Monday, May 10, 2010

Man from La Noria: From Peasant to Kingpin

A smiling Rafael Caro Quintero grants Televisa news crews a interview upon his arrest in 1985 at the Attorney General offices in Mexico City.
Rafael Caro Quintero, the eldest of 11 brothers and sisters, was born on October 24, 1952 at Rancho La Noria, Badiraguato Municipality, Sinaloa. He was the son of Don Emilio Caro Payan (RIP) and Dona Hermenegilda Quintero.

Don Emilio died when Rafael was 14 years old. He had worked in the buying and selling of land on the north coast of Sinaloa. They lived well but like all families had bad times. At age 17, Rafael abandoned La Noria, a village of about 50 homes and about 80 people at that time who mostly raised cattle, to find work to Culiacan, Sinaloa's capital.

He found work as a truck driver for a cattle feed company. This work did not last long as Rafael, who had only a 1st grade education, had cunning and intelligence. And so he devoted his time to cultivating marijuana. The protector and teacher of Caro Quintero, was the infamous drug boss and father of Mexican organized crime, Pedro Aviles Perez, a native of Durango.

Aviles Perez was the drug boss of Sonora, principally working in San Luis Rio Colorado. From him Rafael learned the business and soon began to grow marijuana on ranches in Sonora and Chihuahua. He began to bribe commanders in Sonora and Chihuahua states and was able to build his empire little by little.

When the Clave 7 government hit squad killed Pedro Aviles on September 28, 1978, Rafael was beginning to be a Capo in his own right. Together with his brothers Jose Luis and Miguel Angel, they bought ranches in Caborca, Sonora, and began to plant thousands of hectares of marijuana and poppy to use in the production of heroin. He had already met Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo "Don Neto" and Juan Jose Esparragoza "The Blue." With them they planted marijuana in the center and north of the republic and with his millions, they bribeds commanders, courts and agents of the Federal Judicial Police.

No plantations belonging to them would be destroyed, no government flights would fly over their businesses and ruin anything. That was the deal with the state and local governments. Rafael married to Maria Elena Elenes, sister of his friend and fellow kingpin Eleodoro Elenes "The Culichi." He had four children. At that same time, he began to create the world's largest marijuana growing complex: El Buffalo ranch.

The Buffalo Ranch near Jimenez, Chihuahua had methods of irrigation used in the Imperial Valley of California. Scientists and engineers used super modern methods, in the midst of desolate desert of Chihuahua, to grow thousands of hectares of sinsemilla marijuana. Peasants were brought from Oaxaca, Guerrero, Sinaloa and Sonora in Norte de Sonora buses at night and left in the desert to work in the harvesting.

With the Operation Condor in Sinaloa in 1977, many Sinaloa traffickers shifted their operations centers to the city of Guadalajara, Jalisco. Caro Quintero, along with Fonseca and his partner Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, settled in Jalisco and from there, they operated with little to no interference. Felix Gallardo brought the plane loads of cocaine from the Medellin cartel and Fonseca and Caro and were responsible for planting marijuana in Chihuahua,San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas and Sonora.

Caro Quintero also lent the Nicaraguan Contra rebels his ranches in Jalisco and Veracruz so they could train. The CIA was fully aware of this and did nothing. Perhaps they didnt care, Caro was training anti communist rebels and that was A-OK. Payment were made by Caro for public works, building schools, roads, and introducing electricity to remote villages up and down Sinaloa state.
To reach these isolated villages, nine in total with no access roads, Caro had to use helicopters to bring the poles. Using the same helicopters, the poles were hoisted into place and one by one, the towns of the Sierra Madre, had electricity for the first time ever.

