In a major win for Mexican and U.S. law enforcement, the Mexican Navy said on Friday it had captured notorious drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero, convicted for the murder and torture of a U.S. anti-narcotics agent in 1985.
The kingpin rose to prominence as a co-founder of the Guadalajara Cartel, one of Latin America’s most powerful drug-trafficking organizations during the 1980s, and had been among the most prized targets for U.S. officials.
The U.S. government hailed the arrest and said it would waste no time in requesting his extradition. “This is huge,” White House senior Latin America adviser Juan Gonzalez said on Twitter.
The Mexican Navy, one of the two independent armed forces in the country, said in a statement that Caro Quintero was caught in the municipality of Choix, in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, one of Mexico’s drug-trafficking heartlands.
He was found in shrub land by a military-trained female bloodhound named Max, the Navy said.
The arrest in San Simon, Choix, comes after pressure from the United States, according to a Mexican official, and the same week that President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador met with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington.
Caro Quintero spent 28 years in prison for the brutal murder of former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, one of the most notorious killings in Mexico’s bloody narco wars. The events, dramatized in the 2018 Netflix series Narcos: Mexico, led to a nadir in U.S.-Mexico co-operation in a five-decade “war on drugs.”
Caro Quintero has previously denied involvement in the killing of Camarena. He was released in 2013 on a technicality by a Mexican judge, embarrassing the previous government.
He quickly went underground and returned to trafficking as part of the Sinaloa Cartel, according to U.S. officials, who put him on the FBI’s Top 10 most wanted fugitives list and put a $20-million US bounty on his head, a record for a drug trafficker.
Last year, he lost a final appeal against extradition to the U.S. He will be extradited as quickly as possible, another Mexican official said.
“It is probably one of the most important captures of the last decade in terms of importance to the DEA,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said he would seek Caro Quintero’s immediate extradition.
“There is no hiding place for anyone who kidnaps, tortures and murders American law enforcement. We are deeply grateful to Mexican authorities for their capture and arrest of Rafael Caro Quintero,” Garland said in a statement.
While the 69-year-old Caro Quintero is no longer considered a major player in international drug trafficking, the symbolic impact of his capture is significant.
For Mexican security expert Alejandro Hope, the arrest points to significant co-operation between the U.S. and Mexico, despite recent clashes over security. “This type of capture is unthinkable without the participation of the DEA,” he said.
Mexico’s unwillingness to extradite Caro Quintero to the U.S. before his release from prison had been a source of tension between the two countries. A U.S. official said Washington was very eager to have him extradited.
“This will hopefully start to mend the frayed relationship between the United States and Mexico in terms of combating drug trafficking,” said former DEA official Vigil.
In its statement, the Mexican Navy said 14 of its personnel had died after a Black Hawk helicopter crashed in the city of Los Mochis, Sinaloa, on Friday. The cause of the crash is under investigation, but so far there was no information indicating the incident was related to the capo’s arrest, the Navy said.