The Tijuana cartel as we know it today has its roots in the Mexican states of Sinaloa on the southeast side of the Gulf of California and Jalisco in central Mexico. A former Mexican Judicial Federal Police officer and bodyguard to Sinaloan governor Leopoldo Sánchez, Miguel Félix was among the first Mexican drug lords to make connections with Colombian cartels in the mid-’70s thanks to his Honduran liaison Juan Matta. The U.S. government’s Operation Hat Tricks succeeded in cutting off Colombia’s cocaine supply route to south Florida in the mid-1980s, resulting in the fortification of relationships between Colombia’s Medellin and Cali cartels and Mexican trafficking organizations.
Also known as El Padrino, or “The Godfather,” Félix learned the ins of the drug trade from Pedro Avilés, who in the early 1970s dominated the territory from Chihuahua to Sinaloa. According to the DEA, Félix became the number-one cocaine trafficker in Mexico starting in the mid-’70s, thanks in part to the political and business connections facilitated by ex-Governor Sánchez. In 1976, an arrest order was issued for Félix in Tijuana for heroin and cocaine trafficking, but nothing further was done. According to the DEA, Félix was protected by an important narcotics official.
After Avilés was shot by federal police in September 1978, Félix formed the Guadalajara cartel with seasoned capos Rafael “El Número Uno” Caro and Ernesto “Don Neto” Fonseca. All three had learned the drug business in Sinaloa, a state with a history of opium and marijuana production dating back to the 1920s. They relocated to Guadalajara in order to elude 10,000 Mexican soldiers roaming the hills and multiple American aircraft that, under the auspices of Operation Condor, sprayed the crop-destroying herbicide paraquat in the mountains of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua.
At the peak of their operation in the early to mid-’80s, the Guadalajara cartel was believed by American officials to have orchestrated the smuggling of up to two tons of cocaine a month into the United States to feed what historian Héctor Aguilar termed “the insatiable North American nose.” Félix laundered his immense income, upwards of $30 million a month, in part by investing in tourism projects in Hermosillo and Puerto Vallarta.
The centralized political structure at the time, under the singular rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), invited the opportunity for corruption of high-level government officials. Drug-trafficking organizations fostered strong ties in particular with the Federal Security Directorate, which went largely unchecked in its domestic security operations until it was dismantled in 1985.
In November 1984, the Mexican Federal Police raided Caro’s property in El Búfalo, Chihuahua, and destroyed over 10,000 tons of marijuana, valued at nearly $2 billion. U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena headed the investigation, called Operation Godfather, a victory that he would pay for with his life a few months later. Thirty-seven-year-old Camarena, a Calexico, California native, and his pilot Alfredo Zavala were kidnapped by five armed men in broad daylight on the streets of Guadalajara on February 7, 1985, subsequently tortured for information about DEA operations, and then bludgeoned to death and buried in shallow graves 70 miles south of the city.
The incident effectively elevated narcotics smuggling from a law-enforcement issue to a matter of national security and spurred Calexico residents to erect signs on the highway reading, “Warning: Not Safe To Travel To Guadalajara, Mexico.” Parent-teacher organization members in California, Illinois, and Virginia wore red ribbons as a symbol of intolerance toward drug use, and in 1988 Congress announced the first National Red Ribbon Week, chaired by Nancy Reagan.
“Kiki’s killing symbolized corruption at its worst in Mexico,” said retired DEA special agent Phil Jordan. “We know why Kiki was taken from us — because the [Mexican] government was working in complicity with the godfathers of the drug trade…”
Caro fled Guadalajara two days after the kidnapping with his girlfriend and associates. Armando Pavón, the commander of the Mexican Federal Police heading the Camarena investigation, captured Caro shortly thereafter but allowed him to flee to Costa Rica, presumably on a bribe. The U.S. government launched an exhaustive investigation into Camarena’s murder. The lack of cooperation from the Mexican government led Commissioner of Customs William von Raab to order a six-day lockdown on the border. Camarena’s body was found within a week of the border closing.
Owing to the difficulty of extraditing Mexican citizens at the time, the DEA had two suspects secretly kidnapped and taken into the U.S. They were Humberto Álvarez, a physician who allegedly prolonged Camarena’s life so the torture could continue, and Javier Vásquez. Despite stern disapproval from the Mexican government, who felt their sovereignty was being violated (the president went so far as to threaten a halt to cooperation in antidrug efforts), Álvarez was tried and acquitted in United States District Court in Los Angeles. After a two-month trial, Vásquez was convicted of beating to death two tourists who accidentally entered a restaurant where cartel leaders were celebrating a marriage. The tourists were allegedly mistaken for DEA agents. Three other suspects — Honduran drug lord Juan Matta, Juan Bernabé, and Rubén Zuno — were found guilty of Camarena’s kidnapping.
Caro was arrested in Costa Rica on April 4, 1985, and extradited to Mexico City to be tried for the Camarena murder. Fonseca was captured by the Mexican Army at his villa in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, a few days later. Fonseca did not confess to participating in the abduction of Camarena and even expressed outrage at the torture of the DEA agent. Regardless, both were sentenced to 40 years for drug trafficking and the murder of Camarena and Zavala. It was estimated that Caro’s fortune was in excess of U.S. $650 million at the time of his capture.
Félix continued to reign as the premier kingpin of Mexico until President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, seeking to fortify relations with the U.S. government, issued the order for Félix’s arrest for complicity in the murder of agent Camarena. On April 8, 1989, the notorious capo was taken into custody by a 12-man police task force fronted by federal police commander Guillermo González. Félix offered the men $5 million in exchange for his freedom, to no avail. Hours after his arrest, the entire Culiacán police force (about 300 men) was rounded up for interrogation about possible connection to Félix. About 90 deserted in the days following. Félix, whom Attorney General Enrique Alvarez del Castillo described as the “number-one narcotics trafficker in Mexico,’’ was charged with drug trafficking, bribery, and illegal possession of weapons and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.