How a Dogged L.A. DEA Agent Unraveled the CIA's Alleged Role in the Murder of Kiki Camarena
Photo by Ted Soqui
In January 1989, Hector Berrellez reported to Los Angeles, handpicked by the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to get to the bottom of a 4-year-old murder investigation that was a top agency priority. This wasn't just another killing in the seemingly endless bloodshed in the Mexican drug wars; the victim, like Berrellez, was a DEA agent. Enrique "Kiki" Camarena had been kidnapped, tortured and murdered at the hands of a Mexican drug cartel four years earlier. The identity of the killers was clear enough; two cartel bosses had been convicted of the killings and were imprisoned in Mexico. But the DEA had reason to believe there were many more guilty parties in addition to the two capos behind bars.
Berrellez was 42 at the time. A former homicide cop, he'd joined the DEA more than a decade earlier as a prized recruit, a thrill-seeker and trained investigator who spoke Spanish without a trace of an American accent — a natural-born undercover narc. He was posted to DEA operations in Colombia and Mexico, living under assumed identities, infiltrating the Medellín cartel, the Cali cartel, the Guadalajara cartel. " I was good," he says. "I could penetrate cartels as Mexican. When I was asked if I was a cop, I'd tell them, 'Yo ni tengo papeles!'"
One retired fellow agent called him the Wyatt Earp of the DEA. His supervisor in the Los Angeles office said Berrellez had better sources than the CIA. But of the 200 investigations Berrellez had run in his 12 years with the administration, the Camarena case would be the one where he got more information than he bargained for.
Given his experience, Berrellez was an appropriate choice to lead the investigation. Nonetheless, on the day he got the assignment from DEA headquarters, he believed he was the butt of a practical joke. It was December 1988, a month after his cover had been blown in Mexico and he and his wife and children had to be evacuated from Mazatlán under threat of death. A month of kicking around his hometown of South Tucson, Arizona, on administrative leave, bored stiff, steeling his excitable nerves for a desk job in Phoenix. Boy, the guys must have really pulled out all the stops this time; the woman's voice on the phone sounded official: "Yes, Agent Berrellez, please hold for the administrator." Berrellez was a proud rank-and-file agent, wary of Washington, D.C.; he'd managed to fly under the radar at headquarters. He had certainly never fielded a call from the administrator before, and what he expected to hear now were the snickers of his fellow agents over speakerphone, not the voice of Jack Lawn asking if he would like to take over the investigation code-named Operation Leyenda.
Los Angeles D-Fenders
TicketsFri., Feb. 24, 7:30pm
Los Angeles Clippers v San Antonio Spurs - Verified Resale Tickets
TicketsFri., Feb. 24, 7:30pm
CSUN Womens Basketball vs. Uc Riverside Highlanders Womens Basketball
TicketsSat., Feb. 25, 4:00pm
Los Angeles Lakers v San Antonio Spurs - Verified Resale Tickets
TicketsSun., Feb. 26, 12:30pm
The Camarena murder had prompted the largest homicide investigation in DEA history, but the results had been disappointing to Lawn. Time magazine ran a cover story about the lingering doubts in the Camarena investigation a month before Berrellez accepted his transfer to Los Angeles, where he would work the case.
"People wanted to run Leyenda for the glory, so they could get face time with headquarters and stuff like that," recalls Michael Holm, supervisor of the Los Angeles office during Berrellez's tenure there. "There is no glory investigating the death of a DEA agent. There is justice, but there is no glory."
The DEA had a list of men in power in Mexico it believed were involved, but the agency had been unable to gain traction with the government in Mexico. The killers had recorded the torture of the agent, and after much diplomatic wrangling the CIA obtained copies; eventually the DEA was able to listen to the voices of the interrogators — not the voices of angry druglords but rather trained Mexican officials with ice in their veins. Berrellez says he was ordered to find out who those voices belonged to.
One of those voices, he recalls Lawn telling him, belonged to a Mexican physician named Humberto Álvarez Machaín. Dr. Machaín was believed to have injected Camarena with amphetamines to keep him awake and alert to questions even though he was dying. Berrellez says Lawn wanted him to kidnap Dr. Machaín and bring him before a judge in Los Angeles.
Berrellez recalls that Lawn asked, "'And how much is this little operation going to run?'
"I said, 'I don't know. Maybe $200,000. I have to offer [the informants] good money. They'll kidnap the president if you want.'
