MAZATLAN, Mexico ― It’s just before 8 p.m. but, in the Sierra Madre mountains south of El Paso, the darkness is almost complete, save for a single light that illuminates a small house.
We have spent the last 12 hours driving through Mexico’s heroin heartland, where thousands of tons of poppies are harvested and processed every year before being smuggled to the United States, and the view from the modest house near the peak is spectacular.
The person I have come to meet ― Rafael Caro Quintero, aka “The Prince” ― is unlikely to enjoy the view, however. Caro Quintero is a man on the run.
Hunted by Mexican and American authorities, he never sleeps in the same spot twice, according to his guards. His bed is a sleeping bag, his roof the canvas of a tent. During the day, he haunts the mountains like a ghost, his head perpetually craned toward the sky, scanning for the drones that search the impassable mountains for signs of life.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration believes that he, along with Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, is the leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, one of the largest, most powerful criminal drug trafficking organizations in the world, with tentacles that extend throughout the Americas and into Europe, Asia and Africa.
They also believe he is a murderer who, even if he spent almost three decades in prison, still hasn’t paid in full for his crimes: the torture and death of an American undercover agent and a Mexican pilot.
As a journalist, I’ve spent the last 13 years hunting the leaders of the drug cartels whose bloody business has shaped life in Mexico. Almost 250,000 people have died in the drug wars over the last decade, according to the country’s National Institute for Statistics and Geography. And those are just the confirmed victims. At least another 34,201 people have disappeared.
Investigating drug trafficking in Mexico, I’ve made frequent trips to the Golden Triangle, trying to understand how farmers’ children who often can’t read or write manage to rise to lead criminal networks that generate billions of dollars in profits ― people such as Joaquín Guzmán, “El Chapo”; Rubén Oseguera Cervantes, “El Mencho”; and Caro Quintero, “The Prince.”
Now, after months of trying through intermediaries to persuade Caro Quintero, I have come to this house, on this January evening, to meet with the man at the top of the DEA’s Most Wanted list. We’d spoken in 2016, but I want to get a better sense of the life of a man whom the U.S. Justice Department is so eager to get they are offering a $5 million reward for his capture.
Once inside the house, I am led to a bedroom. The light suddenly goes out. “The Prince” has arrived.
* * *
The trip started 12 hours before in Mazatlán, Sinaloa. For decades, this port city on Mexico’s Pacific Coast has been a key point for drug traffickers, a destination for both business and pleasure for the members of the Sinaloa cartel. It’s also the site of some of the bloodiest battles for control of the organization.
Two guys in their 40s pick me up in an old car at an agreed-upon spot near the beach. I see no sign of weapons. The men are polite, dressed modestly and without any thuggish swagger. Still, as on all these trips, the destination is unknown and the return uncertain.
They tell me to bring a hat and a jacket because of the cold. “The cold?” I wonder. It is over 70 degrees already – and it’s 8 a.m. I am only allowed to take a small video camera, a tripod and a light for the interview. I am told to leave everything else behind: handbag, phone, tape recorder. Even the people taking me don’t know where we are going.
After five hours on the road, we stop at a hotel. They ask again if I am carrying a phone or any other electronic device. We switch cars and, by now, I am glad I brought the extra clothes. The temperature has dropped as we have driven into the mountains. During the next four hours, we switch cars three times before we get to a house where we stay for about an hour. I have overheard the Mexican military is operating in the area and the men are waiting for instructions on whether to keep moving or abort the plan. As they discuss this, a convoy of soldiers approach us in military trucks. But they appear not to notice us and drive past.
The afternoon goes by. We change vehicles again and take off on a dirt road through a ravine, barreling across stones and holes, before ascending the mountain range. At this time of the year the fields look barren, but come autumn, the hillsides will be covered in marijuana plants and red poppies. Most people around here are involved in some part of the illegal drug trade – whether growing, harvesting or processing the drugs. But with the land asleep, we see few people around.
