Assassinated DEA Agent Kiki Camarena Fell in a CIA Operation Gone Awry, Say Law Enforcement Sources
He Was Killed, They Say, Because "He Knew Too Much" About Official Corruption in the Drug War
DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was abducted in early February 1985 shortly after leaving the US consulate in Guadalajara, Mexico. His body was found several weeks later, partially decomposed, wrapped in a plastic death shroud and buried in a shallow grave some 70 miles north of the Mexican city.
One of the chief architects of Camarena’s kidnapping, brutal torture and ultimate death, Rafael Caro Quintero, was released prematurely on Aug. 9 from a Mexican prison, by order of a Mexican federal court, after having served 28 years of a 40-year-sentence for the crime. His release caused an outcry among US law enforcers and officials, who contend his freedom is an affront to justice and to the memory of Camarena.
Several recent reports in the US and Mexican media, however, have raised questions about the real story behind Camarena’s murder. Those stories are based on interviews with several individuals who are familiar with the case, including the DEA agent who was charged with investigating Camarena’s slaying, the now-retired Hector Berrellez.
The other two individuals also knew Camarena personally and were intimately familiar with the US government operations Camarena was allegedly investigating prior to his abduction and murder. One of those men is former DEA agent Phil Jordan, who used to head the El Paso Intelligence Center, located in far West Texas along the Mexican border; the other is Tosh Plumlee, a long-time CIA operative, pilot, and, since then, whistleblower.
The mainstream press stories — published by Fox News and The El Paso Times in the US, and Proceso in Mexico — raise the specter of CIA involvement in Camarena’s death. Proceso's coverage went as far as to claim the CIA ordered Camarena’s murder.
But CIA officials released a statement to the media claiming that “it’s ridiculous to suggest that the CIA had anything to do with the murder of a U.S. federal agent or the escape of his killer [Caro Quintero].”
Narco News, however, has uncovered previously unreported information about the Camarena case — following independent interviews with Berrellez, Jordan, Plumlee and others — that confirms Caro Quintero was, in fact, protected by CIA assets in the weeks after Camarena’s murder and that the DEA agent’s abduction may well be connected to what a renowned Mexican journalist had uncovered just prior to his assassination in Mexico in 1984.
All of the recent mainstream press stories alleging CIA links to Camarena’s murder followed the publication in early August of Narco News’ story about Caro Quintero’s release from a Mexican prison. It was Narco News’ story that pointed out that the CIA’s fingerprints were all over the Camarena case — an observation that other journalists, such as Chuck Bowden, had advanced in the past, back in the 1990s.
Former CIA contract pilot Plumlee told Narco News during the course of a series of recent interviews that after Camarena’s murder in early February 1985, he was ordered by his CIA handlers to fly into a ranch located near Veracruz, Mexico.
That ranch, he claims and DEA documents show, was controlled by the narco-trafficker Caro Quintero. It also was being used by the CIA — which was operating there using Mexico’s intelligence service, the Federal Security Directorate, as a cover. The Federal Security Directorate, or DFS in its Spanish initials, has since been reorganized and rebranded as CISEN, which still works closely with US officials and agencies, including the CIA.
The Veracruz ranch was being used as a drugs-and-weapons transshipment location — part of a larger effort to fund and supply the US-trained Contra guerrillas.
That covert effort was at the root of a scandal known as Iran/Contra, which played out during President Ronald Reagan’s second term in the 1980s. One facet of the scandal involved illegally raising money via arms sales to Iran to fund the Nicaraguan Contra’s counter-insurgency campaign against the government of Nicaragua. Another part of the scandal also implicated the CIA and the White House National Security Council in alleged U.S.-sanctioned narcotics and arms trafficking.
Investigative journalist Gary Webb further bolstered the claims of the U.S. government’s involvement in narco-trafficking in his now-famous Dark Alliance series published in 1996 by the San Jose Mercury News.
Plumlee contends that at some point after Camarena’s murder, Caro Quintero was transported to the CIA-linked ranch near Veracruz, where Plumlee was ordered to intercept him.
“I was ordered to pick up Caro Quintero at that ranch,” Plumlee told Narco News. “I didn’t really know who he was at the time. But it was a [US government] sanctioned operation.”
Plumlee says he flew Caro Quintero in a Cessna 310 (owned by a “CIA cutout” called SETCO) to a private airstrip located just across the Mexican border in Guatemala.
“I was told to take a person from point A to B, and I did,” Plumlee says, referring to his job as a CIA contract pilot. “If you ask too many questions, you won’t be around too long.”
Plumlee contends another pilot, “also associated with SETCO,” then picked up Caro Quintero in Guatemala and flew him to Costa Rica. (Caro Quintero was ultimately captured in Costa Rica in April 1985, some three months after Camarena was killed.)
After dropping Caro Quintero off in Guatemala, Plumlee says he “assumes” the narco-trafficker was flown into John Hull’s ranch in Costa Rica.
