LOS ANGELES – The gunmen were waiting for Enrique Camarena. They had positioned themselves on the streets surrounding his office at the U.S. consulate in Guadalajara, Mexico, ready to block the young federal agent if he tried to escape.
The men, who worked for one of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels, forced Camarena into their car and drove him to a cramped guest house nearby, where he was beaten, burned and eventually killed.
The highly publicized abduction and murder in 1985 was one of the darkest moments in U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration history and provided the plot for the Netflix series “Narcos: Mexico.” Now, more than three decades later, U.S. authorities are investigating potentially explosive new evidence in the case: allegations that Camarena was betrayed.
U.S. Justice Department agents and prosecutors have obtained statements from witnesses implicating a Central Intelligence Agency operative and a DEA official in the plot to torture and murder Camarena, according to the witnesses, Camarena’s widow and others familiar with the case who were interviewed by USA TODAY.
The murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena in 1985 is being further investigated
Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was kidnapped and murdered in 1985, leading to a major escalation in the war on drugs. Now, his murder is being investigated.
The inquiry inserts the Justice Department into a chapter of the 1980s drug war that the government had long dismissed as a myth – claims that the U.S. government entangled itself with drug traffickers as the Reagan administration illegally armed rebels fighting the socialist government in Nicaragua.
Whether anything comes of the investigation remains uncertain. But the allegations were too alarming to ignore, officials said.
“You can’t just put it in a drawer and forget about it,” said one official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case and did so only on condition of anonymity.
Prosecutors and agents confirmed to Camarena’s widow, Mika, that witnesses have provided the accounts allegedly connecting the CIA operative and DEA official to the plot, she said in an interview. They told her that they were investigating the claim, but she said they did not provide details.
“I want the truth to be out,” Mika Camarena said. “At this point, nothing would surprise me.”
The Justice Department began re-examining the case last year after admitting that forensic evidence used to convict two men in Camarena’s death was badly flawed. A federal court tossed their convictions in 2017.
While weighing whether to re-try the men, federal authorities began re-interviewing witnesses. Some told startling stories, alleging that U.S. officials had secretly been involved with a cartel that was then delivering huge quantities of marijuana and cocaine to the United States, according to people familiar with the case who were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.
Three of the witnesses – former Mexican police officers named Ramon Lira, Rene Lopez and George Godoy, who once worked as security guards for cartel kingpins – spoke with USA TODAY and recounted that they told investigators a DEA official and a CIA operative were present at meetings where Camarena’s abduction was discussed. They claimed the DEA official accepted money from the cartel.
The witnesses said they described the details to federal agents beginning in 2018. One, Lopez, said prosecutors showed him old photographs of some former U.S. officials. It is unclear how much weight authorities ascribe to the allegations, but they’ve interviewed the witnesses several times, questioning them for hours about Camarena’s murder and a series of meetings that took place in the months before. And investigators are pursuing additional witnesses to see whether the allegations can be corroborated.
The Justice Department declined to answer questions about the case. A spokeswoman for the DEA, Mary Brandenberger, said she could not comment on any ongoing investigations.
Camarena’s son, Enrique Camarena, Jr., now a county judge in San Diego, declined to comment through a spokesman because judicial ethics rules “don’t allow him to comment on open cases or investigations.”
People familiar with the case said there are reasons to be skeptical that much will come of the new inquiry. Criminal cases seldom improve with age as both memories and evidence fade, and the investigation of Camarena’s murder has already produced reams of conflicting evidence that would make any new prosecution especially challenging.
Beyond that, the witnesses who have so far provided information to authorities are closely tied to a former agent, Hector Berrellez, who has long alleged a CIA connection to Camarena’s death and was once accused by a defense lawyer involved in the case of encouraging a witness to lie. Other lawyers who received access to some of the new witness accounts described them in a court filing as “incredible.”
Lira, a former state policeman in Mexico who provided security for a Guadalajara Cartel kingpin on the side, told USA TODAY that prosecutors said he might have to testify in court if the case evolves. He said he was asked not to discuss the case, “but we’re in a free country.”
Camarena was kidnapped and killed during a harrowing time in efforts to stop drugs from pouring across the U.S. southern border. U.S. agents working in Mexico reported being tailed by cartel operatives, and one agent’s car was shot up by machine gun fire outside his house. At the same time, the United States was turning to at least some of the cartel associates to help illegally arm and equip the rebels battling the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in what came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair.
The result was a murky blend of drug trafficking, corruption and crime-fighting in Guadalajara.
Before Camarena’s death, DEA units in Mexico had been destroying millions of dollars’ worth of marijuana grown on farms for the Guadalajara Cartel, named for the city in Jalisco, a state in western Mexico.
Camarena, 37, who was known by the nickname “Kiki,” served in the United States Marine Corps before moving into law enforcement and becoming a DEA agent in 1975. He was kidnapped on Feb. 7, 1985.
When the cartel enforcers abducted him, they took Camarena to a house on a street called Lope de Vega, where witnesses said they put him on a bed in a guest house at the rear of the property and interrogated him about raids on the cartel’s supplies and the informants who helped lead agents to the drugs. They blindfolded him and, between questions, beat and burned him.
Mexican authorities later provided audio recordings of parts of the interrogation to the CIA.
Camarena died from his injuries.