"Everybody started laughing, and he says, 'You're that confident?' I said, 'Of course I am. I've worked Mexico. I know what I can do in Mexico.' So he said, 'OK, do it.' And we did it."
The story of the Camarena investigation should by now be ancient history, but the story keeps changing — new facts are added, old facts are taken away. Last year, Lawn denied ever having had direct contact with Berrellez during Operation Leyenda and claimed Berrellez was never in charge of it. Those claims, made to journalists Charles Bowden and Molly Molloy and published in the online magazine Matter , run contrary to the lengthy public record of the Camarena investigation, including the trials of the four suspects Berrellez eventually helped convict for the murder.
Even the mementos Berrellez keeps on display in the office of his private security firm in Riverside appear to contradict Lawn's statement: A signed letter of commendation from Lawn hangs in a frame in the reception room, and a nameplate engraved with "Hector Berrellez" and "Leyenda Supervisor" rests atop the large oak desk in his office.
Berrellez proudly displays his nameplate engraved "Leyenda Supervisor" in the office of his private security firm.
Photo by Ted Soqui
Sitting behind the desk in a leather chair, Berrellez is sturdy and strong-looking. His rugged face is like skin draped over stone. He says Lawn's disavowal hit him hard, amplifying the feeling that he is being erased, isolated, consigned to a lunatic fringe. "I'll tell you the truth — I'm still in fear," he says. "But I'm 68 years old and I've lived a good life, and if I die at least I'm not going to carry this to my grave. I'm not. I'm not going to carry it to my grave."
The plan was simple. Berrellez would have a budget of $3 million a year and a team of 20 agents. From the DEA office in Los Angeles, he would track down the insiders willing to trade privileged information for cash.
He began by reaching out to people of importance he knew in Mexico — higher-ups in law enforcement, lifers in the underworld — and, with their guidance, he built up a network of informants that his then-supervisor in Los Angeles still regards with a sense of awe. Berrellez had informants at Los Pinos (the Mexican White House), informants at the Mexican attorney general's office and informants who were lieutenant colonels in army intelligence. They told him who in the government was protecting the drug cartels. Berrellez was paying some of them as much as $10,000 a month.
He also was matching wits with organized crime in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. Twenty-three informants from Operation Leyenda were murdered while Berrellez was supervisor or shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, he managed to bring over to the United States as many as 200 informants and place them in witness protection, quarantined from one another — indeed, unaware of who was in this country — as a precaution to prevent them from comparing notes. Ten of the informants were eyewitnesses to the kidnapping and murder of Kiki Camarena.
Of the 10, three agreed to be interviewed for this story. They are old men living humble, ordinary lives in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The DEA paid them between $3,000 and $5,000 a month to be debriefed and then sit tight and wait to testify. Once they had outlived their use as witnesses, they had to earn a living on their own. One worked as a contractor repairing washers and dryers. Another clocked in at a factory at 6 a.m. and manufactured metal siding for 10 hours a day. A third worked as a security guard. They were cops in Mexico, cops turned bodyguards for the most powerful narcos who ever lived. Nothing of their lives in Mexico remains, not even their names.
Another of the witnesses, the deputy director of the Federal Police, was killed in Texas in 2003. Before he died, though, he warned Berrellez to get far away from the Camarena case. "The whole case stinks, and if you don't step away you'll stink, too," Berrellez recalls him saying. "Your own government killed Camarena."
At the time, Berrellez didn't believe him.
When two Mexican state police kidnapped Camarena in broad daylight across the street from the United States Consulate on Feb. 7, 1985, it signaled a change in Mexico. Guadalajara, a budding metropolis in the balmy Pacific West, had given birth to a crime syndicate that seemed drawn from myth, a beast that emerged full-grown before the disbelieving eyes of the general public in Mexico and the United States. As late as 1983, the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control was praising Mexico as a world leader for "virtually eliminating marijuana production" and having "substantially reduced opium cultivation."
By the time Camarena's badly decomposed corpse turned up several weeks after his abduction, U.S. agents in Mexico had exposed the ballyhooed success of the drug war as a farce perpetrated by Mexican authorities in league with the traffickers. The Federal Security Directorate (DFS), a Mexican police agency modeled on the FBI and in part created by the CIA, dismissed a fifth of its personnel in the wake of the Camarena murder; 19 of the 31 state-level commanders were replaced.
