino. It went global with wiretaps in Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Spain, and the U.S. The money being seized was always credited to informants code-named SOI (source of information) in the DEA documents, and the capos always suspected a human source. But the real secret of Operation Padrino’s success was that it had used the surveillance powers of the National Security Agency (NSA) to find and empty those bank accounts. But the drug people did not know this. Since Camarena was the person who originally suggested Padrino, he would be the logical person to ask about such a leak.
Yet the tapes of the torture deal only with questions about DEA agents and the big marijuana bust at Rancho Búfalo marijuana—there’s nothing about money being drained from bank accounts around the world. And when DEA finally gets the recordings of Camarena’s torture, none of them include the voice of Félix Rodriguez/Max Gomez, though eyewitnesses say he was there questioning Camarena.
Berrellez focuses on the tapes. When Fonseca fled Guadalajara for Puerto Vallarta after the murder, he holed up in a bedroom in the house near the beach. Godoy was there to keep him supplied with basuco-fortified cigarettes and tumblers of cognac. Fonseca had five tapes of the torture with him, but according to Godoy, he kept listening to one tape over and over. On it a Cuban voice was questioning Camarena. When the house was raided, the tapes somehow passed through Mexican federal custody to the CIA. But now there are only three tapes, and these cassettes hold fragments of some other recordings. The CIA eventually turn them over to DEA along with a transcript. But the transcript matches none of the recordings and comes from some other tape.
As head of Operation Leyenda, Berrellez requests two things: the tape that matches the transcript and the missing tapes he knows Fonseca had in Puerto Vallarta. Berrellez, lead investigator, is told he cannot have this material for national security reasons.
For Berrellez, at this stage in the investigation, such a refusal points in one direction: to the CIA and their secret operations to supply the Nicaraguan contras, which leads to the illegal activities of Lt. Colonel Oliver North, managed directly from the Reagan White House, which leads to lies.
Oliver North denies any involvement with drug people in his illegal project to support the contras. But his surviving notebooks have 15 entries on drug trafficking, entries that apparently survived his massive document-shredding binge in November 1986.
So far, North’s version of events is taken as gospel. And neither Gary Webb’s reporting nor the information uncovered by Operation Leyenda has changed public opinion. Berrellez first presented the findings of Operation Leyenda during a FOX News broadcast in October 2013. The report was met by silence in the U.S. but became front-page news in Mexico. Berrellez’s old boss, the former head of DEA, Jack Lawn — the man who assigned him to solve the murder and hunt down the killers no matter what — that man now says, “As a youth I read Aesop’s Fables. This, this is another fable not worthy of individuals who would serve in DEA.” [ED NOTE: When reached by Matter, Lawn denies having direct contact with Berrellez during Operation Leyenda and, despite reams of court documents to the contrary, claims that Berrellez was never in charge of Leyenda.]
The evidence uncovered by Operation Leyenda is held to have little merit and is considered unthinkable. The U.S. attorneys prosecuting the case try to keep testimony about CIA activities in Mexico out of the trial record. However, during the 1990 trial of Rubén Zuno Arce and others involved in Camarena’s murder, a defense attorney tries to question Lawrence Harrison about connections between DFS and the CIA. These links were spelled out in Harrison’s initial debriefing and reported in a DEA-6. If drug capo Ernesto Fonseca thought that his work was sanctioned by Mexican officials and by Americans and their Cuban allies working for the CIA, then it cast doubt on the guilt of the defendants on trial for the murder of the DEA agent. The judge eventually prohibited the jury from hearing that part of Harrison’s testimony.
The U.S. and the CIA do not move drugs. The leaders of Mexico would not be in the same room as the torturers of Enrique Camarena. It is far more believable that U.S. would feel threatened by Nicaragua, secretly finance a movement to overthrow its government, and get in an arms-for-hostages swap with Iran, than it is conceivable that the CIA would deal with Mexican drug leaders or be embedded in a Mexican intelligence service that provided bodyguards to drug leaders and escorted their loads through roadblocks.
