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AMLO, the Cartels, and the Curious Case of RCQ

The Mexican president is concerned about the public reputation of his country's justice system, but he also oversees the release of drug lords.

“Imagine the suspicion, the jokes, the memes.”

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, “AMLO,” presides over a country ravaged by cartel violence and spiking homicide rates, decimated economically by the COVID-19 pandemic, and well behind the curve in immunization rates. Yet on a Monday morning in early May, his concerns about Mexico’s global reputation were focused elsewhere.

“Something similar happened when Mr. Caro Quintero was released. They accused us from abroad, accused the government of complicity. No foreign government should accuse the Mexican government, and we shouldn’t give them a pretext to do that.” AMLO was referring to the pending release of Sinaloa drug trafficker Hector Palma, comparing Palma’s plight to that of another infamous Mexican trafficker, Rafael Caro Quintero.

The comparison itself invites suspicion.

Palma was once a rising star in Mexico’s first cocaine trafficking organization, the Guadalajara Cartel. He started as a sicario for Felix Gallardo, a cartel leader, and later formed an alliance with Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman in the late 1980s. In a Netflix-worthy turn, the rival Arellano-Felix brothers murdered his wife and young children, and he responded in kind with his own killing spree. He was arrested in 1995, joining fellow Sinaloa Federation leader Guzman at Mexico’s Puente Grande prison.

Both Guzman and Palma had indictments pending in the Southern District of California. While Guzman conveniently managed to escape from Puente Grande in 2001 shortly after Mexico authorized extraditions to the United States, Palma remained and was extradited in 2007 to San Diego. After serving nine years in U.S. custody, he was released in 2016 and re-arrested on organized crime charges upon re-entering Mexico. Palma remained in Mexican custody on those charges until May 1, when a judge ordered his release.

Rafael Caro Quintero, “RCQ” in U.S. law enforcement circles, was not just a part of the Guadalajara Cartel in the 1980s; he, Gallardo, and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo were its triumvirate leaders. When a young DEA agent named Enrique Camarena led the discovery and destruction of a 2,500-acre marijuana plantation in 1984, a total loss to RCQ of around $160 million, RCQ arranged the kidnaping, three-day torture, and eventual murder of Camarena. A month after the murder, as a DEA-assisted Mexican federal police unit closed in on RCQ at a local airport, a Mexican police comandante took a $300,000 bribe to allow RCQ to leave on a private jet to Costa Rica, a country without an extradition treaty with the United States. Costa Rica later returned RCQ to Mexico, putting the Sinaloan drug lord safely outside the grasps of the U.S. justice system.

Mexico did convict RCQ of Camarena’s murder in 1985. He faced a possible 199 years in prison, but Mexican law only allowed sentences up to 40 years. RCQ was 28 years into that sentence in the pre-dawn hours of August 9, 2013, when he was inexplicably allowed to walk out of Puente Grande. A Jalisco state judge had quietly ordered the release. The Mexican federal government claimed not to have prior knowledge of the judge’s order. Mexico’s attorney general said that the judge had “completely ignored” prevailing Mexican law in releasing RCQ, and the conviction was subsequently reinstated. The U.S. government, with an extradition request pending, learned of the release with the rest of the world in media coverage. By that time, RCQ had disappeared into the rugged Sinaloan mountains of his youth.

In the eight years since, RCQ has re-established his role within the Sinaloa Federation as one of Mexico’s most prolific drug traffickers. He is also DEA’s most wanted fugitive, with a $20 million reward offered for the man who has yet to face the U.S. criminal justice system for the brutal torture and murder of one of its agents.

AMLO, for his part, has in recent months defended RCQ’s 2013 release, claiming that it was “justified” because no verdict had been handed down against RCQ. Yet there had been a guilty verdict, followed by a state judge improperly overturning the verdict 28 years later, and an appellate court reinstating the verdict after RCQ’s release. AMLO is himself no stranger to releasing high-level drug traffickers, as the world saw in the 2019 release of Ovidio Guzman and the 2021 absolution of former Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos.

All of which is contrasted with the plight of Hector Palma. He has faced the U.S. justice system twice, serving seven years after a 1978 drug trafficking arrest in Arizona, then later his 2007 extradition to California, conviction, and eight-year sentence. He presumably has no more criminal charges pending in the U.S. While his rearrest in 2016 in Mexico may have been warranted, the May 1 release order should have resolved those charges. If he had been released, he would be free for the first time in 26 years. Instead, days after AMLO’s public concerns about jokes and memes, a series of judicial mechanisms resulted in Palma being held an additional 40 days, until June 15, to give the Mexican government a chance to find some other crime that he might have committed.

Mexico’s efforts to keep Palma in custody may well be motivated by a genuine, if clumsily executed, desire to hold him accountable for past crimes. The Mexican judicial system is still in the formative years of a shift to a Western-style adversarial process, and, according to Mexico’s national statistics agency, only 0.3 percent of crimes result in the filing of criminal charges.

The more curious cases are those of RCQ, Ovidio Guzman, and General Cienfuegos, where the Mexican government allows Sinaloa-based organized crime leaders to operate freely within its borders. It is as if the Mexican political establishment is motivated by something other than the well-being of its citizens, or even the global “suspicion, jokes, and memes” that so concern the Mexican president.

Josh Jones is senior fellow in border security at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. His previous work as an 18-year veteran former federal prosecutor led to the arrests and prosecutions of notorious criminal organization leaders throughout Latin America. Most recently, Jones served on the U.S. Attorney General’s Joint Task Force Vulcan, a task force created to eliminate the threat of MS-13 in the United States.

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