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The day Rafael Caro Quintero told me he was done running from the law

I met the ‘narco of narcos’ four times at his hideout in the heart of Mexican drug country. In 2018, he told me he was thinking about turning himself in

Rafael Caro Quintero, during an interview.
Rafael Caro Quintero, during an interview.Anabel Hernández

During the nine years when Rafael Caro Quintero was in hiding, a fugitive from justice, I met him four times in four different locations in Mexico’s “Golden Triangle” — the vast, voluptuous expanse of Sierra Madre mountains where he had holed up for years, and where he was ultimately captured by the Mexican Navy on July 15, six years after our first encounter.

Quintero has been the subject of hundreds of pages and numerous reports detailing his role as the leader of the once powerful Guadalajara Cartel, his savage violence, and his innovative criminal expertise in the cultivation of marijuana. But meeting him face to face, in an intense exchange of hard questions and unconditional answers, was something else entirely.

Considering that the DEA had a five million dollar reward on his head — which they would later raise to $20 million — it was quite an unexpected and unprecedented opportunity, to speak with one of the world’s most powerful and most wanted narcos: To hear about his beginnings in the world of crime and criminals, his reign of power, the 1985 murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena; his thoughts on God, love, family and death.

The last of our four meetings took place in early 2018, as President Enrique Peña Nieto’s sexenio, or six-year term, was coming to an end, and former leftist presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador was leading in the polls and had just proposed granting amnesty to drug traffickers.

That was when Rafael Caro Quintero, my camera trained on his face, told me that he was suffering a serious health condition. His doctor had already informed me that Quintero had prostate problems that could lead to cancer, and that he lacked easy access to medical care due to his status as a wanted fugitive. And so, his condition worsening, “the narco of narcos” announced, unexpectedly, that he was considering turning himself in.

— “Would you be willing to make a pact with the Mexican government?” I asked him, in the context of López Obrador’s proposal for amnesty.

— “What kind of pact?” Quintero responded, looking at me with interest.

— “Have you thought about turning yourself in?”

— “With things how they are now, no,” he said, suggesting the potential of a yes.

— “What conditions would the government need to guarantee for you to turn yourself in?”

— “They would need to respect my rights and stop trampling all over them like they’ve been doing. Look, they gave all my co-defendants a break. Why haven’t they given me one? Fonseca beat extradition. Why won’t they give me a deal?” Quintero complained, raising his voice in annoyance, “Justice is blind, right!? I’m Rafael Caro Quintero, that’s why!”

His inclination to turn himself in was never made public, until now. Months after our interview, Andrés Manuel López Obrador assumed the presidency, promising to fight drug trafficking with “hugs, not bullets.”

From ‘Prince’ to beggar

Rafael Caro Quintero was born in La Noria, in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa, in October 1952. In his heyday in the 1980s, he was known as “El Príncipe” (“The Prince”). Together with his associates, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, alias Don Neto, and Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo, alias El Jefe de Jefes (the Boss of Bosses), Caro Quintero was the leader of the Guadalajara Cartel, and reigned as lord and master over Mexico’s macabre festival of drugs and violence. While he flooded the streets of U.S. cities with cocaine, heroin and marijuana, in Mexico, Quintero and his clan enjoyed the protection of authorities at all levels of government: presidents, secretaries of state, governors, politicians, members of the military and the police.

Everything was going great for the cartel, until one day, it wasn’t: The kidnapping, torture, and murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena and Mexican pilot Alfredo Zavala turned the world upside down, and the authorities who had once protected them were now hunting them down like dogs. The U.S. government’s anger and actions in response to the death of Agent Camarena would forever change the relationship between Mexico and the United States on questions of combating drug trafficking.

It was in this context, under intense pressure from the Americans, that the Prince, Don Neto and the Boss of Bosses were arrested in the prime of their lives and condemned to grow old behind bars. Caro Quintero was only 33 years old.

The Prince and Don Neto spent 24 years in prison without being sentenced, until finally, in 2009, a judge condemned them to 40 years for the murder of Camarena and two other American citizens. But Quintero’s luck took an unexpected turn in 2013, when another judge ordered his immediate release on a procedural technicality.

After 28 years in prison, at 60 years old, Quintero was finally free. But a few days after his release, the Mexican government issued a warrant for his arrest, demanding he return to prison to serve out the remaining 12 years of his sentence.