Suddenly, the driver hits the brakes and stops the engine. My heart is pounding like a locomotive. The men get out of the car and look up at the sky, pointing. They have seen a drone, they say. They are concerned that I may not be telling the truth, that someone is following me to get to Caro Quintero. We don’t speak about it, but I’m quite certain they’re thinking about El Chapo, who in 2015 met with Sean Penn and the Mexican actress Kate del Castillo for an interview. The Mexican government intercepted communications between the drug lord and the actress, and El Chapo’s confidantes believe the interview led to his arrest a few months later. Today, he is locked up in a maximum security prison in New York, waiting for a trial that is expected to result in a life sentence.
After several tense minutes, we get back in the car. The guards constantly look toward the sky, then back at me with suspicion. The area is full of government drones, they say, and their boss barely sleeps, sensitive to their buzzing he claims to hear constantly. He’ll often wake his guards before daybreak because he thinks someone is coming to arrest him. Some nights, they’ve had to walk perilous routes in the dark along the cliffs because he believed the authorities were closing in. More than once, Caro Quintero has taken a fall in the darkness.
He refuses to have surgery for his diseased prostate, for fear of laying up at a hospital for a week, leaving him exposed to arrest. For months, he hasn’t seen his wife, Diana Espinoza, who he met in 2010 when he was still in prison, or their 5-year-old son. Nor has he seen any of the four children he had with his first wife, María Elizabeth Elenes.
This is not the glamorous life he once led.
* * *
Like El Chapo, Caro Quintero was born in Badiraguato, a small town in the state of Sinaloa. When Caro Quintero was 14, he saw a stranger murder his father in a random act of violence. After that, he began growing marijuana as a way to support his family.
By the early 1980s, Mexico had become a strategic crossing point for cocaine going to the United States. Caro Quintero, by then in his 30s, rose to become one of the three leaders of the Guadalajara cartel, which eventually allied itself with the Medellín cartel, led by the notorious Colombian trafficker Pablo Escobar.
Legends and narcocorridos ― the ballads that celebrate the lives of the drug lords ― made him and the other crime bosses into larger-than-life characters, depicting them as celebrities who led glamorous lives of luxury and excess.
But an enterprising undercover DEA agent named Enrique Camarena had infiltrated the Guadalajara cartel and was gathering information on the billion-dollar criminal organization. In 1984, hundreds of Mexican soldiers raided “Rancho Búfalo,” a marijuana plantation run by the Guadalajara cartel, acting on information obtained by Camarena. The estimated annual production at the ranch was worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
In retaliation, the cartel allegedly kidnapped Camarena and a Mexican pilot named Alfredo Zavala. The abduction triggered a diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and Mexico. The Reagan administration all but shut down the border in response. When the men’s bodies were found a month later, bearing marks of torture, the DEA began a massive manhunt for the killers.
The Guadalajara cartel and its leaders ― Caro Quintero, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo and Ernesto “Don Neto” Fonseca ― were obvious suspects. Fonseca was arrested in 1985 and still lives under house arrest at his ranch. Gallardo was detained in 1989 and is still in prison in Jalisco. Caro Quintero, for his part, was arrested in April 1985 and extradited to Mexico, where he signed a confession to the murder of Camarena.
Caro Quintero spent the next 28 years in prison before he was released in 2013 on technical grounds. He was free for only a few days before the office of Mexico’s attorney general issued a new order of arrest, for an outstanding charge in Mexico and to face charges for Camarena’s murder in the United States.
The decision to release Caro Quintero had infuriated U.S. authorities, who put up a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture or conviction.
Caro Quintero decided to run.
* * *
The light comes on. “The Prince” has arrived.
He greets me warmly and reaches for a silver-plated gun tucked into the back of his waistline.
“Excuse me,” he says, as he puts his gun on the table.
Three guards take positions outside. A fourth stays in the room.
Slim and straight like a billiard cue, Caro Quintero wears an Adidas hat pulled down over hair dyed a deep black. In smart blue pants and a green jacket, he appears younger than his 65 years. But his shoes are mud-covered and he is sweating, suggesting that life in hiding is taking a toll.
“All I do is run, for something I already did my time for,” he says.
Since his release in 2013, he has recanted his admission of guilt in the murder of Camarena. He admits to having trafficked marijuana in the past. But, he claims, those days are behind him. He is not the shadowy leader of the Sinaloa cartel that authorities make him out to be, he says.