In the end Operation Leyenda comes down to three men — Godoy, Ramon, and Raul: corrupt cops in Mexico who implicate the leading citizens of their country.
You either believe the corrupt cops.
Or the leading citizens.
BOYS WITH GUNS
And what did he do?
Plant marijuana, now I remember his name, please, Lopez, Hay! Hay! Don’t hit me, please, now I remember.
“I was a gung ho motherfucker, I was willing to die in this drug war. I was very aggressive.
“I saw our own government was corrupt and involved in the drug business. How do you think I felt? Our government bringing cocaine in here.
“It destroyed me, it made me totally disbelieve in our government.”
Hector Berrellez pauses, the things come back to him in simple order but they all drive him to the same place in his life, where he is now.
At times, he could hear his life shredding away as he chased his big case.
“I neglected my family, I missed birthdays, I was a terrible fucking father.
“And for what?
“My fucking son kills himself. The last thing my son said before he pulled the trigger in front of his kids was ‘Nobody loves me.’
“I was never home and when I was home I was drunk. I was an adrenaline junkie. I killed three or four people, who knows? In a shoot-out everyone is firing.
“I wouldn’t do the Camarena case again. It destroyed my career. I really wanted to go after the CIA guys and I pissed them off.”
When he is far gone into the case, when he has people from inside the organization, people who snatched Kiki, people who tortured him, when he has them talking and the CIA keeps coming into the story, then Hector has a visitor.
The man gives a name but Hector senses it is fake. He has flown from D.C. to Los Angeles. What he says is simple: “Hector, Hector, Hector, why are you jeopardizing the security of our country? The CIA does not work under the constraints of the U.S. Constitution. Our enemies are not restrained.”
Hector tells him that every criminal he has ever busted has said he broke the law because he had to.
The man from the CIA says, please understand our enemies don’t abide by the Constitution.
He asks Hector if he has any evidence of any CIA case officer being involved in drug trafficking.
Hector says no.
He only runs into people who are paid by the CIA, not those who sit in their offices in Langley. Informants, assets, cutouts. That is how the system works and it works well for those who wish to deny that the system exists.
Soon, his phone is tapped. He hears rumors from headquarters that they are discussing extraditing him to Mexico for the Álvarez-Machaín kidnapping. Then DEA begins to investigate him.
“I’m drinking. I was a horrible father and husband. I was investigating drug guys while DEA is investigating me. They are trying to make me dirty, to fuck me.
“They killed Camarena. What did I do?
“I put a bunch of drug dealers in jail. You never get to the main people. I was one of the soldiers. We’re in shoot-outs, we never get promoted. They’ve got starched white shirts, they get their hair dyed every month, they sucked somebody off, they go up the ladder. Gunslingers never get to be administrators.
“I was a little boy playing with guns.”
His mother did a reading for him once. She sees death near him.
Then an uncle dies and Hector thinks that is what his mother saw.
Then his son kills himself.
After that, Hector asks his mother to do no more readings for him.
He’s seen enough of the future.
Sometimes this nightmare comes. He is back in the cornfield outside of Guadalajara.
He hears the man who was tortured, murdered, and put down the well.
The man is screaming.
— Help me!
— Don’t kill me!
The man seems to suffer forever.
After his career is in ruins, Berrellez reads a story in the San Jose Mercury News on cocaine and the contras and the CIA by a man named Gary Webb. He can’t believe it is published.
Then Webb in turn is ruined by the story. First taken apart by the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and the Washington Post. Then taken off the story by his paper and shipped to a dead bureau in Cupertino. Then he quits.
He calls up Hector Berrellez and wants to meet.
They finally meet at a steakhouse in Los Angeles in 1998.
Berrellez tells Webb, “I want you to know everything you wrote was true. I have a CIA operative who will tell you it was true.”
He introduces him to Lawrence Harrison.
The three of them talk for hours. They drink.
Berrellez hugs Gary Webb.
In a three-part series, legendary journalist Charles Bowden finally digs into the terrible mystery behind a DEA hero’s…medium.com
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Getting the story:
Here’s why it took so long and meant so muchmedium.com