Two days and two nights with Caro Quintero

In June of 2016, The Prince sent an emissary to the offices of the periodical Proceso, to request a meeting with me. I agreed, on the condition that it be an on-the-record interview. And just like that, I was off to Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, with a cameraman provided by the magazine. There, we were taken to a house on a ranch in the Golden Triangle, where we arrived with daylight still left to spare.

Long and lanky at nearly six feet tall, Quintero’s hair was dyed black and cut with precision. His face, weathered from the harsh sierra sun, accentuated the shiny white teeth that peeked through his smiling lips. He didn’t seem like an especially rich or powerful man. If he was someone who had ever inspired terror, you couldn’t tell — either he was hiding it, or his 28 years in prison had finally tamed him.

The Prince was visibly nervous. We had barely exchanged a few words and he was checking his surroundings suspiciously, like someone planning an escape. When my colleague asked if he could set up his camera, Quintero faltered and said no, it was just a conversation, not an interview. I told him that this is not what we had agreed to, that we hadn’t traveled all the way out here, risking our own safety, just to have an off-the-record conversation. But he was adamant, and never let us film or record.

We said our goodbyes cordially, but there was a mutual frustration in the air. The next day, back in Culiacán, we were contacted again, and this time, he promised to do the interview.

We drove past the place where we had met the day before — they were taking us deeper into the mountains. We crossed two rivers, then arrived at an abandoned-looking white house in the middle of nowhere. The house had whitewashed walls and a hard dirt floor. There were two beds and a table with a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe, illuminated by a lonely candle whose flame cut through the darkness with its flickering glow.

Night had fallen, and outside, in the tangle of tree branches, white fireflies flitted like a shower of shooting stars. Then, Caro Quintero emerged like a ghost from the dark, dressed in a t-shirt, a blue baseball cap, and jeans. His clothes were clean and pressed, but simple. I interviewed him for more than an hour.

The third time I met Quintero was in the shade of a tree on the banks of a river. I spotted him as I was being ferried across the water, after arriving that morning by ATV. He was dressed like a campesino, unassuming and innocuous. I wanted to know more about the book I knew he was writing — a book whose content I have yet to see, and would very much like to know. It was a brief conversation. He was on edge the whole time, and kept gazing up at the sky.

In 2017, I learned that Quintero, like many men his age, was suffering from prostate disease. I spoke with one of his doctors at the clinic in Culiacán where he was receiving treatment, who told me that his condition would require surgery. But that would mean checking into an outpatient clinic, where he would have to recover for at least five days after the procedure. This was not a risk Quintero was willing to take — he was afraid there would be a raid on the clinic while he was convalescing, and he wouldn’t be able to escape.

I met Quintero a fourth and final time one January night in 2018. We set out from the coastal city of Mazatlán, the capital of Sinaloa, and I remember that the journey was even longer than the last. We wound our way high into the mountains, then higher still, until we arrived at a mid-sized, new-looking house, only partially furnished. It was located strategically, towering over the land below with a wide view of the sky: positioned to detect the movements of troops or aircraft.

As the sun set, the mountains loomed like sleeping giants. Suddenly, Quintero appeared out of nowhere with his security detail. Out of the whole group, I was the only woman. The Prince was noticeably upset. I tried to ask him about the recent accusations from the U.S. and Mexican governments that he was still involved in trafficking drugs.

“Whoever says that is lying! They’re lying! Whoever says it is lying, I don’t care who they are, they’re lying!” he said, visibly enraged. “Look, I’m not the leader of any cartel…”

— “Here’s the report where they accuse you,” I replied, showing him the report from the DEA.

— “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I never went back to drugs, and I never will. All that stuff they’re saying, whoever’s saying it is a liar! They’re lying!

There, with Rafael Caro Quintero staring back at me, telling me this, I was struck by how incredible it was that he had run the risk of agreeing to an interview, in an attempt to assert his own innocence.

“Look, what I really want is to be left in peace. If the public wants to believe me, that’s great, but if not, well, whatever, they’ll find out, do you understand? I want to be right with myself, with my own self! I don’t care what other people think… I’m not working anymore, let’s be clear about that! I was a drug trafficker 23 years ago, and now I’m not, and I won’t ever be again. If other people are using my name, how am I supposed to stop them? I can’t go around telling them, ‘Shut up, don’t lie about me!’ Or do you want me to start killing people to make them shut up?” he said, raising his voice.

