One of Mexico’s most notorious kingpins has come out of the shadows, and the battle between cartels is murkier than ever

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Screenshot via D.E.A

In the north-central Mexican state of Chihuahua, home of border city Ciudad Juarez, a once powerful kingpin has reportedly reappeared.

According to Mexican military and government sources, the recent appearance of large drug shipments and a spike in violence in the area are the result of the reemergence of one of the most powerful figures on Mexico’s narco landscape: Rafael Caro Quintero, the “narco of narcos” and one of the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s most wanted men.

There are conflicting reports about Caro Quintero’s movements, but rumors of his return add a new wrinkle to an already complex criminal landscape.

‘He intends to come here’

Caro Quintero was part of a trio of high-powered kingpins who dominated Mexican drug trafficking in the 1980s through the Guadalajara cartel, which eventually spawned the Sinaloa cartel and Juarez cartel, among others.

Their decision to kidnap, torture, and kill undercover DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985, however, brought the full force of the US government down on them, spurring a manhunt that even their network of corruption and influence could not halt.

He was soon captured and sentenced to 40 years in prison, to be served in Mexico. But he was freed in 2013, after just 28 years. “The argument was that according to their laws, he, Caro Quintero, should’ve been tried in state court, because for the most part homicides fall under state jurisdiction,” Mike Vigil, a former DEA chief of international operations who worked in Mexico, told Business Insider.

“And they released him at like 3 o’clock in the morning, and after he fled into the darkness, then the supreme court came back and overrode … the court of appeals, and said, ‘No, it was proper,’ because Kiki Camarena was a bona fide federal agent,” meaning it was legitimate to try Caro Quintero in federal court, Vigil added.

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Mexican drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero, shown behind bars in this undated file photo.
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Reuters Photographer/REUTERS

Caro Quintero has remained at large for nearly three years, until events in recent weeks led Mexican authorities to report that he was back, possibly joining with new allies to attack erstwhile compatriots.

“We have information that he intends to come here,” Jorge González, Chihuahua state attorney general, told reporters last week.

Caro Quintero “has wishes to occupy the spaces of the Sinaloa cartel and dispute [those spaces] with them,” González said. “This is the theory that is had today with intelligence data and that is what we are working on.”

‘Caro Quintero is used to enormous power’

According to González, citing information from military sources, and to Mexican news magazine Proceso, Caro Quintero has joined with elements of the Beltran Leyva Organization, a former Sinaloa cartel ally that broke with Guzmán in 2008, and with members of the Jalisco New Generation cartel, which is generally considered to be the Sinaloa cartel’s only rival in terms of power.

It was with these new allies that Caro Quintero reportedly launched the recent attack on Guzmán’s hometown of La Tuna, in Sinaloa state’s Badiraguato municipality (where Caro Quintero is also from), and with whom he intends to challenge the Sinaloa cartel’s control in Chihuahua and the Golden Triangle, a high-drug production area that also includes parts of Sinaloa and Durango states.

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Mexico’s Golden Triangle, made up of parts of Chihuahua, Durango, and Sinaloa states, is a stronghold of the Sinaloa cartel and an area of drug cultivation.
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Christopher Woody/Golden Triangle

A narcomanta – a banner used by cartels to make an announcement – that appeared in central Ciudad Juarez, allegedly signed by Caro Quintero, also announced his intention to begin a “cleansing” of the city and threatened González, telling him had a week to resign.

Jockeying between rival criminal groups seems to be confirmed by rising violence in the city – 16 homicides in the first six days of July, after a May that saw nearly double the killings recorded in the same month last year.

“He doesn’t have the power to take over any of, like, the Sinaloa cartel. He just doesn’t have the muscles,” Vigil told Business Insider. But, Vigil added, “Rafael Caro Quintero is used to enormous power. I think he’s trying to carve out even a small niche, take over possibly a state, where he can get back into the business and maybe build up from there.”

“I think he’s just trying to get back into the business, and carve out a small piece of geography … with a good, solid pipeline into the United States,” Vigil said.

