Saturday, August 17, 2013

The death house on Lope de Vega

It was only a walk of two blocks from Guadalajara's American Consulate to his car, but DEA Special Agent Enrique Camarena Salazar ended up here instead

Guadalajara -
The house at 881 Lope de Vega in Guadalajara's Colonia Jardines del Bosque has virtually nothing to distinguish it from many others in the neighborhood. In the late afternoon sun the remnants of a faded campaign sign for 2012 National Action Party presidential candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota are just discernible on a whitewashed wall surrounding the property. An electrified wire designed to keep out the uninvited runs atop, though there's nothing unusual about that in this city. The wall has a wooden door; it looks like it is rarely if ever opened. The property yields no clues about its current occupants or its terrifying history, but people walking down the street tend to choose the opposite sidewalk.

The quietly residential Jardines del Bosque is less than a 10 minute drive from bustling Chapultepec boulevard, where tourists and locals alike gather on a Friday evening to drink, eat and make weekend plans. It was on another Friday 28 years ago when the house on Lope de Vega was the scene of brutal torture and murder, say the governments of Mexico and the United States. In the stillness, one wonders whether neighbors heard the cries of the suffering and dying, and whether they did anything.

One victim was Enrique Camarena Salazar, a Special Agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). He was 37 on Feb. 7, 1985, and after leaving his office in the U.S. Consulate here he walked to his car, parked two short blocks away. He had a mid-afternoon lunch date with his wife. But then another appointment intervened.

Camarena was grabbed by corrupt state and local police officers who were on the payroll of the now long defunct Guadalajara Cartel, forced into a vehicle and driven to the house on Lope de Vega. He must have realized during the short ride that he wouldn't make the lunch date. He must have realized he wouldn't see his wife again.

At almost the same hour, Alfredo Zavala Avelars, a professional pilot for the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, was seized by cartel operatives as he drove into the city from Guadalajara's international airport, where he had just landed. Zavala was a close friend of Camarena and a DEA mole, regularly providing information about the comings and goings of regional drug lords who traveled in and out of the city aboard private aircraft, which he monitored and reported. Zavala, too, was forcibly carried to the house, for "interrogation."

The owner of 881 Lope de Vega was Rafael Caro Quintero, 32, boss of the Guadalajara Cartel. In the early 1980s Caro Quintero established himself as one of Mexico's most powerful drug lords. Buying up thousands of acres of barren, semi-desert land in northern Chihuahua state and converting them in to hugely profitable marijuana fields, Caro Quintero had an estimated fortune of half a billion dollars by the time he was 29. To diversify his growing empire he forged an alliance with Colombian cocaine traffickers, offering to smuggle their product into the U.S. in exchange for commissions of up to 50%. With no other options on the table, they agreed to the deal. Caro Quintero and the Guadalajara Cartel became even richer, according to U.S. officials.

A younger Caro Quintero, once worth $500 million USD, looks out from a jail lockup in the 1980s

In November 1984, Mexican troops raided one of Caro Quintero's marijuana operations in Chihuahua, a place called El Búfalo. They reportedly burned 10,000 tons of cannabis, which at then market prices may have cost the Guadalajara Cartel $160 million dollars. An infuriated Caro Quintero, who had been diligently paying substantial bribes to federal, state and local officials, suspected a DEA tip off almost immediately. Vowing revenge, he determined to identify and track down the informants. In early 1985, Camarena and Zavala thus were kidnapped and taken to the house on Lope de Vega - but only after six U.S. citizens had been mistakenly identified by Caro Quintero's men as the probable DEA agents, and coldly executed. That fascinating side story was reported today in this Huffington Post piece.

The best account of the DEA mens' torture and brutal murders in the house on Lope de Vega is this one published in 2009, which details the level of official corruption in Guadalajara at the time. Zavala, whom the cartel sicarios regarded as but a petty snitch, was beaten to death within hours. Camarena was kept alive for two days, for the sheer sport of inflicting further torture on his horribly battered body. The U.S. has long maintained that a Guadalajara physician was hired by the cartel to revive him each time Camarena passed out from pain and fatigue. But eventually, about 48 hours after his detention, the DEA agent was killed by a tire tool driven into his skull. Both mens' executions were videotaped.

The victim's bodies were first buried in a wooded site in the metro area, and later dug up and hauled to rural Michoacán state, southwest of Jalisco. Their badly decomposed remains were discovered by a farmer working his fields a month later, in early March 1985.

