Five years before he was arrested by Mexican security forces at the behest of US prosecutors, Rafael Caro Quintero was making deals in the Sinaloa highlands (northwest Mexico) to shore up his power. A Mexican Army document, one of millions of leaked Defense Ministry emails obtained by EL PAÍS, reveals that while the so-called “Narco of Narcos” was on the run, the army learned of a key meeting in which Caro Quintero “took over” a rival drug trafficking organization to reign supreme over the coveted northern highlands of Mexico. The Mexican army monitored the drug lord’s movements and activities for five years before he was captured in July 2022.
A Mexican army file labeled “Caro Quintero meetings in Sinaloa de Leyva and Guasave” (two municipalities in Sinaloa) includes a brief mention of how one of the founders of the Sinaloa Cartel in the 1980s and erstwhile boss of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, regained power after a shocking court decision freed him from a Mexican prison in 2013. While many thought the old narco would retire from his criminal career after avoiding the remaining 12 years of his sentence for the murder of a US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent, the Mexican army had solid evidence that Caro Quintero was actually back in the game and consolidating power back home in Sinaloa.
In 2017, Caro Quintero held a meeting at a mountain lake hotel in Sinaloa “to take over the Beltrán Leyva criminal organization” according to the Mexican army file. The narco allied with one of his long-time rivals in the wake of the power struggles that ensued after former Sinaloa Cartel leader Chapo Guzmán was extradited to the US.
According to a Mexican Defense Ministry report, Caro Quintero forged an alliance with Fausto Isidro Meza Flores, better known as “El Chapo” Isidro, the leader of the Beltrán Leyva organization and a bitter enemy of the Sinaloa Cartel. Thus, Caro Quintero reneged on old pacts made by the cartel he founded with his cronies in the 1980s, and expanded his control over a remote mountainous area on the border with Chihuahua – a strategic drug-trafficking route and site for marijuana and poppy farms, and fentanyl and methamphetamine labs
The Mexican army file includes an organization chart of the two criminal organizations now under Caro Quintero’s leadership – the Pacific Cartel (the official name of the Sinaloa Cartel) and the Beltrán Leyva organization. The organization chart depicts three Pacific Cartel leaders: Iván Archivaldo Guzmán (Chapo’s son), Aureliano “Guano” Guzmán (Chapo’s brother), and Ismael “Mayo” Zambada, a long-time cartel leader who has never been arrested. The organization chart also depicts five Beltrán Leyva leaders: Fausto Isidro Meza Flores, Ávaro Guadalupe “El Lapa” Carrillo Fuentes, Jesús “Chuy” González Peñuelas, Ignacio “Nacho” González Peñuelas, Mario Alberto “Calabazas” Lugo Lara (who controlled the area around Sinaloa de Leyva in 2017).
After Caro Quintero’s capture on July 15, the world learned that the old drug lord never left his Sinaloan homeland and never gave up his old livelihood. According to the Mexican army, Caro Quintero’s power actually increased while he was on the run. Yet this was never publicized, and Caro Quintero never appeared on Mexico’s most wanted lists. Nevertheless, Defense Ministry documents reveal that Caro Quintero’s reemergence in the drug trade played a key role in the violent power struggle for control of Sonora on the US-Mexico border. Meanwhile, US authorities kept sounding the alarm about the new Caborca Cartel led by Caro Quintero.
The DEA’s dogged pursuit of Caro Quintero for the 1985 murder of one of its agents, Kiki Camarena, ultimately led to his recapture. The DEA’s $20 million reward – its highest ever – and relentless pressure on the Mexican government finally landed the narco in a maximum security prison, where he awaits a decision on his extradition to the US.