The old man

Despite Quintero’s claims of innocence, in 2018, he was placed on the F.B.I.’s list of 10 most wanted fugitives, and in 2020, the Department of Justice filed a new criminal indictment against him in the Eastern District Court of New York, under docket number 1:15-cr-00208. The new charges were no longer about his involvement in the murder of Camarena, a crime for which he had already been tried and convicted in Mexico. Instead, the indictment accused him, along with his brother-in-law, Ismael Quintero Arellanes, alias Fierro, of spearheading the operations of the Caborca Cartel, and of engaging in criminal activity stretching all the way back to 1980. The government claims that Quintero, using several possible nicknames, including “Don Rafa” and “the old man,” orchestrated the criminal activity of the cartel, which involved smuggling “multi-ton quantities of heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, from Mexico into the United States.”

The criminal indictment, dated February 7, 2020, asserts that Quintero’s drug trafficking organization “used corruption as a means and method of achieving its goals.” The structure of the organization, the indictment claims, included “security personnel;” “sicarios” (hit men) who committed various acts of violence, including murders, assaults, kidnappings and torture; “plaza bosses,” who controlled various cartel territories (it doesn’t specify which); and “transporters” who moved drugs and money by boat, plane, and truck.

The Eastern District Court of New York had already requested Quintero Arellanes’ extradition when he was arrested in January 2020 in Culiacán. Meanwhile, a third defendant, Juan Nicholas Hindu Robles, had already been arrested in February 2016, had signed an affidavit admitting his guilt in 2017, and was sentenced to 47 months in prison in 2019 — a sentence that was commuted at the request of the U.S. government, in reward for his cooperation on the case, leading many to assume that Hindu Robles was the person who had snitched on Quintero.

An incredible capture

After meeting with Quintero, I learned some things about his security strategy: he would only trust certain people, all direct or indirect family members; he always carried a pistol strapped to his belt (or so everyone says; I never saw it); and he has a sixth sense for hearing suspicious or out-of-the-ordinary noises. He would always check the sky above him, searching for drones he was sure the DEA had sent to hunt him down.

He was guarded by at least two or three armed men at all times, 24 hours a day. The last time I saw him, one of his bodyguards told me that this excessive caution had driven Quintero to the brink of paranoia, and he would often wake his escorts up in the middle of the night and make them walk with him like shadows through the dark and dangerous ravines. More than once, Quintero had come close to stumbling off a cliff.

During the day, he preferred to keep a low profile. He found discrete and secluded hideouts, and would dress like a local farmworker to blend in with the other campesinos of the Golden Triangle and go about his business without drawing attention. And to top off his sartorial armor, he wore two pendants around his neck: one, a gift from his son, the other, a prayer necklace from his mother — the same pendants you see dangling between his unbuttoned blue shirt collar in the photos of his capture released by the Mexican government.

— “Presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate from the Morena Party, has proposed making a pact with the country’s major drug cartels, granting them amnesty. What do you think about that idea?” I asked Quintero during our interview in January 2018. “Do you think the cartel bosses would agree to this? Do you think this could help put an end to the violence in Mexico?”

— “I don’t know if it would help that much, but why not try it?” he said. “Colombia did it, other countries have probably done it, maybe, I’m not sure. Colombia has for sure; I know because I was in prison and I was watching TV, and a lot of guys turned themselves in. So why not try it in Mexico?...”

That was when Quintero told me that he was considering turning himself in, if the Mexican government would let him finish out his sentence — 12 more years — under house arrest, as they had for his co-defendant, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo.

So far, Mexican authorities have said very little about Quintero’s capture. According to the government, he was arrested by the marines on an extradition warrant, but they have yet to explain how he was located, whether or not he resisted, if they seized any drugs or weapons during the operation, or if he was detained alone or in the company of his 24-hour security detail. All we know is what the colorful anecdote released to the media has said: that a dog named Max supposedly found The Prince hiding in some bushes, dressed in an unfamiliar beige jacket and a simple blue button-up, his hair dyed black and cut with precision, his sideburns perfectly trimmed.

Anabel Hernández is a Mexican journalist specializing in drug trafficking. Her latest book is Emma y las otras señoras del narco (Grijalbo, 2021).

Translated by Max Granger.

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