‘A frontal fight’

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Convicted drug-cartel boss Miguel Angel Caro Quintero sits in a federal police transport as he is transferred from the maximum-security La Palma prison outside Mexico City to a different jail, late January 16, 2005, in this photo handed out by Mexico’s federal police.
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Reuters

Other reports, however, indicate that Caro Quintero remains in league with Guzmán and that the two are being challenged by rivals.

According to Mexico’s Center for Investigation and National Security (CISEN), Caro Quintero remained heavily involved in the drug trade during his time in prison, with Guzmán (who was himself imprisoned from 1993 to 2001) acting as an intermediary for the jailed kingpin.

Caro Quintero’s wife, who he met in prison, was recently implicated in his drug-trafficking activities by the US Treasury department.

According to CISEN sources cited by Reporte Indigo, Caro Quintero reportedly assumed a leadership role in the Sinaloa cartel after Guzmán’s recapture in January.

His current presence in Chihuahua is not to challenge the Sinaloa cartel, but to protect the position that cartel has established in the state, particularly in the heavily trafficked border city of Ciudad Juarez, where the Sinaloa cartel fought and won a bloody turf war with the Juarez cartel between 2008 and about 2012.

The conflict in Chihuahua “is a frontal fight that Rafael Caro Quintero has begun to realize, through the cells of the Sinaloa cartel, to halt the aspiration for control held by Isidro Meza Flores,” said a CISEN source, cited by Reporte Indigo.

Meza Flores, aka “Chapito,” is a Sinaloa-based trafficker who remained with the BLO when it split from Guzmán’s cartel in 2008 and is believed to have led the attack on La Tuna last month. Caro Quintero’s own childhood home, not far from La Tuna, was also targeted in that attack.

‘A target on his back’

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Police investigators work at a crime scene where seven bodies were found gunned down in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, northern Mexico, November 25, 2008. The bodies of seven men with signs of torture and bullet wounds were found along side three banners threatening rival gangs, according to local media.
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REUTERS/Alejandro Bringas

Assuming that Caro Quintero is gunning for Guzmán, however, there are some doubts about the extent of his ambitions.

“Why would [Caro Quintero] want to put a target on his back and increase the probability of being recaptured and extradited to the United States?” Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope wrote in Mexican newspaper El Universal.

“It’s one thing to get over on the authorities and something very different to get over on the authorities and the Sinaloa cartel,” added Hope, who noted that the military sources cited by González and others, and where those sources got their information, remained unclear.

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A police officer walks near women observing the crime scene where a police officer was killed in downtown Ciudad Juarez August 8, 2013.
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REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

And, despite González’s reference to information from military-intelligence sources, other military units have disputed the Chihuahua attorney general’s report.

The National Defense Secretariat said on Monday that it could not corroborate reports that Caro Quintero was operating in Ciudad Juarez or that he was in Chihuahua working to take over trafficking routes to the US.

“We are unaware” of a new group operating in the area, regional commander Hugo Humberto Pedroza Salazar said, according to Chihuahua-based news site El Diario.

“We remain on the margins and on the lookout,” Pedroza Salazar added.

Not intimidated by anyone

While his current activities and ultimate ambitions are unclear, Caro Quintero’s reappearance adds more complexity to a Mexican narco landscape riven by shifting alliances and hostilities.

Challenges to the Sinaloa cartel’s power in multiple regions in Mexico have already caused more bloodshed, and a fight between erstwhile partners – Caro Quintero and Sinaloa vs. BLO and CJNG or Sinaloa vs. Caro Quintero, BLO, and CJNG – will likely only increase the violence.

“I don’t think that Rafael Caro Quintero, being in the business for as long as he was and wielding as much power as he has, is intimidated by the Sinaloa cartel, or by any cartel, for that matter,” Vigil said.

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Morgue workers carry a coffin containing an unidentified body toward a grave at San Rafael cemetery on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, August 13, 2012.
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REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

And even if Caro Quintero had faded into obscurity after his early release, his freedom would still be an unwelcome development for US authorities.

“I find it very disconcerting that he was released, particularly knowing that the United States would love to get him here and try him for drug trafficking and obviously the killing of Kiki Camarena,” Vigil, who worked in Mexico during his time with the DEA, told Business Insider.

“Because it was very, very, very egregious to DEA and to all law enforcement that the killer of a DEA agent would be released.”