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Caro Quintero, the old capo who revolutionized the world of marijuana

-“Why do you smile so much?”, “Has life treated you well?”

-“Yes, he has treated me well because I am alive,” Rafael Caro Quintero replied to a journalist on the day in 1985 that he entered a prison for the first time.

He had just been caught with his girlfriend in Costa Rica, he was 33 years old and he was the biggest marijuana dealer in the world. On Friday he was arrested in Sinaloa, 150 kilometers from the town where he was born and from where he led a small army that spread terror in northern Sonora. In a world of drug lords, having reached the age of 33 alive was already a luxury, but doing so at the age of 69 is a privilege rewarded with a free retirement, but to which Caro Quintero responded as the fable of the scorpion and the tortoise: drug dealing.

Born in 1952 in the municipality of Badiraguato, Sinaloa, the homeland of drug traffickers such as Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán and Ernesto Fonseca, ‘Don Neto’, his life equals business skills, love and violence that led him to the top of drug trafficking in record time. If there were a robot portrait of the great drug lords of the 1980s in Mexico, Caro Quintero would be a good example.

The son of peasants who had ten children, nephew of Lamberto Quintero and cousin of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, ‘The Lord of the Skies’, thus known for his ability to bring small planes into the United States, Caro Quintero barely knew how to read and write, but his entrepreneurial nose made him rich with marijuana in a few years. Before he was 30 years old, he built a 600-hectare drug production center, the largest ever seen, and he had paid police, military, politicians and judges from all over the country. Caro Quintero revolutionized the world of marijuana when he managed to massively reproduce only female plants, without seeds, which also took up less space. 4,000 peasants worked on his farm in El Búfalo and trucks loaded with marijuana left every day thanks to the sophisticated irrigation system and the construction of the first greenhouses seen in the country. Caro Quintero’s marijuana was not only the favorite of consumers, but also brought in more trucks and planes than anyone else in the United States.

Rafael Caro during an interview with Mexican journalists while in prison in 1984.
Rafael Caro during an interview with Mexican journalists while in prison in 1984.

At that time, Chapo Guzmán was just a hit man for the cartel that Caro Quintero led together with Don Neto and Félix Gallardo. One produced weed at close range, another introduced Colombian cocaine and another coordinated the strategies to move trucks and planes to the United States. Together they were the Guadalajara cartel, later converted into the Sinaloa cartel, the most powerful in the country until a few years ago with the emergence of Jalisco Nueva Generación.

One day in November 1984, hundreds of soldiers showed up, arrested all the workers and burned the 8,000 tons of marijuana they found, in what remains to this day the largest drug seizure in a single place. The definitive proof to locate the camp was an area photo of the huge camp that forced Mexico to act in the face of pressure from the United States.

After the coup, Caro Quintero swore revenge and three months later killed ‘Kiki Camarena’ Salazar, a DEA agent who had managed to infiltrate the farm and the pilot of the plane. But he didn’t do it anyway, he tortured them for weeks while a doctor tried to keep them alive so he could torture them longer. The DEA has since sworn revenge.

Those were the times when drug traffickers went to bars, bragged about their money in nightclubs, closed whorehouses or took pictures with ministers and governors where they appeared as successful businessmen from the countryside.

In one of the bars, Caro Quintero, a handsome and seductive guy with peasant manners, who had barely finished primary school, met Sara Cosío Vidaurri, a 17-year-old girl from the high and conservative society of Guadalajara, niece of the former Governor of Jalisco. Guillermo Cosio Vidaurri. With her DEA hot on his heels, he fled with her to Costa Rica. The family denounced that she had been kidnapped and the soap opera of her escape was followed both in gossip magazines and in the newspapers. The day the young woman called her parents to say that she was fine, her call was intercepted. When the police entered the house at Bonnie and Clyde in Sinaloa, she said: “I’m not kidnapped, I’m in love,” say the chronicles of the time

Sara Cosío and Rafael Caro Quintero in archive photographs.
Sara Cosío and Rafael Caro Quintero in archive photographs.

After spending 28 years in five different prisons, Caro Quintero achieved freedom in 2013 with a legal trick. A judge decided that he should not have been tried in a federal court, but in one from his town, and released him long enough for him to escape. At the age of 59, the old capo returned to freedom and underground.

In the broadcast images of that day there was nothing left of the provocative and sarcastic young man who liked television interviews and in them he appeared as an old man who had decided to abandon the criminal life. The reality, however, is that he reassembled a small army and went back to his old ways in places like Caborca ​​or San Luis Río Colorado where he tried to make his way with a clean shot in the world of organized crime.

Members of the Navy and the Federal Ministerial Police carry out an operation in the Hangar of the Attorney General of the Mexican Republic to carry out the transfer of capo Rafael Caro Quintero to the Altiplano Prison in July 2022.Video: AFP

When he was captured Friday afternoon, the navy said he was hiding in some bushes and that a dog from the prosecution found him while she was chasing him. In the images, however, a properly dressed man appears, with his feet untouched by mud and a well-pressed shirt and jacket. 40 years after the murder of ‘Kiki’ Camarena, the DEA kept him as its number one target on the list of its most wanted criminals and offered 20 million dollars for his capture.

Criticized by the United States for his paralysis in the face of violence, with his capture López Obrador settles accounts with the past, giving up a minor figure in the country’s violent organization chart. López Obrador can boast his first catch of weight but his critics reproach him for anyone succumbing to a visit to the White House three days after meeting with Biden. The United States, for its part, celebrates it as a paid bill.

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