In its first weeks, the Camarena investigation zeroed in on two prime murder suspects, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo and Rafael Caro Quintero, prototypes of the Mexican druglords eventually referred to simply as narcos: roughneck, mustachioed, steely-eyed billionaires. Fonseca, 54 at the time of the Camarena murder, was the elder. Nicknamed Don Neto, he was the last word in the Mexican drug trade, the Mexican equal of Pablo Escobar. A bodyguard of Fonseca's interviewed for this story said he saw his boss answer a call from the Mexican Navy relaying a request from Escobar for permission to dock a boatload of cocaine on the Yucatán Peninsula. ("And Escobar came to Guadalajara and they settled their business and there was a party for the next three days," the bodyguard says.)
Caro Quintero, 21 years younger than Fonseca, was the enfant terrible of the Mexican drug trade, an overnight billionaire who was initially staked by Fonseca and later became his partner in the Guadalajara cartel. Caro Quintero's ambitions were the biggest of all the narcos. Those who worked for him recall a man given to brutality, who did whatever he felt like doing the moment the impulse hit him — he bragged to one of Fonseca's bodyguards about tying up a commander in the Federal Police and beating him to a pulp for neglecting to protect a load of marijuana that ended up confiscated.
The closest confidant to Fonseca among the men in his security detail is now 67 years old. He wears metal-frame glasses, simple slacks and a button-down shirt, and has a thick white cowboy mustache. He is clear-spoken and deliberate in what he has to say. For years after the Camarena murder, he lived in seclusion in Guadalajara, switching from one motel to the next every few days, contacting his family only by pay phone. The fear is still great enough that even with a new identity, he will not permit the Weekly to reveal his old or new name. He asks that he be called Ramón Sánchez. "For us this is partly about revenge," he says about his motives for talking to a reporter. "Revenge for all those who have suffered, for all the dead. Because only God can pardon us for what we have done. And I ask for His forgiveness all the time."
Like the other members of the security detail, Sánchez was introduced to Fonseca by his supervisor in the homicide division of the Jalisco State Police. Sánchez stood guard over Fonseca at meetings and parties. On occasion late at night, Fonseca would get the notion to go for a drive, and would take Sánchez along for company: "Him getting high the whole time, behind the wheel of a convertible gray Mustang, smoking a cigarette of freebase cocaine. Me in the passenger seat with my AK-47 and a grenade on my hip."
Fonseca revealed secrets to Sánchez, secrets Sánchez revealed to no one else, convinced it was a test of his discretion. "I heard about things when we were alone and he was high and no one else was around." Fonseca told him about trips he made to see the contras in Honduras and Nicaragua. He described a military barracks full of cocaine. "He told me when he went there he had the base all to himself as a warehouse for cocaine while the contras slept outside in the field. He used to laugh and say, 'How will they ever catch us?'"
Sánchez was with Fonseca on Feb. 7, 1985. "I was in the house on Hidalgo, and he told me, 'You're coming with me. We're going to grab an agent with DEA. They're going to point him out to us.'" They parked on a side street two blocks away from the U.S. Consulate. Gangsters and crooked federal cops had set up a perimeter around the exit; once Camarena stepped out, there would be no escape.
Fonseca handed Sánchez a two-way radio and instructed him to listen for a message: "The doctor has seen the patient."
René López Romero, another bodyguard of Fonseca's who would later become an informant, approached Camarena and held a gun to the agent's abdomen, forcing him into a waiting car: "The comandante wants to see you." López recalls that an American in the front seat of that car had pointed out Camarena to his abductors. Says López: "This white guy came by in the morning. And he told Don Neto and Caro, 'I have the information you asked for. Nothing has changed from what I told you before.' And it all worked out exactly as he said it would."
The decision to kidnap Camarena resulted from meetings in Guadalajara in November and December of 1984. Something was amiss in the drug traffickers' paradise. The narcos were aggrieved. A marijuana plantation of theirs had been raided in the central state of Zacatecas. Millions of dollars in cocaine had been seized in Arizona. Bank accounts in Texas had been frozen.
All of this was a prelude to the Buffalo.
On Nov. 7, 1984, Camarena led Mexican authorities in a world record-setting drug raid on the Buffalo Ranch in the northern state of Chihuahua. The Buffalo was a 1,300-acre marijuana plantation with an estimated labor force of 7,000 and a 10-ton yield of high-grade sinsemilla valued at $2.5 billion — the largest field ever put to the torch by law enforcement.
