Was Mexican Fugitive Caro Quintero The First Billionaire Drug Lord?
Fugitive Mexican drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero, best known for ordering the kidnapping, torture and murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena in 1985, appears to be the first in a generation of Mexican drug kingpins to amass a fortune estimated in the billions of dollars. During the 1980s he headed the Guadalajara Cartel, which was at the time the world’s most powerful drug organization.
Caro Quintero was sentenced in 1989 to serve 40 years in a Mexican prison for the murder of Camarena and his Mexican pilot, and for drug trafficking. But after spending 28 years in jail, the 61 year-old Caro Quintero was secretly released in the middle of the night on a legal technicality by an obscure court in Guadalajara in August.
Caro Quintero ordered Camarena kidnapped purportedly because he was angry about a 1984 raid on a 540 hectare (1,344 acres) marijuana plantation named “Rancho Bufalo” (Buffalo Ranch) in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. The ranch was seized by Mexican soldiers using intelligence provided by Camarena, an undercover DEA agent who had infiltrated the Guadalajara Cartel. The raid netted somewhere between 2,500 and 6,000 tons of marijuana, the largest marijuana seizure in history, and cost Caro Quintero somewhere between $3.2 billion and $8 billion in today’s prices, according to The Wall Street Journal.
In his book, Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs, and the Press (Verso 1989), investigative journalist Alexander Cockburn writes that the U.S. government estimated Caro Quintero’s network was pulling in at least $5 billion a year. He was considered so wealthy that the Mexican press widely reported a wild rumor (which is highly unlikely to have been true) that Caro Quintero allegedly offered to pay Mexico’s foreign debt of $80 billion in return for his freedom.
During the 1980s, the Guadalajara Cartel controlled Mexico’s marijuana and opium production, but its biggest source of revenue came from selling Colombian cocaine, particularly after U.S. law enforcement successfully shut down the Colombians’ main drug corridor in Florida. Caro Quintero’s organization did not charge a fee to the Colombians for transporting drugs into the U.S., but retained a portion of the shipments, often up to 50%, that it would then sell.
Mexican soldiers stand amidst poppy flowers and marijuana plants. (Image credit: AFP/Getty Images . [+] via @daylife)
When he was arrested in Costa Rica in 1985, where he had fled after reportedly paying $300,000 in bribes to corrupt Mexican police officials, Caro Quintero was a flamboyant criminal who epitomized the corruption that ran deep inside the Mexican political system. In a 1997 trial of two defendants linked to the Camarena case in California, a witness said that he and several other men once spent four to five weeks counting $400 million in U.S. currency that was said to be the Guadalajara Cartel’s contribution to the payoff of a high government official.
After his arrest, the Mexican government failed to seize his drug assets –36 properties and over 300 businesses in Guadalajara alone — which ended up in the hands of his former wife and children. Last June the Treasury Department said that from prison Caro Quintero used family members to invest his fortune into ostensibly legitimate companies and real estate projects in Guadalajara.
A second member of the billionaire drug lords generation was Amado Carrillo Fuentes, one of the most powerful kingpins of all times. In 1997 The Washington Post reported that Carrillo Fuentes made an estimated $25 billion by putting top law enforcement officials and politicians on his payroll, enabling him to freely keep running his drug dealing empire. He also doled out millions in protection payments and ordered his enemies killed, factors that kept authorities at a distance. Carrillo died at age 42 in 1997 following high-risk plastic surgery to change his appearance. Asked where the $25 billion figure came from, John Anderson, the former Washington Post correspondent in Mexico who wrote the story, said it was from the DEA.
A third member of the superrich drug lords generation is the world’s current most powerful drug trafficker, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who escaped from a high security Mexican prison in 2001. With an estimated net wealth of $1 billion, Guzmán was included on Forbes billionaire list for four years. He dropped off the list this year when it was no longer possible to assess his wealth. No one knows where Guzmán is, nor how much money he is paying out for protection purposes. The DEA believes Guzmán, head of the Sinaloa Cartel, has surpassed the influence and reach of the most powerful leaders of the Colombian cartels and considers him “the godfather of the drug world.”
Fugitive Mexican drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero, wanted by the US for the killing of a DEA agent, appears to be the first in a generation of Mexican drug kingpins that have amassed fortunes estimated in the billions.