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Freed drug lord missing, but present in Guadalajara

Rafael Caro Quintero, wanted by the U.S., has been ordered rearrested in Mexico. Whether or not he is hiding out in Guadalajara, his business interests are prominent here.

By Richard Fausset
August 25, 2013, 7:00 a.m.

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — There are some who suspect that Rafael Caro Quintero has hidden himself away here in this pleasant provincial capital where he was once known as “The Prince” — the drug lord with the gold-plated pistols who, back in the 1980s, doled out new Ford sedans as a way to win friends and influence people.

Others think he may have vanished into the rural badlands of Sinaloa, where he was born and raised.

Then there are those who wonder whether it is even safe to speculate on the whereabouts of a convicted murderer who was sprung from prison this month on a technicality, yet whose legend and business network remain formidable, despite nearly three decades behind bars.

“His location? I can’t imagine. Nor do I want to imagine,” said Jose Luis Guizar, his former defense attorney, with a mordant chuckle. “That may be a mortal sin.”

Today, Mexican authorities are presumably on the hunt for Caro Quintero, who walked out of Guadalajara’s Puente Grande penitentiary on Aug. 9 after an appeals tribunal controversially declared that he had been tried in the wrong court for the slaying of four people, including U.S. drug enforcement agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, in 1985. (The tribunal ruled that he should not have been tried in federal court because it did not consider Camarena a member of the diplomatic corps.)

Officials in Washington, livid that he did not serve his full 40-year sentence, have formally requested his extradition to the United States, where he is wanted on suspicion of a number of felonies, including murder. A Mexican judge has since ordered his rearrest.

Whether the Mexican government is capable of finding Caro Quintero remains to be seen. And yet his presence, manifested in his lingering legacy and fortune, is inescapable in Guadalajara, the leafy capital of the western state of Jalisco that he once called home.

In addition to being a founder of the Guadalajara drug cartel, Caro Quintero was said to be a partner, in the 1980s, in 300 businesses, including a luxury hotel, nightclubs, restaurants and a Ford dealership. Despite his rough-hewn rural background and first-grade education, he found allies in Guadalajara’s more traditional business class.

In some ways it was a good fit. Metropolitan Guadalajara, with its population of 4.4 million, is perhaps best known as the home of traditional Mexican culture, of mariachi and tequila. But it is also a city with thriving manufacturing and tech industries, and is proud of its modern, pro-business climate: A sign over the highway into town reads, “Welcome to Entrepreneurs Land.”

And Caro Quintero was nothing if not an entrepreneur.

His style was far from subtle. He had a fondness for adorning his weapons with diamonds. He famously wooed the niece of an ex-governor of Jalisco state by showering her with new cars and jewels. Police were allegedly bought with cash and Crown Victoria sedans. One witness in a criminal case memorably recalled seeing him at a party, smoking cocaine on the back of a prancing horse.

In a jailhouse interview years after his arrest, he claimed to have lost everything, including numerous ranches and 5,000 head of cattle.

But U.S. officials paint a different picture. For years, they have monitored what they describe as a complicated web of businesses that have helped launder his dirty money. And they say Caro Quintero has maintained an alliance with a branch of the Sinaloa cartel, currently Mexico’s most powerful criminal enterprise.

In June, the U.S. Treasury Department designated 15 businesses and 18 people in and around Guadalajara — including Caro Quintero’s four children, wife and brother-in-law — as being active players in his commercial network. As a result, they were placed on the U.S. government’s “kingpin” list, which prohibits Americans from conducting business with them and freezes any U.S. assets they may have.

But such restrictions accomplish only so much. Last week in an American-style indoor shopping mall called the Plaza Patria, a cheerful kiosk, part of the local bath and body chain called El Baño de Maria, offered pampering foot-scrub kits and spearmint-tea soap bars to a clientele that was unaware or didn’t care that the chain had been designated a money-laundering operation for the capo. (A branch of the store had been operating in a terminal of the Guadalajara airport until just a few weeks ago, according to airport employees.)

It was the same at the blacklisted Barbaresco restaurant, a chic, airy place where patrons dined on gourmet pizzas and salmon salads under splashy modern-art canvases.

On a busy road south of town, there was no sign that anything was amiss at a luxury gated community called Provenza Residencial, only banners promising future homeowners “tranquillity,” “exclusivity” and “fun.”

According to the Treasury Department, Provenza is owned or controlled by Juan Jose Esparragoza Morena, identified as a longtime drug trafficking partner of Caro Quintero and a current Sinaloa cartel boss. The Treasury Department alleges that Caro Quintero is an investor in the venture.

Predictably, none of this came up in a tour of the property. Instead, a salesman talked up the pool and gym, the basketball and tennis courts, the clean air and the 30-minute commute into town. New homes start at about $250,000, and the company, the agent said, was happy to help with financing.

The other Caro Quintero-affiliated businesses on the Treasury Department list are similarly unremarkable, the kind that pump wealth into any big city economy: a chain of shoe stores, a luxury spa, a gas station company, real estate and construction firms, a swimming pool business.

The suspicion that ill-gotten gains may be behind everyday businesses is a common one in Mexico, and particularly prevalent in Guadalajara since the mid-1970s, when Caro Quintero and his associates, feeling pressure from government crackdowns in their home state of Sinaloa, moved to town and established the city as their headquarters.

The custom continues to this day, and it is not likely to fade anytime soon. Guadalajara has long been surrounded by some of the country’s most important marijuana and poppy-growing regions, and its strategic importance has increased with the rise of the methamphetamine trade. Precursor chemicals from Asia are shipped to the Pacific port of Manzanillo, and meth labs now dot the landscape between the port and Jaliscan capital.

A new generation of capos, following the precedent set by Caro Quintero, are assumed to be living behind the walls of the city’s suburban enclaves, sending their kids to the better schools, and plowing their drug proceeds into numerous non-drug enterprises.

Residents have inured themselves to the possibility that any business might be connected. After suspected drug trafficker (and purported Caro Quintero relative) Sandra Avila Beltran, known as the “Queen of the Pacific,” was arrested in 2007, authorities seized 200 of her businesses, including a chain of Jalisco tanning salons called Electric Beach. Though acquitted of drug-trafficking charges, she is currently facing money-laundering charges in a Mexican court.

“Those are the suspicions you live with,” said a woman visiting a strip mall next to the Provenza development, who, like many here, declined to give her name for fear of getting mixed up with the capos. “You never know who the owners are.”

Though he might prove difficult to find, Caro Quintero is unlikely to regain his crown as the prince of Guadalajara. The drug game, and the players, have changed, and it is unclear how Caro Quintero would fit in. Officials say he is 60; his attorneys claimed that he was much older, and suffering fromsenility. The new generation of capos is locked in a ruthless battle for control of the region. Homicides in Guadalajara more than tripled from 2006 to 2011, according to the latest available government figures.

But what Caro Quintero undoubtedly continues to command, at least in some quarters, is a perverse respect. After his arrest in 1985, many Mexicans, particularly poor ones, embraced him as a Robin Hood-like folk hero, a man who, by will and cunning, was able to break through the social and economic barriers that keep many Mexicans down.

Taxi driver Raul Valadez said he was born in 1979 and was too young to remember those days. “But a lot of older people around here remember him,” Valadez said. “They say that he helped a lot of people. He created jobs.”

The cabbie fired up his car stereo one recent afternoon; one of the old corridos came blasting out. A nasally singer hailed Caro Quintero as the lion, the king of the beasts, whose roars could be heard even from jail.

Valadez hummed along as he moved the little cab through streets that seemed calm enough, with no obvious signs of lions anywhere.

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times


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