The Buffalo was Caro Quintero's pride and joy, and the narco took its immolation as a personal affront. The name of the DEA agent responsible wasn't mentioned in the meetings, but there could be no mistaking what they were prepared to do when they found him. The Buffalo raid also set off fear of a security breach in the Guadalajara organization, since the Federal Police and army officers who'd been paid to protect the plantation hadn't managed to issue a warning.
Another bodyguard, Jorge Godoy, was at several of the meetings. Godoy was born in Mexico but grew up in L.A. and graduated from Bell High School. He moved back to Guadalajara with his family after the U.S. Army rejected him because he had no papers. Godoy begins to perspire as he recalls the events of 30 years ago. He licks his lips, his knee bounces, his hands tremble, his eyes widen. He served four years in Mexico as an accessory to the Camarena murder — which he says he took no part in. He credits Berrellez with saving his life by pulling him out of Mexico to become an informant.
At the meetings in Guadalajara in 1984, Godoy moved around the room amid the lively discussions emptying ashtrays, refilling glasses of cognac and serving freshly rolled cigarettes of freebase cocaine. The bodyguards recall a list of attendees that lent the seedy gathering the air of a state summit: Jalisco governor Enrique Alvarez del Castillo; secretary of the interior Manuel Bartlett Díaz; secretary of defense Juan Arevalo Gardoqui; director of Interpol Mexico, Miguel Aldana Ibarra; DFS director Sergio Espino Verdin; General Vinicio Santoyo Feria; and a man they knew as "the Cuban with the CIA."
Sánchez says he saw the Cuban for the first time at Fonseca's house in May or June of 1984, but never caught his name. Fonseca had ordered Sánchez to receive a delivery that would be brought by two important guests: one a captain in the Mexican army, the other the Cuban with the CIA. The two men opened the crate of AK-47s in the living room, and the one in the canary yellow polo held one of the rifles in his arms and remarked in a Cuban accent: "These are what the Vietnamese carried in the war." The captain said his companion had been a combatant in the war.
"It was the way he talked," López says. "The accent. We called him cubano, since we hardly ever referred to anyone by name."
Godoy says he first met the Cuban at a safe house near the Autonomous University of Guadalajara. "It's an unbelievable estate, with a golf course out back and a cabana and everything. Ernesto Fonseca stuck us there because some VIPs were on their way. That was where we saw this guy take away duffel bags and suitcases filled with dollars given to them by Don Ernesto [Fonseca]."
López says the last time he saw the Cuban was on the afternoon he delivered Camarena bound and blindfolded to Fonseca's house on Lope de Vega. The group of distinguished guests was gathered in the living room, as though for a social occasion. The air carried the coconut scent of freebase cocaine. "That was the biggest meeting, the last one. Everyone was there. All of them, all of the bosses, the politicians. That was the biggest meeting of all."
Sánchez draws a floor plan of the house on Lope de Vega: off the main foyer to the left, a spacious living room where the guests were being entertained; to the right a hallway leading to the driveway behind a tall gate and the modest visitors quarters where Camarena was questioned and beaten. "It wasn't that they beat him," Sánchez says. "They broke him physically."
Retired senior DEA administrator Phil Jordan, one of a few friends Berrellez had at DEA headquarters, warned Berrellez to keep his head down — the bosses were discussing extraditing him to Mexico.
Photo by Ted Soqui
Behind a closed door in the visitors quarters, Camarena sat bound and blindfolded. His torturers were calling through the door for a towel to clean up the mess they had made shooting a mix of carbonated water and chili pepper up Camarena's nose. López brought them towels and stayed inside the room to watch. He says the Cuban was the one asking the questions.
López thickens his consonants in imitation of a Cuban accent: "'Hey, muchacho, just tell us what we want to know and you can leave. Tell us what you're investigating. What is all of this about? I'll tell the boys here to lay off so you and I can talk.'"
What did the Cuban want to know? "Which narcos, which politicians was DEA investigating for ties to drug traffickers. He wanted him to reveal the details of the investigation he was working on. 'Give us names.' They seemed to assume the United States already knew about them. Like all they needed was for him to say it to confirm their worst fear."
But Camarena didn't seem to have the information. They hit him, kicked him, broke his ribs, his jaw. He groaned in pain. "He kept saying, 'We investigate drug trafficking and drug traffickers. We investigate where they plant drugs." López says eventually the Cuban washed his hands of the prisoner and returned to the living room. Before he left, López heard him tell Camarena, "'Now you're going to get your head kicked in, for being a fool.'"
