Twenty-eight years after being imprisoned for the murder of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, Rafael Caro Quintero was released from a Mexican prison in Jalisco.
Caro Quintero, a notorious drug dealer, specialized in the mass production and distribution of marijuana and cocaine. He was serving a 40-year prison sentence.
For those of you too young to remember, the Camarena affair, which became the subject of a made-for-TV docudrama in the 1990s, marked a low point in U.S.-Mexico relations. Caro Quintero’s kidnapping and brutal murder of the DEA agent became a symbol of the failed war on drugs that had been so much a part of our foreign policy toward the region.
The decision to free the agent’s killer 12 years before his prison term was completed surprised U.S. Justice Department officials and angered the DEA, who in a public statement noted that it would continue to seek extradition of Caro Quintero.
According to a BBC report, Caro Quintero was released from his Jalisco jail cell in the middle of the night, having been informed by prison officials that a federal judge had overturned his conviction.
The specifics are not clear, but reports noted that the decision stated that Caro Quintero should have been tried in state court, not in the federal system.
Observers of Mexico’s judicial system note that the legal reasoning appeared suspect, given the ongoing complaints of bribery that still plagues the Mexican legal system.
What some also noted is that the release could inject new tensions in the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico’s president, Enrique Pena Nieto, early in his term.
Changes in Mexico are not enough
Ironically, in the last five years, Mexico has made great advances in its efforts for judicial reform, to establish a transparent and accountable legal system.
Changes to the Mexican constitution were directed at making the court system more open and reliable. Critics of these changes in the law note that they were the result of cooperation with the United States, and were considered to be a product of U.S. government interest rather than arising from the needs of Mexico.
U.S. government funds — from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) — provided over $66 million to support a large scale program of judicial reform. The pilot program was launched in the state of Chihuahua and included a revision of the criminal code, also providing more procedural guarantees for those accused of crimes.
Caro Quintero’s release raises questions
At a time when the U.S. and its hemispheric partners are all rethinking how to address the continued flow of illicit drugs from South America and Mexico into the U.S., the sudden release of a drug lord raises deeper questions about the way U.S. assistance to improve the courts, the police and the legal system in Mexico have fared.
The U.S. has invested millions of dollars through USAID and the broader Merida Initiative for judicial reform: To reform the courts, train honest police, and provide technical skills that were lacking in criminal investigations.
But in an interview, the president of the Bar Association of Chihuahua, Oscar Castrejon Rivas, told a journalist from the Center for International Policy that “what has happened, in our view, as community members… is a counter reform, something very distinct from what was promised by Washington through USAID.”
The Mexican legal system today is a very different one from that of 1985, when Caro Quintero kidnapped Camarena. There are many who see the efforts to switch from an inquisitorial system to a prosecutorial one as a major advance in the pursuit of due process and justice in Mexico.
Yet progress in the court system has still not been sufficient to overcome deep-rooted problems of judicial corruption and legal formalisms that imperil the ability to prosecute of some of the worst criminal offenders from the ongoing drug wars inside Mexico.
In the aftermath of his release, U.S. officials will need to reconsider ways to pursue Caro Quintero, who has allegedly disappeared from sight. There are already orders being drafted to extradite and try Caro Quintero in a U.S. court. And the U.S. and Mexico will work together on this next step.
Judicial reform is a work in progress
Judicial reform in Mexico is still a work in progress. This should come as no surprise to those who recognize how difficult it is to transform legal systems that were more often unaccountable to anyone, not to mention the national government.
Resources from the Merida Initiative — a program to help Mexico overcome the impact of drug trafficking — are taking hold, but progress is slow and long-term. This incident raises more questions about the deep-rooted problems that Mexico still faces in terms of its legal system, its prisons, and the rule of law in a nation fighting to overcome the crime and violence that illicit narcotics has wrought.
As the Mexican state continues to fight for control of certain parts of its national territory, one important tool in this battle will be a more effective judiciary that demonstrates it can bring those who violate laws and commit criminal acts to justice.
Caro Quintero’s release underscores how impunity, long a problem in Mexico, must be overcome if citizens are to gain greater trust in the government.
Johanna Mendelson Forman is a scholar-in-residence at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, D.C.