The modest, salmon-colored building at 881 Lope de Vega street looks much like any other home in Guadalajara’s middle-class Jardines del Bosque neighborhood.
But behind the whitewashed walls, electric fence and barred windows is the house where one of the most infamous crimes in Mexican history took place.
Having just left the U.S. Consulate building on February 7, 1985, DEA Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was on his way to meet his wife for lunch when he was apprehended by corrupt members of Mexico’s federal security agency.
The agents blindfolded Camarena, forced him into their black Grand Marquis and drove him to the safe house on Lope de Vega to be interrogated by the leaders of the Guadalajara Cartel, then Mexico’s dominant drug-trafficking organization.
Camarena’s captors beat him repeatedly, burned his chest with cigarette butts and gunpowder, pulled out his fingernails and violated him with a broom handle. They even brought in a doctor to administer shots to keep him alive long enough to continue the interrogation.
An eyewitness would later testify in a Los Angeles courtroom that the Jalisco state governor and two federal cabinet members were present throughout the interrogation in order to ascertain what Camarena knew about their own links to the cartel.
After 30 hours of torture, Camarena finally died from a crowbar blow to the head. His body was eventually discovered a month later and many of the culprits were subsequently rounded up and convicted after the DEA launched Operation Leyenda, the biggest investigation in its history.
Was the CIA involved?
Thirty years on, Camarena’s death remains a source of great debate on both sides of the border. The controversy was reignited last September when Jesús Esquivel, the Washington correspondent for Mexico’s respected Proceso magazine, released a book suggesting that the CIA was directly involved in his abduction, torture and murder.
Largely based on interviews with former DEA supervisor Hector Berrellez, who oversaw Operation Leyenda, the book posits that during the mid-1980s the CIA helped the Guadalajara Cartel smuggle tons of cocaine into the United States in order to fund a dirty war against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government. In return, the cartel allegedly shipped arms and drug money to the Contras, right-wing rebels who were fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
The CIA has strongly denied any involvement in Camarena’s death but Esquivel believes the DEA agent had uncovered evidence of this unholy alliance shortly before he was murdered.
“That’s why they killed ‘Kiki’ Camarena, because he tried to denounce what the CIA was doing in Mexico,” the author told Mexico’s Vario Pinto magazine.
Esquivel also noted that Berrellez was convinced that the CIA was involved in the murder of Mexican investigative journalist Manuel Buendia, who was shot dead in 1984 shortly after the publication of his book “The CIA in Mexico.”
Esquivel’s book, entitled “La CIA, Camarena y Caro Quintero: La historia secreta,” met a largely uncritical reception in Mexico, where people are all too accustomed to tales of corruption and government conspiracies. But with no English-language version available, its release has been widely overlooked in the United States.
Witnesses say CIA agent was present
Aside from Berrellez’s input, the book relies heavily on the testimony of three dirty cops who worked for the Guadalajara Cartel and now live under witness protection in the United States.
The witnesses claim they saw Félix Rodríguez, a Cuban CIA agent, interrogating Camarena at the Guadalajara safe house hours before he was killed.
The mysterious Rodríguez had a long and eventful career with the CIA. He participated in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 and, six years later, helped capture and interrogate Ché Guevara before his execution in Bolivia. He then served in the Vietnam War before allegedly becoming involved with the Contras in the 1980s.
Rodríguez allegedly oversaw the arrival of arms shipments at the Guadalajara airport, while cartel kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero – who served 28 years for masterminding Camarena’s murder before being controversially released, under suspicious circumstances, on a technicality in 2013 – is said to have allowed the CIA to use his ranch in Veracruz as a training camp for the Contras.
It is practically impossible to confirm the veracity of the book because of its reliance on anonymous protected witnesses. The author substantiates his hypothesis by quoting a classified report containing damning testimony from former CIA agent Victor Lawrence Harrison, yet he did not actually speak to any of the CIA operatives who supposedly worked with the cartel.
Camarena killer on State Department payroll
Despite pages of detailed testimony, the book presents no concrete evidence to substantiate the claims of CIA involvement in Camarena’s death. However, it has been proven by current Secretary of State John Kerry that at least one of the killers was on the U.S. government payroll.
In 1986, Kerry, then a Massachusetts Senator, led an investigation into U.S. government involvement with drug traffickers and the Contras. Published in 1989, the Kerry Committee report revealed that the State Department paid $806,401 to four companies run by drug traffickers who had previously been investigated and in some cases “indicted by federal law enforcement agencies on drug charges.”
The payments included $186,924 to Honduran airliner SETCO “for the provision of humanitarian assistance to the Contras.” SETCO’s owner was Juan Matta Ballesteros, a powerful Honduran drug trafficker who served as the liaison between the Guadalajara Cartel and its Colombian suppliers and was considered responsible for smuggling vast quantities of cocaine into the United States.
Arrested in Honduras in 1988 and controversially extradited to the United States, Matta Ballesteros was convicted for participating in the kidnapping, torture and murder of Camarena. He is currently serving a 150-year sentence in a maximum-security prison in Colorado.
Reflecting on the payments made to known drug traffickers, Kerry concluded, “at best, these incidents represent negligence on the part of U.S. government officials responsible for providing support to the Contras. At worst it was a matter of turning a blind eye to the activities of companies who use legitimate activities as a cover for their narcotics trafficking.”