Berrellez knew the capos from Guadalajara. In the late 1980s he'd been stationed not far away in Mazatlán for an eventful two years, until the DEA evacuated him and his family. Several retired agents who know Berrellez speak with a note of reverence about a two-hour gun battle he and a joint task force of DEA and Mexican Federal Police waged against a team of cartel gunmen; Berrellez rescued three wounded Federal Police officers and had them airlifted to a hospital in San Diego, an act that earned him the Attorney General's Award for Exceptional Heroism.
When Berrellez returned his focus to Mexico in 1989 to investigate the larger forces behind the Camarena killing, Fonseca and Caro Quintero already had been convicted and sentenced. A third capo, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, had assumed control of the crime syndicate until he, too, was captured and likewise convicted and sentenced in 1989.
Berrellez tracked down Sánchez, López and Godoy and offered them an escape from the purgatory their lives had become since the day they witnessed the Camarena murder. He gave each of the men his word that he wouldn't arrest them. He flew them to L.A., where federal prosecutors required each of them to sign an official letter acknowledging that the penalty for false statements was the relinquishment of immunity and prosecution for the Camarena murder.
One day Berrellez spread 10 photographs across his desk and called the witnesses in one at a time. "I used to work homicide," he says. "I know how to do a police lineup." Most of the photos were of people with no connection to the Camarena murder. Which of the men in these photos was in the room with Camarena? One after another, the witnesses pointed to the same photo.
"I picked out the Cuban right away," López recalls. "I didn't forget a face so easily."
The Cuban's name was Felix Rodríguez. He was retired CIA.
(Rodríguez could not be reached for comment. He has denied to Matter any involvement in the attack on Camarena.)
The three informants and several others who were close to the drug traffickers in Guadalajara also mentioned to Berrellez an intriguing figure, a gringo who worked with DFS. He was very tall (they nicknamed him Torre Blanca, or White Tower) and very blond. Considering the company he kept, they said, he must have information about Camarena's murder. It took almost a year for Berrellez's team in Mexico to track down Lawrence Harrison in the Native American village where he'd been hiding in the mountains of southern Mexico. Harrison was frightened; the DEA wasn't the only organization looking for him.
Once in the safety of Berrellez's office in L.A., Harrison told his story. He said he was a CIA agent who was trained in Virginia and assigned to pose as an English instructor at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara. He was to infiltrate the leftist student groups on campus and point out their leaders to the Mexican authorities. He said the students he identified invariably disappeared. Harrison found he didn't have the stomach for the political espionage, so his control agent reassigned him to handle radio communication between DFS and the drug traffickers in Guadalajara they were assigned to protect.
Berrellez was perplexed. "I thought he was 5150," he says. "Which is, I thought Larry was crazy. I said, I got a crazy guy here on my hands."
But a crazy person doesn't have two identities — at least not two that are recognized by the federal government. And Harrison had two identities. After his fingerprints revealed him to be Lawrence Harrison, he had Berrellez run them under a different name, George Marshall Davis. That name also was a match. The man sitting in Berrellez's office existed in the federal database under two separate but legal identities. "Now do you believe I work for the CIA?" Harrison asked him. Berrellez replied, "I believe you, dude. Now I believe you."
Berrellez got on a secure phone line and called Pete Gruden, a DEA administrator in Washington, D.C. "I said, 'Pete, this guy is telling me some incredible shit. He's talking like a crazy man but he doesn't look crazy.'" Gruden told Berrellez not to report anything the witness said until Harrison could be flown to headquarters to complete a battery of lie-detector tests with the DEA's top examiner.
Berrellez's first interview with Harrison was 25 years ago, but one wouldn't know from the wonder still audible in his voice as he tells the story. "It wasn't like I just believed all this crap at first. I was as incredulous as anybody else." Harrison talked about Nicaragua. He talked about drug money being used to support the contras. Death squads being trained at Caro Quintero's ranch in Mexico. The murder of a Mexican journalist. He said things that offended Berrellez's sense of patriotism, his sense of loyalty to the government he served. "Hector," the witness told him, "the CIA killed Camarena."
Gruden sent Harrison back to Los Angeles after three days of polygraph testing in D.C. The results struck Berrellez with the force of an ill omen. Little did he know they would usher in the end of his decorated career and lead to his alienation from his family. He would become an outcast from the agency to which he'd devoted half his life: "Three days of polygraph testing, no deception indicated," Berrellez says. "He was telling the fucking truth."