He distributed money among the poor and according to Caro Quintero in his own words: "I did in a short time what the government doesnt do in 10 years". Caro was a true Sinaloan prodigy. But in 1984 the problems started. DEA agents, which had its offices at the American consulate in Guadalajara began to follow and track Caro Quintero, Fonseca and Felix Gallardo's businesses.
Rafael Caro Quintero was known by friends in Sinaloa as a fun-loving womanizer. Villagers would fondly remember when "Rafa" would come to La Noria, on horseback, hapilly firing his machine gun into the air, a Sinaloan Banda trailing behind him playing his favorite songs. They would play for days on end. He would organize parties and he would dance with all the girls.
He often travelled in a convoy of 15 luxury vans, filled with his friends and armen gunmen. One time in Culiacan, a young man crashed his car into Caro's convoy. Armed men threatened him but he tearfully explained that the car had been his friends, lent to him so he could go to work. Caro Quintero upon hearing the story reached into his van, pulled out a suitcase full of cash and gave him a fat wad of cash.
"So that you can buy your friend a new car. And also one for yourself.". The man later realized through the news, years later that his benefactor had been none other than Rafael Caro Quintero.
La Noria became a fortress. He had a house built for his mother, surrounded by a tall perimeteral wall. A lavish mausoleum, with 72 crypts, that would one day house his and his families' remains was erected three times. A very particular Caro would not like the outcome of the mausoleum and would have it destroyed, and rebuilt until the third time, he was satisfied.
He built a school in his hometown, so that children would enjoy an education he never had access to. He named it after his father, Emilio Caro.
In Caborca, his second hometown, he built a palatial home that looked like a castle in the middle of the desert. It was appropiately named El Castillo. The man was very fond of horses and through his younger brothers and other family members he financed various cattle ranches in northern Mexico.
He also bought seven mansions in the posh Jardines del Bosque area of Guadalajara, various ranches in the Altos of Jalisco, including La Herradura in Atequiza, and other homes in Michoacan, Sinaloa and Zacatecas. He also began an impresive project on Avenida Acueducto in Guadalajara. The three story home when completed would have a pool, private zoo and would take up an entire city block.
He laundered his money through legitimate businesses in the city of Guadalajara. He bought several Ford dealerships and was fond of giving away brand new Grand Marquis to his friends in law enforcement and the military. He also bought several Hotels and Motels including the Holiday Inn, along with several seafood and Sinaloan style restaurants.

Back in Guadalajara, the rumors began to surface that in the Chihuahuan Desert was a huge marijuana crop almost ready for harvest. Enrique Camarena Salazar, a Mexican American DEA agent , began to investigate the rumors and in November of that year flew over Buffalo. For the Mexican government of Miguel de la Madrid, the crops or any other, did not exist in Mexico, but the U.S. already had the evidence. Photos and maps indicated that the Buffalo, existed just below the flight path of the Guadalajara-Houston Mexicana Airlines route.

On November 9, 1984, the Mexican army raided El Buffalo and burned 10,000 tons of marijuana. Two other ranches in Sonora and Zacatecas were also destroyed. Hundreds of peasants were arrested but Fonseca and Caro and were nowhere to be found. The monetary loss was estimated in $2 billion dollars.

Felix, Caro and Fonseca met at a party in January 1985 and decided to give Agent Camarena Salazar a warning. On February 5, judicial police under the command of Caro Quintero abducted Agent Camarena in front of the US Consulate in Guadalajara in broad daylight. That same day at the Guadalajara airport, Alfredo Zavala Avelar, a pilot for the Ministry of Agriculture and pilot friend of Camarena who had flown him over El Buffalo also disappeared.
The two men were questioned about what they knew from the Buffalo, Caro, Fonseca and Felix Gallardo's drug businesses , and what Camarena knew about the director of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police, Manuel Ibarra Herrera. Everything was recorded and after two days of torture, they were executed and buried in the Bosque La Primavera forest outside the city.

On February 9 Caro Quintero and his gunmen were intercepted at Guadalajara's Miguel Hidalgo Airport by the Federal comandate, Armando Pavon Reyes, in charge of investigation of the Camarena case. With a greeting and hug, and the promise of 60,000 dollars, Pavon Reyes let Quintero fly out, along with his girlfriend Sara Cristina Cosio Martinez, niece of a high ranking PRI politician in Jalisco.
He flew to Mazatlan, then Caborca, with her and her friend Violeta Estrada. He spent the month of February in hiding and Camarena and Zavala were nowhere to be found. By pressure of the US government and the DEA, they requested Camarena be returned unharmed or at least his body. It was then the killings occurred at El Mareno.

Pavon Reyes, thanks to a mysterious unsigned note received on February 28, 1985, he found the bodies of Camarena and Zavala. They were at the Mareno ranch , municipality of Angostura, Michoacan. On March 2,the Federales entered Rancho El Mareno in search of Camarena and Zavala.