“John Hull's ranch [allegedly] was [another ranch] protected by the CIA and … Hull took advantage of this protection and allowed planes loaded with cocaine to land there, charging $10,000 per landing,” states a US Department of Justice Office of Inspector General (OIG) report issued in 1997.
SETCO, too, was part of the covert Contra-supply effort, according to a 1998 CIA-OIG report:
According to U.S. law enforcement records cited in the Kerry Report [released by a US Senate subcommittee chaired by then-Sen. John Kerry], SETCO was established by Juan Matta Ballesteros, "a class I DEA violator." The Kerry Report also states that those records indicate that Matta was a major figure in the Colombian cartel and was involved in the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena. Matta was extradited to the United States in 1988 and convicted on drug trafficking charges. [Emphasis added.]
Plumlee also had a connection to slain DEA agent Camarena. He told Narco News that he met with Camarena in late 1984 at a small cafe in Phoenix, Ariz. Camarena had come to Phoenix to interview Plumlee as part of his investigation into the covert Contra-supply operations in Mexico.
Following is Plumlee’s recollection of what was discussed at that meeting:
I had flown into the ranch [near Veracruz, Mexico] many times with weapons for the Contra southern front, as well into Costa Rica (as referenced in Senator Gary Hart’s letter of 1991)
The Oaxaca Cafe was a small place, but was noted for its food dishes from the south, around Oaxaca, Mexico. ... The Phoenix organized crime boys [Plumlee, says, at the time, he was embedded in a tri-state law-enforcement task force] used to eat there a lot with a few local DEA. They chose the place.
… This information, [discussed with Camarena] at the Oaxaca [Cafe], launched a series of field reports back to DEA [via Camarena] and CIA [because Plumlee reported it to his handlers] … and Washington for follow-up information to confirm the rumor that weapons were going south for the Contras in order to override the Boland Amendment [which severely restricted US aid to the Contras], and drugs coming back to finance the operation. Kiki [Camarena] had reported this to his people in Guadalajara, asking why they had not moved on this ranch near Veracruz and the weapons stocks.
… Kiki did not trust the CIA and I told him, “We’re on the same team,” or I might have said, ‘They’re on the same team,’ and I think his reply was something like, ‘We’ll see about that.’ Some weeks later he and his pilot were kidnapped.
Plumlee during that period (early-to-mid-1980s) was already talking with then-Sen. Gary Hart’s office about the drug-and-weapons shipments he was being ordered to carry out as part of US-government sanctioned operations. In fact, he provided testimony to the US Senate several times “behind closed doors” in the 1980s and early 1990s, revealing what he knew about the operations.
The following is from testimony he provided to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in August 1990:
Documentation provided by Mr. Plumlee and other testimony from pilots and operatives indicate Plumlee flew many black operations, including flying arms to Central America in the early eighties and drugs back into the United States, being advised that these activities were sanctioned operations and were in the national interest.
Plumlee’s Senate testimony also includes a reference to a 1990 DEA report “marked secret” that discusses information Mexican journalist Manuel Buendia had uncovered that exposed the CIA’s alleged relationships with “known narcotic traffickers in the Veracruz area” as well as “information that would expose high-ranking members of the PRI political party who were assisting the CIA with arms smuggling.”
Bill Holen, who was a member of Gary Hart’s US Senate staff from 1975-1986, in an interview with Narco News confirmed he did meet with Plumlee on several occasions in the early 1980s to discuss and document his allegations concerning government-sanctioned drug-and-arms smuggling. A letter drafted in 1991 by Sen. Hart and sent to Sen. Kerry confirms that fact as well.
“I conveyed what he [Plumlee] said to the [Senate] Subcommittee on Narcotics, Terrorism and International Operations, then headed by Sen. Kerry,” Holen says. “They did validate what Tosh was saying.… Kerry’s staff did speak to me on several occasions, and they did bring Tosh in to testify. I have no reason not to believe Tosh [Plumlee].”
Former DEA commander Jordan spent some time with Camarena in Guadalajara, Mexico, in the spring of 1984. At the time, Jordan says he realized that Mexican DFS agents were tailing Camarena.
Jordan says Camarena told him that it was true that the DFS did the bidding of narco-traffickers, but more importantly, Jordan recalls, Camarena said, “They [the DFS] also are the ears and arms of the CIA.”
In the wake of Camarena’s murder, Jordan says DEA agents managed to catch up with Caro Quintero at the airport in Guadalajara, but were prevented from apprehending him because Caro Quintero was protected by dozens of DFS agents.
Jordan, who says he has two trusted sources of information on the so-called “Mexican stand-off” at the Guadalajara airport, adds that the plane Caro Quintero flew out on that day was owned by narco-trafficker “Matta Ballesteros,” the founder of SETCO. Jordan also contends Caro Quintero was carrying DFS credentials and that the aircraft’s pilot was “a CIA operative.”
Berrellez, who spent some five years of his life investigating Camarena’s murder while working for the DEA, confirms that DFS agents did play a major role in Camarena’s abduction and subsequent interrogation. Besides the individuals in the car used to nab Camarena off the street, Berrellez says there were armed men positioned at all the intersections near the kidnapping scene.