At DEA headquarters, the report Berrellez filed on Lawrence Harrison was stamped SECRET and NOT FOR FOREIGN DISSEMINATION. According to Berrellez, Harrison's statement, filed March 9, 1990, has the distinction of being the only official mention of CIA involvement in the Camarena killing. The reason for the secrecy was a matter of protocol: Neither Berrellez nor DEA had the jurisdiction to investigate charges made against a separate federal agency.
Headquarters was going to notify the Office of the Inspector General, and Berrellez says he was instructed to file all future information pertaining to the CIA on secret memoranda — not official DEA investigative reports, which are accessible through court discovery and information requests — for the agency to forward to the Inspector General. Berrellez complied. "I believed them. I had no reason to doubt anything. I was a good soldier."
Felix Rodríguez officially retired from the Central Intelligence Agency in 1976. Little of what he did in his two decades with the agency is public knowledge, a fact alluded to in the title of his 1989 memoir Shadow Warrior: The CIA Hero of a Hundred Unknown Battles.
Born in Cuba, Rodríguez was part of a movement of young anti-Castro exiles who joined the CIA in 1960, the year after Fidel Castro's revolution succeeded in overthrowing Fulgencio Bautista. In his late teens, Rodríguez trained at a CIA-run paramilitary camp in Guatemala in preparation for the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. He told The National Review he volunteered to assassinate Castro in 1960 and that the agency supplied him a German rifle with a telescopic sight for the job, but the mission went awry and was abandoned.
Rodríguez resurfaced with the agency in Bolivia in 1967, assisting the Bolivian army in the capture of Ernesto "Che" Guevara; Rodríguez was present for Guevara's summary execution in Bolivia. He worked on the Phoenix Project, a counterinsurgency mission in South Vietnam, from 1970 to 1972. In Vietnam, he formed a close bond with his station chief, Donald Gregg, who would later serve as national security adviser to Vice President George Bush.
Even after he was no longer on the agency payroll, Rodríguez remained active in covert operations. In 1983, six years after Rodríguez had officially retired, Gregg introduced him in a memo to then–National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane as the person who "now is in charge of what is left of the paramilitary capability at CIA."
Rodríguez testified at the Iran-Contra hearings in 1988 that his support for the contras consisted of the delivery of medical supplies. He was called to answer for his activities again the following year, this time before the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations. He maintained that he supported the contras as a private citizen and denied working in conjunction with the U.S. government: "No, sir, it was with donations that were given in Miami, and there was a collection made by the Cuban community who strongly support them."
Private citizen or not, Rodríguez didn't conceal his powerful friends in Washington. He met with the vice president at the White House on Jan. 22, 1985. The purpose of meeting with Rodríguez, Bush noted in his diary, was "to inform the Vice President that Mr. Rodríguez wanted to work in El Salvador against the insurgency."
In February 1985, Gregg assigned Rodríguez to Ilopango Air Base in El Salvador as an adviser in antiguerrilla operations to the Salvadoran air force. Iran-Contra Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh later found Rodríguez also was acting as a liaison between the Salvadoran air force and Oliver North's private arms supply to the contras.
The first public accusation that Rodríguez's aid to the contras involved drug trafficking came in a 1987 Miami Herald story. A money-laundering accountant for the Medellín cartel in Miami, Ramón Milian Rodríguez, told congressional investigators he funneled drug money to the contra cause on behalf of the CIA. Milian claimed to have paid a cash donation of $10 million to Rodríguez. Milian, who was under federal indictment, said his payment was an attempt to curry favor with the Justice Department.
For all of Rodríguez's activity in Latin America in support of the contras, there was no mention of him having been in Mexico — at least not until Terry Reed, an ex–contract pilot for the CIA's contra supply effort, published his memoir Compromised in 1996. In the book, part of a subgenre of confessional autobiography from high-flying pilots of the era, Reed writes about how he met in secret with Rodríguez in Veracruz, Mexico, in August 1985.
Reed alleges he was recruited by the CIA to run a business front for a weapons warehouse and trans-shipment point in Guadalajara. He recalls that Rodríguez was one of several "key CIA assets in Miami, fanatic exile Cubans who helped the Agency carry out its black and dirty operations around the world and were being resurrected." According to Reed, Rodríguez boasted of being "'hand-selected by the White House' to set up and oversee this operation" and "prided himself on his ability to 'purchase' services for the Agency, which included 'bribes to Mexican ex-presidents on down.'"
