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Mexico judge blocks extradition of ‘Narco of Narcos’ Rafael Caro Quintero

The United States hoped for the former drug kingpin's swift extradition, but a fundamental element of constitutional law in Mexico has delayed the process.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — The United States will not get one of its most wanted drug traffickers as quickly as hoped after a Mexican judge on Monday suspended the extradition of former drug kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero.

Wanted by the United States for drug trafficking and his suspected responsibility for the murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985, Caro Quintero was arrested Friday in the northern state of Sinaloa.

While the U.S. government’s request for “immediate extradition” began Saturday, Caro Quintero’s defense team found a way to keep the former kingpin in the country at least a little while longer. 

His lawyers filed a writ of amparo, a legal remedy in Mexican law similar to habeas corpus that is used to protect constitutional rights. Security experts, however, called it a pretext to keep the former leader of the now defunct Guadalajara Cartel in Mexico.

“It looks like Caro Quintero is still calling the shots in Mexico,” said security specialist David Saucedo, who added the judge made a bad call when he granted the former capo’s protection order. 

The likely idea behind Caro Quintero’s legal strategy, Saucedo said, is to make him stand trial for the crimes of which he stands accused in Mexico before facing extradition to the United States.

“It’s a legal trick, a pretext, with the objective of preventing the ‘Narco of Narcos’ from serving a sentence in a high-security prison in the United States,” he said. “In the United States, he surely would not be able to run his criminal organization, but he can from within Mexico.”

While the protection order delays Caro Quintero’s extradition for now, Saucedo said Mexico Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero will likely intercede in the coming days, repealing the writ of amparo and clearing the way for extradition.

Others familiar with the capture and extradition of Mexican drug traffickers expressed similar optimism about Caro Quintero eventually facing justice in the United States.

“A lot of people believed it was going to happen immediately, but I knew that it was going to take some time,” said former DEA chief of international operations Mike Vigil. 

“They use amparo to block everything [in Mexico], so I’m hoping that it will be reviewed legally and then they can move forward with the extradition, because my concern is that if Caro Quintero stays in Mexico, he’s going to be able to threaten or pay a bribe to get released again,” said Vigil.

Arrested in 1985 for his suspected role in the kidnapping, torture and murder of Camareno, Caro Quintero was released in 2013 after a state court found “irregularities” in his trial and sentencing. 

The former capo engaged in minor-level trafficking of marijuana after his release, but did not return to the high-ranking leadership he had known before his imprisonment. The importance of his most recent arrest and impending extradition is largely symbolic in nature.

“The arrest of Caro Quintero means everything to me, it means everything to the DEA, because he was the intellectual author of the assassination of our agent Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena,” said Vigil, who added that it also “sends a very strong message that we will not tolerate the harming of agents and we will hunt these perpetrators from one side of the earth to the other.”

DEA Administrator Anne Milgram released a statement after the arrest in which she claimed that DEA agents had participated in the operation, but officials south of the border — both U.S. and Mexican — denied the claim.

“For clarification, no United States personnel participated in the tactical operation that resulted in Caro Quintero’s arrest: the apprehension of Caro Quintero was exclusively conducted by the Mexican government,” said U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar in a statement on Saturday.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took umbrage at the idea of sharing the credit with the U.S. agency during his morning press conference Monday.

“In the case of the participation of the DEA, as the U.S. ambassador said, they made no direct interference [in the operation],” said López Obrador. 

Vigil called the issue a “matter of semantics,” saying that while DEA boots were probably not on the ground during the arrest, the agency likely provided the critical information that led to Caro Quintero’s arrest. 

“An operation of this magnitude would not be possible without some involvement from the DEA,” said Vigil, citing the agency’s technical capability and extensive informant network in Mexico.

A helicopter crash during the hunt for Caro Quintero led to the deaths of 14 Mexican soldiers. Vigil called them “absolute heroes” and highlighted the importance of Mexico’s armed forces in the fight against criminal organizations that traffic drugs to the United States.

“The Mexican Marines are absolutely stellar and the DEA has always had a very strong working relationship with them,” he said. “They are the most effective unit in terms of counter-drug efforts.”

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