Busting The Brass

  • When the battered body of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique Camarena turned up on a roadside near Guadalajara in March 1985, one month after he had been kidnaped, the Mexican government quickly pinned the blame on Rafael Caro Quintero, a flamboyant 29-year-old kingpin of the Guadalajara drug cartel. But Camarena's comrades in the DEA did not believe that the reckless, illiterate "Rafa" had acted alone. The agents suspected the brains behind the complex crime were members of Mexico's power elite, who had everything to lose from the relentless probing of Camarena and his partners into the muck of the Mexican narcotics trade.

    Last week a federal grand jury in Los Angeles filed kidnaping, racketeering and conspiracy charges against two former high-ranking Mexican officials: Manuel Ibarra Herrera, ex-director of the Federal Judicial Police -- the Mexican equivalent of the FBI -- and his cousin Miguel Aldana Ibarra, former commander of Operation Pacifico, the Federales' antidrug unit. The pair, two of 19 indicted in the case, were charged under a U.S. antiterrorism statute making it a crime to attack a U.S. official anywhere in the world. A trial is unlikely, however, since Mexico does not extradite its citizens.

    Ibarra and Aldana were stars of President Miguel de la Madrid's "permanent campaign" against drugs. But DEA agents believe that they, along with other top law-enforcement, intelligence and military officials, orchestrated the Camarena kidnaping because they feared that the DEA was about to expose their involvement in trafficking. Entries in Camarena's work diary show that at the time of his death he was following leads linking Aldana to the cartel.

    U.S. investigators say they now have witnesses who can testify that in October 1984 Aldana and Ibarra, his boss, met with Caro Quintero and other Guadalajara drug chieftains and plotted to kidnap Camarena. Aldana, who currently heads Mexico City's bar association, denied the charges last week.

    While the indictments of Aldana and Ibarra shocked many Mexicans, U.S. officials suspect the plot may have involved even more powerful Mexican officials. Among those still under investigation are Mexico's former Defense Minister and the former chief of the Federal Security Police. "We're not going to stop," says a senior U.S. investigator. "We're very close to others, higher than these. And there's no statute of limitations for murder."