Berrellez's investigation into the Camarena killing resulted in four convictions in U.S. federal court in 1992. Ruben Zuno Arce, a wealthy Mexican businessman and son-in-law to a former Mexican president, was convicted of kidnapping, as were Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros, a Honduran drug trafficker, and Juan Jose Bernabe Ramirez, a former Mexican policeman. Javier Vasquez Velasco was convicted of murdering two American tourists in Guadalajara on the orders of druglords who mistook them for DEA agents.
Another man allegedly involved in the Camarena killing got off far easier: the doctor who was believed to have injected him with adrenaline to keep him coherent while being tortured — the doctor who'd been kidnapped in April 1990 by Mexican bounty hunters working on Berrellez's orders.
A poster for the documentary Operación Leyenda shows Felix Rodríguez, left, Enrique “Kiki” Camarena and Rafael Caro Quintero.
"The shit hit the fan because it was all over the news that this doctor had been kidnapped by the DEA out of Mexico," says Berrellez, whose name was leaked as the orchestrator of the kidnapping. The Mexican government protested the kidnapping as a violation of national sovereignty and issued a warrant for Berrellez's arrest. They also demanded that Machaín be returned to Mexico. A district judge in Los Angeles dismissed the charges and ordered the doctor released.
Newly elected President Bill Clinton objected to the Machaín kidnapping, publicly apologized for it and negotiated with his Mexican counterpart, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, to ban cross-border kidnappings of Mexican citizens. In an op-ed in the L.A. Times, the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Mexico project wrote of Clinton: "He has taken it on the chin for the North American Free Trade Agreement."
Machaín returned to a hero's welcome in Mexico — and promptly filed a civil lawsuit against Berrellez, winning a multimillion-dollar judgment. It took a decade for Berrellez to get it overturned. "I couldn't buy a freaking car on credit," he says. And the financial distress speeded the dissolution of his marriage.
Throughout all of this, Berrellez felt crushed by the burden of what else he knew. He wanted to keep climbing the ladder. He believed that cabinet members of the Mexican government were involved in Camarena's murder. And he continued to file secret memos on possible CIA involvement.
Months went by without word from the Office of the Inspector General about an investigation. Berrellez's impatience did not win him favor with the DEA's new acting administrator, Terry Burke. Burke had 12 years in paramilitary operations with the CIA in Laos and trained Cuban exiles in Florida in preparation for the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Phil Jordan was one of a few friends Berrellez had at headquarters. Jordan warned Berrellez to keep his head down. The bosses were discussing extraditing him to Mexico on the Machaín warrant.
The DEA did not have the ability to investigate a separate federal agency, but it could investigate one of its own. Burke sent a team of investigators from internal affairs to interview Berrellez's informants, Godoy, Sánchez and López. They say they were asked if Berrellez coached them to lie, if he withheld payment from them, if he let them get together and get their stories straight. They said no, and internal affairs withdrew from Los Angeles. But Berrellez got the message.
Operation Leyenda had run its course. "The new administration was convinced it was time to shut it down," says Holm, the L.A. office's supervisor at the time. "But as long as Hector was in the field, he was going to continue with the investigation."
Berrellez was on his own but decided to press on anyway. And he caught one last big break.
The deputy director of the Federal Judicial Police in Mexico, a top-ranking insider named Guillermo González Calderoni, had run afoul of the powers that be in Mexico and wanted to jump ship. Calderoni's hands were dirty; he was another criminal with a badge and a rank that made him privy to secrets. He contacted Berrellez, who offered him an escape. "I had just saved his life," Berrellez says. "I pulled him out of Mexico, I got him a clean identity here, and I hid him in Palm Springs. He wanted to hide there because he was an avid golfer and there's a lot of golf courses out there."
Berrellez and Calderoni knew each other. The three federal agents Berrellez rescued in Mexico in that 1988 gun battle had been Calderoni's men. As a token of appreciation for saving his life, Calderoni gave Berrellez some advice: Get the hell out of the Camarena case. "The order to kill Camarena came from Felix Rodríguez of the CIA," Berrellez claims Calderoni told him. "Your own government killed Camarena."