Present at the house in Guadalajara where Camarena was held after his kidnapping, Berrellez says, were narco-traffickers like Caro Quintero, his partner Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo and members of their organization. Also at the house, he adds, were DFS agents as well as several CIA operatives, among others — along with plenty of tape-recording equipment. Berrellez says he has sources who were at the house when Camarena was being tortured and later became government witnesses and have confirmed these facts.
The goal of abducting Camarena, Berrellez believes, was not to kill him, but rather to conduct a police-style interrogation to find out where he was getting his information about CIA’s covert operations in Mexico.
Berrellez — as well as Jordan and Plumlee — say they believe it is likely Camarena was abducted on orders from powerful individuals who were calling the shots in the CIA-supported Contra supply operation (individuals who ultimately reported to the White House).
Those individuals wanted to find and control the sources providing information to Camarena in order to protect the covert operation and ultimately the White House. Berrellez also says Camarena played a key role in helping DEA to successfully ramp up interdiction of the proceeds from illicit drug sales, thereby threatening the funding source for the CIA-backed Contra-supply effort — which was another incentive for ferreting out his sources of information.
Berrellez contends the stakes were high, the mix of characters involved volatile, and things got out of hand, ultimately reaching a point of no return. Camarena had been tortured to the extent that he needed to be hospitalized, Berrellez says, and that risk could not be taken by his abductors, so the decision was made to torture Camarena to death. Ultimately, it was a botched operation that spawned a cover-up by the US government players involved, one that has played out to this day.
“We got tapes [of Camarena’s torture] from the CIA,” Berrellez says. “How did they get those tapes?
“And my sources indicated there were five tapes, but we [DEA] only got three from the CIA.”
A Hard Shell
Neither Berrellez, nor Jordan or Plumlee, were at the house in Guadalajara in February 1985 when Camarena was terrorized and murdered, so any information they have about those events is second-hand.
But the revelations made by Plumlee, a known CIA asset, along with the information dug up by Berrellez and Jordan via their DEA sources and investigations, if accepted as accurate, do point to a quite credible conclusion: The CIA did play a role in aiding and abetting the escape of one of the prime suspects in Camarena’s murder — Rafael Caro Quintero.
The one loose end in Plumlee’s story seems to be that he insists he flew Caro Quintero to Guatemala from a ranch near Veracruz, Mexico. Jordan and Berrellez, however, contend Caro Quintero boarded a plane in Guadalajara in the wake of Camarena’s murder. On the surface, their stories appear to be in conflict.
But, of course, there is a twist, and a quite remarkable one, given the international manhunt supposedly underway for Caro Quintero at the time.
Berrellez told Narco News that Caro Quintero did not leave Mexico after he flew out of the Guadalajara airport with the assistance of DFS agents. Instead, Berrellez says Caro Quintero flew to a city in the Mexican state of Sonora, called Caborca, to visit family.
“He [Rafael Caro Quintero] went there [to Caborca] to meet with his brother, Miguel, and his cousins Emilio Quintero-Payan and Juan Jose (Juanjo) Quintero-Payan, two major documented heroin violators. One of the largest heroin seizures on the border was traced back to Emilio. The Quintero-Payan family is a well known family in Caborca,” Berrellez says. “…The flight to Costa Rica happened a week or two later.”
And, according to Plumlee, it was after Caro Quintero left Caborca that he was flown to the ranch near Veracruz, and from there, Plumlee flew him out of Mexico.
Berrellez also made another revelation that he considers a key piece of the puzzle in the Camarena murder. As part of the investigation into the DEA agent’s death, Berrellez says his team tracked down everyone that showed up on his call log. One of those phone numbers, Berrellez says, belonged to Mexican journalist Buendia, which means Camarena was in contact with the journalist prior to Buendia’s assassination in 1984.
“Buendia could identify the CIA guys [behind the covert Contra drugs-for-guns operation] by name. What information did he provide to Kiki [Camarena]?” Berrellez asks. “I believe Kiki talked to Buendia before he was murdered, and I believe Kiki interviewed Plumlee after that and discussed what he learned from Buendia, and then Plumlee reported that [to his CIA handlers] and it ultimately led to Kiki getting picked up [for questioning], and then they went overboard, and he is now dead.”
Berrellez can only deal in speculation on that front, but it is an opinion that both Jordan and Plumlee say they share. In fact, Sen. Hart’s former staff member, Holen, shares a similar concern.
Holen says the nature of the information Plumlee reported to his CIA handlers after meeting with Camarena, “does raise some concerns as to who is to blame for his [Camarena’s] abduction, torture and death.”
“I think the tentacles of this [covert] Contra operation run deep and are embedded in what happened to Kiki Camarena,” Holen adds. “No one person knows the whole story.
“Covert operations have a thick shell that’s very hard to break open. But as my old boss [Sen. Hart] used to say, ‘The truth will always, ultimately come out.’”