Kiki Camarena

Inside The Brave Life And Horrifying Death Of Undercover DEA Agent Kiki Camarena

Published November 25, 2023
Updated January 31, 2024

After Enrique "Kiki" Camarena was found out by the Guadalajara cartel in 1985, he was kidnapped and tortured to death over the course of three days. Later, the anti-drug campaign known as Red Ribbon Week was established in his honor.

In an audio recording of the torture and interrogation of undercover DEA agent Kiki Camarena that was released to the public three years after his 1985 death, one can hear the desperate man pleading with his captors.

“Couldn’t I ask you to have my ribs bandaged, please?”

The recording is the only record authorities have of Camarena’s last agonizing moments on earth before his execution. Whether this execution was at the hands of cartel members, corrupt Mexican officials, or the CIA, remains a mystery.

In 1981, the DEA sent Camarena to Guadalajara, Mexico, after stints in Calexico and Fresno, California. He quickly helped develop an informant network in the Guadalajara Cartel’s drug trafficking activities and his legendary work there is the basis of Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico.

Kiki Camarena Family

justthinktwice.govDEA Special Agent Kiki Camarena with his wife, Geneva “Mika” Camarena, and two of their sons.

Kiki Camarena knew the dangers of being a DEA agent and he also knew how dangerous it could be to poke around cartel business. But more than anything, he wanted to make a difference in the War on Drugs.

“Even if I’m only one person,” Camarena once told his mother before becoming an agent, “I can make a difference.”

Special Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena: A Man With A Moral Mission

Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was born into a large Mexican family on July 26, 1947, in Mexicali, Mexico. He was one of eight children and he was around nine years old when he moved to Calexico, California.

Netflix introduces actor Michael Peña as Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena in season one of Narcos: Mexico..

He and his wife, Geneva “Mika” Camarena, were high school sweethearts. After serving in the U.S. Marines Camarena started work as a fireman in Calexico. Then in 1972, he graduated from Imperial Valley College with an Associate of Science degree in criminal justice and started working as a local police officer.

His background in narcotics police work opened the door for him to join the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1974, a year after President Nixon created the agency. But his sister, Myrna Camarena, was actually the one who joined the agency first.

“He was the one who talked me into joining DEA,” said Myrna, in a 1990 interview with AP News. She was working as a secretary for the DEA in Istanbul, Turkey, when her brother went missing.

To the Camarena siblings, being a special agent in the War on Drugs seemed like a dangerous game for a father of three. Their brother, Eduardo, was killed earlier in the Vietnam War and their mother, Dora, couldn’t bear the thought of losing another child.

But Dora believed in her son and Kiki Camarena believed in his mission — even if it meant putting his life at risk.

Kiki Camarena In The Marines

justthinktwice.govKiki Camarena in U.S. Marines.

Meanwhile, President Nixon Wages A War On Drugs

The exact nature of the DEA’s business in Mexico is still up for debate, but President Nixon presented that business to the American people as simply: A War on Drugs.

Only this wasn’t exactly the truth, according to what a former Nixon aide named John Ehrlichman told author Dan Baum in 2019. The drug war, Ehrlichman insisted, was really about targeting black people and hippies.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968 and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” said Ehrlichman.

“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.”

Kiki Camarena Mexico Police

justthinktwice.govDEA agent Kiki Camarena poses with Mexico’s law enforcement.

Nixon’s War on Drugs might have been presented to the public under a fantasy, but the havoc it wreaked on the people along the Mexico-United States border was very real. The demand for drugs suddenly spiked and dealing in and transporting them quickly became a billion-dollar industry.

Cartels got so rich and powerful that not even the DEA could stop them. At least, not until Kiki Camarena came along.

The Hunt For The Godfather Of Cocaine, Felix Gallardo

Some call Guadalajara Cartel boss Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo the Mexican Pablo Escobar, but others assert that “El Padrino,” or The Godfather, was more of a businessman.

The big difference between the two was that Escobar built his drug empire on production whereas Gallardo’s empire dealt mostly with distribution.

Gallardo was the leader of the Guadalajara Cartel along with Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo. Although there is less bloodshed tied to Gallardo’s name, he nonetheless earned himself the nickname of El Padrino with his ruthless appetite for profit.

Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo

Public DomainMiguel Ángel Félix Gallardo originally pursued a career in law enforcement before joining forces with the narcos.