Under enormous pressure from the U.S., Mexican authorities eventually arrested, prosecuted and convicted Rafael Caro Quintero and other Guadalajara Cartel operatives. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison. After serving 28 of them, a federal tribunal in Guadalajara last week ordered the drug lord's immediate release. The court's amparo order - the functional equivalent of a U.S. writ of habeas corpus - was faxed to his place of incarceration at 11:53 p.m. on a Thursday evening. Caro Quintero, now 60, exited the high security Jalisco state prison 90 minutes later, at 1:30 a.m. Aug. 9. According to prison guards, Caro Quintero left with nothing but a small bundle of clothing, walking a kilometer up a dark and rain slick road to the nearest highway, where unidentified persons waited for him in a car.

The ruling was purely technical. Not wasting a paragraph to dissect or analyze evidence establishing Caro Quintero's clear responsibility for the murders, the court reasoned the crimes were classically fuero común - state crimes, not federal ones, which should have been prosecuted in a local court like any other garden variety homicide. A federal court was originally selected by Mexican prosecutors as the correct venue because Camarena was a U.S. agent operating abroad, and Zavala, although not in the actual employ of the DEA, regularly provided information to that agency. Mexican law permitted the prosecution in federal court of crimes committed against legitimate foreign agents who had been properly "accredited," or recognized by the government as such, just as U.S. law federalizes crimes committed against bona fide foreign diplomatic personnel. But therein lay the controversy.

Caro Quintero's team of well-heeled defense lawyers pounded away (for several years) with the legal argument that Camarena was not an officially "accredited" member of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Guadalajara. Yes, DEA maintained an office in the consulate, and the Mexican government was well aware of that fact. Camarena worked out of the office regularly. But he was an undercover agent, and technically not part of the U.S. delegation to Mexico. Moreover, he most certainly was not carrying out diplomatic duties at the time of his kidnapping and execution. The same argument plainly applied to Zavala, a mere informant. Under Mexico's criminal code, ruled the Jalisco judges 10 days ago, the men were but private citizens. Only a state court had lawful jurisdiction over their brutal homicides.

Last week Mexico’s PRI attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, expressed strong disagreement with the ruling, while emphasizing the need to respect judicial decisions. Jalisco's PRI governor Aristóteles Sandoval did likewise, although his office had nothing to do with the case. Even the archbishop of Guadalajara, Francisco Robles Cardinal Ortega, spoke out from the pulpit last Sunday, questioning whether real justice had been done. Meanwhile, officials north of the border went mildly ballistic. The Justice Dept. and the DEA were harsh in their condemnations, and said they would do everything in their power to put Caro Quintero on trial in a U.S. federal court, where charges for narcotics trafficking and other offenses now await him. A spokesman for an association of retired DEA agents called the Mexican court's amparo ruling a disgrace. Many U.S. and Mexican newspapers have reported on this case in the past week, and almost all joined in that negative conclusion. Some suggested the judges were bribed.

Caro Quintero's attorneys insist he is immune from further prosecution for the two murders, both here and in the U.S., because of double jeopardy principles. They vow to fight any attempt to rearrest him with yet another amparo proceeding. But late last week the U.S. filed documents with the Mexican Foreign Ministry, seeking his immediate detention while additional charges are lodged. Mexico says it will honor the American request, while it launches its own belated appeal of its latest legal reversal.

There is just one problem. Nobody here knows where Rafael Caro Quintero, the silver haired former boss of the Guadalajara Cartel, has gone.

Dec. 16 - Interpol asks for help in locating Rafael Caro Quintero
Dec. 3 - Caro Quintero writes Enrique Peña Nieto, asking for protection from U.S. "vengeance"
Nov. 27 - Mexican Supreme Court rejects appeal of co-defendant in U.S. agent's 1985 murder case
Nov. 6 - Mexican Supreme Court orders Guadalajara Cartel drug lord back to prison
Nov. 5 - State Dept. puts $5 million bounty on DEA agent killer
Oct. 21 - Sen. John McCain demands answers on release of Caro Quintero
Aug. 23 - "Absurd and illogical," Mexico's A.G. calls court ruling which freed narco executioner
Aug. 19 - PRI admin distances itself from Caro Quintero release

Caro Quintero minutes before he was kicked out of a Jalisco prison, just after midnight on Aug. 9

May 24 - Los Zetas gunman pleads guilty to 2011 execution of U.S. ICE agent
July 10 - In Guadalajara, 20 local gangs work with organized crime
Aug. 7 - As deadline looms for completion of police background checks, many fail to measure up

Jan. 23 - No justice for Mexicans in Florence Cassez ruling
Apr. 19 - Mexican Supreme Court orders Canadian released, once again on legal technicalities

Mexican columnists duked it out over the implications of the ruling which freed Caro Quintero. One wrote that the country's already challenged legal system would suffer further damage to its reputation.

© MGRR 2013. All rights reserved. This article may be cited or briefly quoted with proper attribution or a hyperlink, but not reproduced without permission.

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