But the “narcomantas,” the banners that criminal gangs use for public declarations, tell a different story. Narcomantas have appeared alleging that Caro Quintero and El Chapo are the bosses in northern Mexico ― and U.S. and Mexican officials likewise claim that Caro Quintero is in charge of trafficking shipments of cocaine, meth and heroin to the United States.
“Whoever is saying so is lying!” he says. “It’s a lie.”
He acknowledges that after he was freed, he met with El Chapo and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García before El Chapo was arrested.
“We’ve known each other for many years, just like I’ve known Zambada,” he said. “I have my respect for them and that’s all. I haven’t done any business with them. And now that I’m free, I don’t want to have anything to do with drugs.”
I ask him about the 2015 seizure of five tons of cocaine in Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, which the Mexican government said he was shipping.
“I have already made it very clear,” he says. “I’m not a drug trafficker. I’ve never moved heroin. I’ve never dealt with amphetamines. I’ve never brought a single gram of cocaine from Colombia, as the DEA says. What I sold was marijuana in Mexico, 33 years ago. Whoever says otherwise ― I repeat ― is lying!”
Why, I ask, would the DEA finger him as a drug lord?
The U.S. and Mexican authorities are driven by misplaced vengeance, he says.
“Look,” he says. “I’m not the leader of any cartel.”
Here’s the report in which they accuse you, I respond.
“Yes, yes, yes,” he says, looking over the papers, seemingly irritated. “Well, I haven’t returned to drugs, nor am I going to ― ever. Whoever is saying that is lying. Sajid or whoever is saying this to the DEA is lying!”
In October, Caro Quintero’s cousin, Sajid Emilio Quintero Navidad, aka “The Cadet,” was arrested by U.S. authorities. On Jan. 25, he pleaded guilty to charges of drug trafficking and money laundering, according to a filing in a federal court in California, which suggests he may have made a deal with prosecutors. And capturing Caro Quintero is still a priority for the U.S. government.
“If it’s Sajid who’s accusing me, Sajid is lying. And if they’re saying I’m one of the Sinaloa cartel leaders, they’re making that up, too!” Caro Quintero says, closing his hand into a fist.
* * *
In early March, hundreds of soldiers were dispatched to the Golden Triangle in the hunt for Caro Quintero. Rio Doce, a local newspaper, quoted an officer who said the military’s orders were “to catch him dead or alive.”
But what is the truth about Caro Quintero?
U.S. and Mexican officials say he is trafficking cocaine from Colombia to the United States through Guatemala, and that it crosses through Sonora on a route that ultimately leads to Chicago.
“The DEA stands behind the information contained with our 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment and we believe Rafael Caro-Quintero is a Sinaloa Cartel leader,” agency spokesman Wade Sparks said in a statement.
But Mike Vigil, former head of the DEA’s Mexico operations, says it’s “ludicrous” to claim that Caro Quintero has a leadership role with the Sinaloa cartel.
“He’s a shell of himself,” Vigil says of Caro Quintero. “Right now, we don’t have any information that he is actually working with anybody. I think he just wants to stay away from getting arrested again, probably up in the mountains of Sinaloa, where he knows it’s harder to catch him.”
Caro Quintero denies that he’s involved with drug smuggling.
“I would ask that the DEA be more cautious in its investigations ― and the government of Mexico, too,” he says. “If they can prove that it’s really true, I’ll turn myself in. But I’m not turning myself in to become an informant.”
The way he tells it, he spent almost three decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He says he smuggled marijuana but didn’t peddle harder drugs, and says that since his release five years ago, he has not been involved with drug smuggling. According to him, justice has been amply served.
The legends and narcocorridos tell dazzling stories that romanticize the lives of the kingpins. Yet having encountered Caro Quintero in person, I feel a bit like I’ve met the Wizard of Oz. Here, behind the screen, is someone who’s spent much of his life projecting a fearsome vision of himself, only to be revealed as a frail and ailing old man. But is this just another form of subterfuge, a way to disguise a leader in the regional drug trade?
“Look, what I want is for people to leave me in peace,” he says. “What I have left of life, I want to live it in peace... All of us, I believe, deserve a second chance.”
As I get in the car that will take me back to Mazatlán, I see “The Prince” standing by the house. In the darkness, he soon disappears from sight.
Roque Planas contributed reporting.