The cartel buried his body in a Guadalajara park and later moved it to a secluded ranch, where his remains were found.
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By then, federal agents had launched a manhunt like few others in U.S. history. Teams of federal agents descended on Guadalajara, and more worked the case from the United States. At one point, the U.S. government effectively closed the border with Mexico to pressure their reluctant Mexican counterparts. Eventually, prosecutors in Los Angeles brought a series of criminal cases accusing cartel operatives of taking part in Camarena’s kidnapping and murder.
A few of the men charged in the case remain fugitives. Accused cartel boss Rafael Caro-Quintero has been wanted in connection with Camarena’s death since he was indicted in 1987. Caro-Quintero was convicted by a Mexican court but later was freed on appeal and is now on the FBI’s most-wanted list. U.S. authorities have offered a $20 million reward for his capture.
Some of the prosecution efforts began to unravel in 1997 when the credibility of the government’s key witness, and scientific testimony he introduced, came under scrutiny.
Michael Malone, a longtime FBI agent and prolific expert witness, testified that hair samples taken from two suspects on trial for Camarena’s murder – Rene Verdugo and Juan Matta-Ballesteros – matched hair recovered from the guest house where Camarena was tortured and therefore it was compelling evidence putting both men at the scene of the crime.
FBI scientists had made such claims for years in front of judges and juries.
But those claims were wrong, not supported by forensic science.
In addition, Malone had credibility problems as a witness. An internal Justice Department investigation in 1997 found that he had “testified falsely” before Congress. Years later, another Justice Department review found that he had “repeatedly created scientifically unsupportable lab reports and provided false, misleading, or inaccurate testimony at criminal trials.”
Malone could not be reached for comment. He left the FBI in 1999 but remained on contract for more than a decade doing background investigations.
Before his departure, Justice Department lawyers began reviewing hundreds of cases for which Malone had analyzed forensic evidence and asked prosecutors nationwide to help identify ones where his work had played an important role.
Seventeen years elapsed, however, before prosecutors informed Verdugo that the testimony linking him to a hair found at the murder scene exceeded “the limits of science.” By then, Verdugo had been in prison for 32 years.
His lawyers were livid.
“Virtually every step of the way, the government has disregarded both the law and ethical standards of professional conduct in its zeal to make an example of Rene Verdugo,” one of his lawyers, John Lemon, wrote in a 2018 court filing after a federal judge threw out both convictions.
In late 2018, federal prosecutors made their decision not to re-try the men. They dropped the murder case against Matta, although he remains in prison on a drug trafficking charge, and agreed to let Verdugo plead guilty to a reduced charge and be deported to Mexico.
By then prosecutors and agents had begun interviewing witnesses again, including the three former Mexican police officers who had worked as drivers and security guards for some of the Guadalajara Cartel’s top leaders. Officials questioned the men in their offices in Riverside, California.
Prosecutors later shared summaries of those interviews with lawyers representing Verdugo and Matta. Lawyers for both said they were not permitted to discuss the details.
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But Lemon characterized them in a court filing last year as containing “never-before disclosed, incredible and contradictory” accounts by all three witnesses who claimed “to have witnessed CIA operatives working alongside cartel members.” Lemon asked a federal judge to order the government to turn over “all discovery concerning alleged CIA involvement in the kidnapping and murder of Agent Camarena.”
Prosecutors dropped the case before a judge could rule on the request. A spokesman for the CIA declined to comment.
It was not the first time someone had claimed that U.S. intelligence was entangled with the cartel responsible for Camarena’s death. Berrellez, the former DEA agent who once ran the task force investigating his murder, has said for years that the CIA was involved.
In the 1990s, Matta’s lawyers tried to force the government to turn over information about the CIA’s alleged involvement. At the time of Camarena’s death, Matta ran a fleet of airplanes that U.S. investigators said supplied Nicaraguan rebels and smuggled drugs. But a federal court rejected the request, saying there was no evidence tying the government to the smuggling ring.
Godoy, one of the former Mexican police officers who alleges that the DEA and CIA operative were involved in the plot against Camarena, said in an interview that he spoke to DEA officials in April 2019 about the killing. The government has given him and the two other former Mexican police officers immunity in exchange for information. He keeps a crumpled copy of his immunity agreement in his jacket pocket.
“There is too many ghosts behind me,” Godoy said. “We need to make justice.”
Authorities also have arrested and questioned another man the government said was involved in Camarena’s death, Ezequiel Godinez-Cervantes. Godinez-Cervantes was among the men indicted for Camarena’s murder in 1987, but prosecutors dropped the charges after he was convicted of drug trafficking in Texas. He was arrested last year in Mexico for violating his supervised release in the drug case and was turned over to U.S. authorities, who are holding him at a prison outside Los Angeles.
Godinez-Cervantes’ lawyer, Bill Harris, confirmed that his client was interviewed three times last year – in May, June and September– as part of the renewed investigation. Harris said Godinez-Cervantes denied any involvement, though the attorney said authorities did not appear “entirely satisfied with his answers.” Given the lapse of time, Harris said he didn’t expect new charges.
The government’s review – and alarming new focus – has opened one more difficult chapter for the people still mourning Camarena’s death.
“I’ve dealt with everything else,” Mika Camarena said. “Why not this?”
Contributing: Arlene Martinez, The Ventura County (Calif.) Star and Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY.