Sunday, January 25, 2009

Remembering Enrique "Kiki" Camarena

Enrique "Kiki" Camarena

DEA Administrator John Lawn comforting Mika Camarena, wife of Enrique Camarena

Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a former DEA colleague, Rich Gorman, in El Cajon near San Diego. Rich was a retired DEA agent who had served most of his career in San Diego and had earned a legendary reputation. Rich died of pancreatic cancer, which cut short a productive retirement in which he was continuing to work in drug law enforcement. To pay tribute, St Luke's Church in El Cajon was filled to capacity as old friends and colleagues came from as far away as Texas and Florida to say good-bye. For myself, having retired from DEA in 1995, I don't often see my old colleagues much any more, and now it is usually at events such as these.

On the program I noted a now-familiar statement which read that en lieu of flowers, donations could be made in Rich's name to the Enrique S. Camarena Foundation, Inc. The name of Enrique "Kiki" Camarena is never far below the surface at a DEA funeral. Due to the nature of drug enforcement work, virtually every old DEA agent knows the names of those who were killed in the line of duty- and often knew the lost agent themselves. I myself, personally experienced the death of one of my fellow-agents in Bangkok due to an accidental gunshot wound which occurred in our office (Bob Lightfoot). At Rich's funeral, I had the chance to meet a somewhat younger agent who had been wounded but survived a shooting in Los Angeles in the late 1980s that had claimed the lives of two other agents (Paul Seema and George Montoya), one of whom I had known from Thailand. (I was working in Pittsburgh when this happened.) Shortly before I retired, I was one of the first on the scene of a fatal traffic accident that killed a fellow agent in Quantico (Becky Dwojeski).

As much as those events affected me personally, no agent's loss hit DEA as an entire agency as hard as that of Camarena. I myself, did not know him. Yet, the circumstances of his death left a mark on me as it did every agent.

Enrique "Kiki" Camarena was a native of Calexico, a small town on the border across from Mexicali where he was born. After serving in the US Marines, he returned to Calexico, where he served as a firefighter and policeman prior to joining DEA. He was extremely popular, respected both as a person and as an agent.

In February 1985, Camarena, while stationed with DEA in Guadalajara, Mexico, was abducted off the street near the American Embassy by drug traffickers, aided by Mexican police officers. Taken to a house owned by drug trafficker Rafael Caro Quintero, he and a Mexican pilot who worked with him were kept for days and systematically tortured before being murdered. At times, a local doctor even brought them back to consciousness so that the torture could resume. Their bodies were later dumped in a field outside the state of Jalisco where they were eventually discovered.

The role in the actual murder and subsequent cover-up by Mexican police was a national scandal and reached right into the Mexican Attorney General's Office. Mexican police even facilitated the escape of Caro Quintero out of Mexico in spite of DEA protests. During the search for Camarena, US Customs Commissioner William von Raab took the extraordinary step of closing the border. Under President Reagan, tremendous diplomatic pressure was put on Mexico to find our agent and achieve justice. The case gained widespread publicity across both nations. Unfortunately, Caro-Quintero became something of a folk hero in Mexico, while Camarena was denigrated. Altogether, it was a disgraceful chapter in Mexico's history.

Eventually, Caro-Quintero was apprehended in Costa Rica and extradited back to an embarrassed Mexico, which tried him and sentenced him to a long term in prison. Other participants were identified and tracked down in both the US and Mexico for prosecution.

While I did not personally know Camarena, I, like all other DEA agents, followed the case closely. I was in Milan, Italy at the time. A couple in the State Department who had worked with Kiki in Guadalajara were then working in the Consulate in Milan, and I had the sad task of letting them know that Kiki's body had been found. Another colleague and friend of mine from our posting in Thailand, was then working in Istanbul, and Kiki's sister was his secretary. It was his duty to make the notification in the wee hours of the morning.

While the news of every agent's death impacted the entire agency, in the case of Camarena, it was the horrific circumstances of his death that left us all shaken and outraged. In response, Kiki's colleagues, many now retired, have worked to keep his memory and legacy alive in the American consciousness. As part of that, the Enrique S. Camarena Educational Foundation has been established to promote anti-drug education among young people, provide scholarships and honor the memory of fallen drug officers.

To learn more about the Enrique S Camarena Educational Foundation, Inc, go to their website at:

Kiki's son, Enrique Camarena Jr, has followed in his father's footsteps, having become a deputy district attorney for San Diego County.

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