In 1985, Mexican narcotics traffickers kidnapped Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, an undercover U.S. drug agent, and brought him to a safe house near Guadalajara. There Camarena was tortured for several hours, then murdered; his body was dumped in a ravine. Camarena's execution nearly derailed U.S.-Mexican relations, threatened to undermine sensitive trade negotiations nearly a decade later, and haunts the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to this day.
It wasn't just the murder, or even its grisly style, that so provoked U.S. officials. It was the suspicion, underscored by testimony at a subsequent federal trial in Los Angeles, that top members of Mexico's government had been party to the crime. In particular, as reported in Time magazine in 1990, drug figures may have kidnapped Camarena to prevent him from outing Mexico's minister of defense as a drug dealer. “A cartel bodyguard turned government witness testified that a few months before the abduction, [his boss] told the other alleged conspirators that Camarena should be interrogated on what he knew about 'my general,' referring to General Juan Arevalo Gardoqui, then Mexico's secretary of defense,” Time reported. “U.S. officials claim that a transcript of a torture-interrogation session, which the kidnappers taped, shows that Camarena was asked about Arevalo [Gardoqui].”
That particular tape recording was never produced, and some of the testimony provided by the DEA at the trial of Camarena's accused killers was later cast into doubt. But DEA informants, and testimony at other trials before and since, established that despite his charge as head of the nation's anti-drug effort, Arevalo Gardoqui maintained strong ties to Mexico's leading drug cartels. In one 1988 case, DEA agents reported learning from a Mexican military officer that Arevalo Gardoqui had collected a $10 million bribe from the very traffickers later convicted of killing Camarena.
Now, in a bizarre twist to the case, federal documents obtained by the Weekly show that, in 1993, the DEA used a confidential informant to monitor the purchase of massive quantities of cocaine from representatives of Arevalo Gardoqui in Mexico. DEA records show that the agency smuggled at least 967 kilograms of that cocaine into the U.S. and used it in a sting operation against dealers the DEA suspected were being supplied by Mexican drug cartels. Thus, instead of building a case against Arevalo Gardoqui, the DEA authorized its informant to make payments to his associates, including the general's nephew, Miguel Arevalo Lopez. As a result of the sting, the DEA arrested several other, lower-profile drug dealers, including Riverside County dealer Juan Benito Castro.
The DEA's relationship with Arevalo Gardoqui surfaced as a result of Castro's 1995 federal trial in Orange County. After a prolonged legal battle, Castro defense attorney David Dudley obtained a mountain of DEA paperwork, including the documents that named Arevalo Gardoqui and his nephew. Those records show that Castro came to the agency's attention as one of the intended recipients of a February 1993 shipment of 348 kilograms the agency's informant had obtained from Arevalo Gardoqui's drug ring.
DEA officials, federal prosecutors and the media made much of Castro's arrest, hailing it as a major victory in the war on drugs. The capture of Arevalo Gardoqui, however, would have represented a more impressive victory.
According to the memoranda produced at Castro's trial, the DEA first learned that Arevalo Gardoqui was the source of the cocaine for its Southern California sting operation in February 1993, years after the general was linked to the Camarena case. On February 25, just three days before the deal for the 348 kilos went through, the buyer told the DEA agent who was handling him that “the owner of the cocaine was Miguel Arevalo Lopez's uncle, Juan Arevalo Gardoqui. Arevalo Gardoqui, according to the informant, is a general in the Mexican army and the past Mexican minister of defense.”
It seems hard to believe that the agency would ignore such a tip, and ignore the crimes of a man accused of abetting – even participating in, according to the testimony of two witnesses – the torture and murder of one of the DEA's own agents. But there's no evidence that the agency ever alerted Mexican authorities.
And the deal went forward. In fact, a March 5 DEA report shows that the agency authorized payments by the traffickers totaling $75,000 to Arevalo Gardoqui's nephew and his associates “in order to preserve the investigation and detract any suspicion” of the DEA's informant “being involved in law enforcement.”
Arevalo Gardoqui's nephew, Miguel Arevalo Lopez, who met repeatedly with the DEA informant arranging the transaction, received $20,000 for his role in the deal. So did a Mexican federal judicial police officer named Arturo Granados.
A month later, on April 8, the same informant successfully obtained another 639 kilos from Granados, according to a DEA report. The haul was transported across the Calexico border by DEA agents posing as drivers and brought to an undercover warehouse for testing. The report, which is heavily redacted, is unclear on what happened next. But subsequent DEA reports show that, possibly as a result of the DEA's sting activity, Granados now owed $500,000 to Arevalo Lopez's uncle, whom the DEA's informant once again identified as Arevalo Gardoqui. According to an April 8 report, Arevalo Lopez told the informant that “his uncle [name not mentioned] was angry with Granados.” Acting on this tip a few weeks later, the DEA called Granados at his hotel room in Mexicali and suggested that Granados “turn himself into the U.S. Customs office at the Calexico port of entry, instead of facing the traffickers and risking putting his life in jeopardy.”
Granados never followed through on this offer, apparently deciding to stay in Mexico. Five years later, the DEA says it still has an active warrant for Granados' arrest should he ever enter the U.S. The DEA also claimed that an intelligence report from agency sources in Mexico had determined that Arevalo Lopez was “understood to be in prison in Mexico,” but the DEA wasn't certain if that arrest was “narcotics related.”
As for Arevalo Gardoqui, Special Agent Sharon Carter, the DEA public-affairs coordinator in Los Angeles, claimed the agency didn't have sufficient evidence to indict him. “We've got a million targets in Mexico we'd like to go after,” she said. “He was involved in this case, but there was nothing we could get him on. Even if Gardoqui came into the U.S. today, we still wouldn't have enough evidence to convict him.”
The timing of the DEA's sting operation may help explain Arevalo Gardoqui's kid-glove treatment. The DEA tip came just nine months before January 1, 1994, when the U.S. and Mexico were set to implement the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Highly controversial – in part because of Mexico's perceived lapses in fighting the U.S. drug war – NAFTA was the centerpiece of the Clinton administration's first term, an accomplishment Bill Clinton hoped would firmly establish his credentials as a political moderate and global leader. Always politically fragile, NAFTA might have foundered on precisely the kind of evidence the DEA now appeared to have against Arevalo Gardoqui.
As reflected in the agency's records, the DEA collaboration with Arevalo Gardoqui began in late 1992, when the Riverside DEA Task Force first began seeking Mexican shipments it could track to set up a Riverside-area sting operation called “Operation Redi-Mix.” According to DEA records, the sting “utilized undercover officers acting in the capacity of a trucking company to transport multihundred-kilogram quantities of cocaine from the U.S.-Mexico border.” Following the deliveries of the cocaine, DEA records show “controlled deliveries were made to . . . traffickers in the Inland Empire. This allowed investigating officers to identify stash houses, co-conspirators and distributors of narcotics in the United States.”
One of those distributors, Juan Castro, was sentenced at the federal courthouse in Santa Ana last year and will spend the rest of his life in a federal prison. Meanwhile, Arevalo Gardoqui has continued to evade prosecution, never having been formally charged with any crime. According to Mexican journalists who spoke with the Weekly, he has retired from the Mexican armed forces and is now rumored to live on a private ranch in northern Mexico.