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July 25, 2022

The Arrest of Rafael Caro Quintero

Only July 15, Mexican Marines arrested Rafael Caro Quintero, one of the most infamous figures in the history of Mexican drug trafficking. To understand what Caro Quintero represents, and what his arrest means, the Mexico Violence Resource Project interviewed Benjamin Smith, author of The Dope for this newsletter exclusive:

1) What does Rafael Caro Quintero represent for drug trafficking in Mexico?

Caro Quintero is a narco Rorschach test. Show a picture of him to an American, and especially an American DEA agent, and they will conjure up every crude stereotype of the vicious, bloodthirsty and amoral trafficker. But in Mexico, rather like Chapo Guzmán, he has a much more ambiguous, even positive reputation.

On the one hand, Rafael Caro Quintero represents one of the last links between the old opium producers of the Sinaloa highlands and the modern drug traffickers of today. The name Caro Quintero still has real resonance in the highlands; it is one embedded in both revolutionary and narco mythology. Valentin Quintero was the protagonist in the famous revolutionary-era corrido; Gil Caro – together with Fidel Carrillo, Melesio Cuen, and Nacho Landell – set up Badiraguato’s first opium ring in the late 1930s; Manuela Caro – Rafael’s aunt – was one of the two or three top heroin chemists in the highlands during the 1960s; and his uncle Lamberto Quintero inspired one of the first narcocorridos a decade later.

So, when Rafael was born in a small Badiraguato hamlet in 1953 or 1956 (according to newspapers), 1954 (according to his 1985 confession) or 1952 (according to the DEA and the FBI), he was born into narco-aristocracy.

But Caro Quintero was not content to rely on his name only. In particular, he seemed to have a nose for shifts in the U.S. drug market. And he was quick to see the value in the counterculture demand for marijuana. His claims, that he stuck to growing marijuana do seem to be borne out by the evidence. He is first busted transporting 180 blocks of marijuana from Mexicali to Tijuana (most probably on behalf of the Sinaloa wholesaler Pedro Aviles Pérez) in 1971. And when he appears on the DEA radar in 1984, he is organizing vast irrigated marijuana farms, in Caborca, Sonora, Jerez Zacatecas and eventually in the famous El Bufalo ranch in Chihuahua.

On the other hand, Caro Quintero also fits easily into another folk archetype – the kind of Br-er rabbit figure, always cocking a snook at the establishment. He’s the narco lothario who is caught in a Costa Rica ranch with Sara Cosio, the daughter of a PRI bigwig; he’s the first billionaire trafficker who allegedly offered to pay off Mexico’s national debt; and he’s the gringo-killer and DEA-most wanted who managed to walk out of prison a free man in 2013 and remain on the run for nine years.


2) What does it tell us that he was still actively engaged at nearly 70 years old, despite having spent 28 years in jail?

I think that the level of his involvement is very much open to debate. The DEA – and the Mexican authorities – has certainly portrayed him as still involved. Shortly after his release, both groups claimed that he had joined up with the remnants of the Beltran Leyva cartel, was involved in the armed attack on El Chapo’s village of La Tuna, was “calentando la plaza” in northern Sinaloa villages like Guasave as well as around his old stomping ground of Caborca. The idea of Caro Quintero, the vengeful and power-hungry capo, coming to retake his prize, certainly helped the American authorities raise the reward for his capture to $20 million dollars.

But on the ground, there seemed to be little evidence for Caro Quintero playing such a role. In fact, traffickers that I have talked to, see him mostly as a peace-maker; they have given the nickname “El Buddy”; and they believe he was instrumental in calming down the conflicts between the Sinaloans and the Cartel Jalisco that struck Guadalajara during the first year of AMLO’s presidency.


3) Is the arrest (and anticipated extradition) a gamechanger?

So, in terms of how it changes the drug business. In short, not at all. Drugs will continue to be produced in Mexico; they will continue to be sold in Mexico and the United States; and they will continue to kill somewhere around 100,000 people a year. And they will continue to do so, until the addict population is whittled down or the US introduces functioning harm reduction facilities.

In terms, of cartel dynamics, if the DEA and the Mexican authorities are correct, and Caro Quintero was backing the remnants of the Beltran Leyva cartel (headed by Chapo Isidro) against the Sinaloans, then I suppose this is a victory for el Mayo and Los Chapitos. Like their father, los Chapitos  - in particular - seem be extremely fortunate in terms of the fate of their enemies. Furthermore, this capture will provide ample ammunition for those that suspect there is some sort of unspoken pact or agreement between the current AMLO administration and the Sinaloa cartel.

But it is in the sphere of US-Mexican relations that I think this capture has the most resonance. For four years, AMLO has resisted the US kingpin strategy, and pushed back against DEA oversight of Mexican security. No big traffickers have been caught; and the DEA’s favored ally, the Marines, have been shunted to one side in favor of the army. Suddenly, two weeks after asking Biden to reintroduce a revamped version of the old bracero program, the DEA and the marines are back, not only taking down any kingpin but the DEA’s highest value Mexican target.


Not every capture is a cleverly developed diplomatic ploy. And no doubt, the drug war throws up coincidences. But I don’t think this is one. But it remains to be seen what it is. Is it a one-off, a singular demonstration of good faith by AMLO in a broader political game? Or is it the beginning of a change of strategy, one in which the DEA and the marines are going to play a much bigger role?



What We’re Reading:

Social marginalization, migration, and unaddressed security issues all intersect in this essay about Cancún's irregular settlements. Ricardo Hernández Ruiz explores how the institutional failure to provide secure, regularized land tenure arrangements for the city’s working class has opened the door to multiple forms of violence, with women and girls experiencing perhaps the greatest harms.


What We’re Listening To:

Co-founder Cecilia Farfán spoke with Xavier Rodríguez Franco from Latinoamérica 21 for La Conversación on whether or not citizen security policies have worked in Latin America. As the region continues to be one of the most lethal in the world, what should governments do and how can citizens become part of the process?

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