The Mexican government charged Calderoni with embezzlement and consorting with drug cartels, and forced an extradition hearing for him to be sent back. Berrellez says he had evidence that the case against Calderoni was fabricated — and he disobeyed a direct order from headquarters not to testify on Calderoni's behalf. He told the judge an extradition was equivalent to a death sentence. Calderoni was spared extradition; Berrellez was transferred off Operation Leyenda to a desk job in Washington. He retired a year and a half later.
Calderoni was murdered in McAllen, Texas, in 2003.
In retirement, Berrellez remained silent — because the Machaín warrant remained enforceable and because he had enough problems in his personal life. Three decades of single-minded devotion to the DEA had left a gulf between he and his family. His personal life was a shambles. His first wife left him during the Machaín controversy. Then in 2006, his son, suffering through his own marital problems, committed suicide, leaving Berrellez to raise his two grandchildren.
"I felt like maybe if I had been closer to him or I could have advised him or would have been a father... I was always gone. I was a very dedicated agent. Birthdays I would be gone. I wouldn't be with him," Berrellez says. "So when that happened, that's when I went through a very depressive point in my life."
He did not consider going public with his views on the CIA's alleged role in the Camarena murder until Rafael Caro Quintero was unexpectedly released from a maximum-security prison on Aug. 9, 2013. The infamous capo had served 28 years of a 40-year prison sentence for the murder of Camarena when a state appeals panel ordered his release on a technicality. Caro's release brought things to a head for Berrellez, and he went public about Operation Leyenda two months later, in October 2013.
After the years it took for him to finally speak out, Berrellez found the media reaction anticlimactic. Fox News sent a film crew to interview Berrellez and other sources, but 90 percent of what he said was cut from the report that aired. Southwest newspapers such as the El Paso Times printed the story, and the drug-war journalist and author Charles Bowden penned a novelesque version for Matter — published in November 2014, after his death — titled "Blood on the Corn."
A CIA spokesman told Fox News: "It's ridiculous to suggest that the CIA had anything to do with the murder of a U.S. federal agent."
After Berrellez went public, Felix Rodríguez was invited to respond publicly by a Miami Spanish-language TV program. Retired senior DEA administrator Phil Jordan was invited to join the program by phone. "The guy threatened me that I would be hearing from his attorneys," Jordan says of Rodríguez. "And I told him on the air he can get my number from the interviewer, because there is nothing I would like more than to get him in a deposition. But I never heard from him."
Every year during the last week of October, the DEA and the National Family Partnership observe Red Ribbon Week to honor Kiki Camarena and to promote a drug-free lifestyle. Red Ribbon Week 2013 featured a panel on the Camarena investigation with former DEA administrator Lawn. Two weeks prior to the event, Berrellez had broken his decades-long silence about the CIA's alleged role in Camarena's murder. A retired agent in the audience at the DEA Museum asked Lawn to comment on Berrellez's claim. "As a youth I read Aesop's Fables," Lawn said. "This is another fable not worthy of individuals who would serve in DEA."
Berrellez's story found no such lack of interest in Mexico. The magazine Proceso ran a series of articles that singled out the political figures alleged to have been in the room while Camarena was tortured. Proceso ran a photo of Manuel Bartlett Díaz on its cover. Bartlett, who since the Camarena murder has been the governor of the state of Puebla and is currently a Mexican senator, denied the charges, calling the case "a settled matter." He denounced the allegations as "enormous lies" by three ex–police officers "who don't exist" and "won't show their faces."
Bartlett, an elder statesman in Mexican politics, dismisses the allegations made against him by corrupt policemen. U.S. Ambassador John Gavin, asked by journalist Dolia Estevez if he thought Bartlett was present during the Camarena incident, replied: "Do you really think the second most powerful official in the Mexican government would fly up to Guadalajara from Mexico City to have a drink with a notorious and sadistic narco-trafficker while they tortured and killed an American agent?
I repeat the question to Sánchez. "I saw him from as close as you and I are sitting," he says.
I pose the same question to López. "He has to defend himself," he says. "They'll never admit what we're saying is true."
López continues: "There is no alternate version to what I lived. This is my story. I'm not embellishing or adding the names of people who weren't actually there.
"It's like when I met Berrellez, I asked him, 'What do you expect to get out of this investigation?' He says, 'Heads will roll, come what may.' I told him I don't think so. He got upset and asked me if I thought I was still in Mexico. I told him, 'They're not going to let you get to the bottom of this. Wherever you go, it's the same story.'"
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.