Mexico president justifies release of kingpin targeted by US

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Wednesday defended the 2013 ruling that freed one of the drug lords most wanted by U.S. authorities, even though Mexico’s Supreme Court later ruled it was a mistake.

Rafael Caro Quintero walked free while serving a 40-year sentence for the torture-murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena in 1985, and has since apparently resumed his role as violent drug trafficker.

Caro Quintero is at the top of the DEA’s Most Wanted list, with a $20 million reward for his capture.

López Obrador said Wednesday the legal appeal that led to Caro Quintero’s release was "justified" because supposedly no verdict had been handed down against the drug lord after 27 years in jail. López Obrador also depicted a later warrant for his re-arrest as an example of U.S. pressure.

"Once he was out, they had to look for him again, because the United States demanded he shouldn’t have been released, but legally the appeal was justified," López Obrador said.

Presidential spokesman Jesús Ramírez said "the president was just saying that it was a legal aberration that the judge had not issued a verdict on Mr. Caro Quintero after 27 years … but he was not defending his release."

There was a verdict — but a Mexican appeals court initially decided it had come from the wrong judge.

In August 2013, the appeals court overturned Caro Quintero’s 40-year sentence in the killing of Camarena and a Mexican government pilot. The panel argued a state court should have overseen the case, not a federal one, and ordered his immediate release from a maximum-security prison.

Mexico’s Supreme Court annulled the order releasing him months later, saying Camarena was a registered U.S. government agent and therefore his killing was a federal crime and had been properly tried. An arrest warrant was issued for Caro Quintero, who has been in hiding since his release.

His late-night release angered the U.S. government and surprised Mexican prosecutors, who weren’t notified until hours after it took place.

The issue is a thorny one for López Obrador, who has publicly stated that the Mexican government is no longer interested in detaining drug lords. In 2019, López Obrador ordered the release of Ovidio Guzman, a son of imprisoned drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzman, to avoid bloodshed.

Even if the president was misinformed about why Caro Quintero was released in 2013, more than five years before he took office, it seems to illustrate how little importance the case — or the search for the drug lord — apparently has for the Mexican government, even while it remains a top priority for the United States.

Since his release, Caro Quintero has reportedly established alliances with other cartels and has established an operation in the northern state of Sonora, reputedly to wrest territory from Guzman’s sons and the Sinaloa cartel.