The federal version of the account as follows: upon entering the ranch, they were greeted with bullets by the ranch's owners, the Braves Cervantes, relatives of then governor of Michoacan Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. They were greeted by bursts of gunfire that killed a federal agent who was shot in the skull. The feds then were forced to open fire, killing Manuel Bravo and his wife Celia along with their handicapped son Rigo and 2 other sons who had arrived to help their parents .

The version of the DEA was that Bravo's family was massacred in cold blood, as several of the dead had been shot in the back and some were in their beds as if they had been surprised, and ultimately slaughtered . Zavala and Camarena were not found at El Mareno, but two days later a rancher found 2 black bags containing rotting corpses next to the Zamora - La Barca highway . They were identified as Enrique Camarena Salazar and Alfredo Zavala.

Caro Quintero at the time was in San Jose Costa Rica. He sought to move his business to Costa Rica and there he began to operate again the help of a cousin Jose Ines Calderon Quintero and his right hand man Jose Contreras Subias. On April 5, 1985, he was arrested by the Costa Rican military, with help from the DEA. When he was arrested it was estimated that Caro Quintero's wealth was around $ 650 million dollars, making him one of the richest person in Mexico and the world.

His teenage paramour Sara Cosio had called her parents from Caro's Quinta La California mansion to Guadalajara. DEA intercepted the call and so went the hunt for Caro. Florentino Ventura Gutierrez, commander of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police who replaced Pavon Reyes, was in charge of bringing Caro and his men to prison north of Mexico City where he would face justice.
His dream project on Avenida Acueducto became the focus of the media, and grew abandoned, taken over by the government who eventually tore it down. His homes were confiscated and turned into Drug Rehab centers. A rare one of a kind volcanic stone sphere, found at Quinta La California was donated to the Costa Rican government. Millions in gold jewelry, including his trademark diamond and gold "R-1" bracelet and handgun were kept by the Mexican government and DEA.

Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo was arrested almost by accident on April 10 on a ranch in Puerto Vallarta, owned by Commander Candelario Ramos, Police Chief of Ameca, Jalisco. The two faced charges for the murder of Camarena and were sentenced to 40 years in prison in 1989.

That year Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo was also arrested in his home in Zapopan, Jalisco. The Three Sinaloans, as they were called now by the press, began serving sentences of more than 40 years in Mexican prisons.

Caro Quintero's 4 year stay at Mexico City's Reclusorio Norte prison was not a bad one. He paid good money to have an wing built for 600 prisoners exclusively for himself and his cronies. He had access to private prison patios and fruit trees, had his own chef and didnt have to eat prison food. Only the best meals and meats for the 32 year old kingpin.

He was allowed access to televisions, stereo equipment, fine liquors, clothing and money. He had his own private clinic ready to treat any malady that afflicted Caro. He was also allowed to have lavish birthday parties where he brought the finest Sinaloan brass bands at the time, like Banda La Costena and Los Coyonquis.

Upon discovery of a tunnel leading to Caro's prison penthouse, his priveleges were cut and he was transferred to the new Almoloya de Juarez prison. There he remained until 2005 when he was transferred to Puente Grande prison.

On January 6, 2006, Guadalajara news stations broke the sensational news that the famous kingpin had escaped Puente Grande, as has fellow protege Joaquin Guzman Loera "El Chapo" 5 years before.

The news turned out to be false. CCTV images of a down looking Caro were issued by the prison to show that Rafael, was still indeed a federal guest at Mexico's number two prison. In 2008, he was transferred to Matamoros prison where he joined his brother Miguel Angel, arrested in 2001 in Los Mochis.

Movies about his life were made, books were written and dozens of corridos praising his exploits and career as one of Mexico's founding fathers of the drug trade. To this day, his four children, 2 girls, and 2 boys are in their mid to late 20's. Some are lawyers and the others accountants. According to a 2002 interview with a Mexican newsmagazine, Rafael Caro Quintero is a broken tired man who can only give one piece of advice to the youth of the world:

"Dont mess with drugs".

"Find yourself, build towards your future. If not, then you're worthless" - Rafael Caro Quintero