Breaking Gallardo’s distribution network was thus Kiki Camarena’s number one priority as an undercover DEA agent in Guadalajara.

But the dangers of entering the cartel world were evident to Camarena early on and he did his best to keep his family out of the fray and in the dark as to how dangerous his work really was. Deep down, his wife Mika said, she still knew.

In an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2010, she shared, “I think the knowledge of the danger was always there. The work he performed had never been done at that level. He told me very little because he didn’t want me to worry. But I knew.”

Over four years, Camarena closely followed the Guadalajara Cartel’s movements in Mexico. Then he caught a break. Using a surveillance plane, he located the massive, nearly eight-billion-dollar Rancho Búfalo marijuana farm and led 400 Mexican authorities to destroy it.

The raid made him a hero at the DEA, but Camarena’s victory was short-lived. Now he had a target on his back, but whether that threat was from the Guadalajara Cartel or his own country is what makes this story even more tragic.

Who Really Killed DEA Agent Kiki Camarena?

On Feb. 7, 1985, a group of armed men abducted DEA agent Kiki Camarena in broad daylight as he left the U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara, Mexico, to meet his wife for lunch. Outnumbered and outgunned, Camarena didn’t fight as the men escorted him into a van.

It was the last day anyone would see him alive again.

An early investigation into Kiki Camarena’s death assumed that this was payback for his shutting down the Rancho Búfalo. As a result, cartel leaders Felix Gallardo and Rafael Caro Quintero received most of the blame for Kiki Camarena’s death.

Quintero received a 40-year prison sentence, but he only served 28 years when he got out on a legal technicality. Still wanted by U.S. authorities today, Quintero has since disappeared.

Meanwhile, Gallardo now 74 years old, is still serving time. In his early prison diaries, he wrote about being innocent of Kiki Camarena’s death.

Whoever would kill a DEA agent had to be a madman, the police told Gallardo during questioning. Indeed, but Gallardo insisted that he was “not mad.”

“I was taken to the DEA,” he wrote. “I greeted them and they wanted to talk. I only answered that I had no involvement in the Camarena case and I said, ‘You said a madman would do it and I am not mad. I am deeply sorry for the loss of your agent.'”

The Gruesome Details of Kiki Camarena’s Death

The Slain Body Of Kiki Camarena

Cindy Karp/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty ImagesThe bodies of Enrique Camarena Salazar and pilot Alfredo Zavala Avelar.

A month after his abduction, the body of special agent Kiki Camarena was found by the DEA 70 miles outside of Guadalajara, Mexico. With him, the DEA also found the body of Captain Alfredo Zavala Avelar, a Mexican pilot who helped Camarena to take aerial photographs of Rancho Búfalo.

Both men’s bodies were bound, badly beaten, and riddled with bullets. Camarena’s skull, jaw, nose, cheekbones, and windpipe were crushed. His ribs were broken and a hole had been bored into his skull with a power drill.

Amphetamines and other drugs found in his toxicology report suggested that Camarena was forced to remain conscious while he was being tortured.

The DEA’s response to Kiki Camarena’s death was the launch of Operation Leyenda which is to this day the largest DEA drug and homicide manhunt ever undertaken. The operation forever changed the structure of cartels in Mexico as the U.S.’s fists of fury were brought down on the drug business.

Legendary journalist Charles Bowden spent 16 years researching Camarena’s capture, torture, interrogation, and mutilation and compiled it together with the ensuing investigation into a gripping albeit complicated web of blood and deceit.

Yet, according to Bowden, Camarena’s murder had already been solved by a DEA agent assigned to the case when he was still missing.

The Men Inside The Torture And Interrogation Room

DEA agent Héctor Berrelle and Kiki Camarena never met in person, but they knew each other and shared case information.

Camarena's Flag Covered Casket

Kypros/Getty ImagesThe flag-covered casket of Enrique Camarena is escorted out of Guadalajara, Mexico en route to California for his funeral.

According to Bowden, Berrellez found the CIA responsible for Camarena’s death by late 1989 — but his findings were met with a dead end.

“On January 3, 1989, Special Agent Hector Berrellez was assigned to the case,” Bowden wrote. “By September 1989, he learned from witnesses of CIA involvement. By April 1994, Berrellez was removed from the case. Two years later he retired with his career in ruins.”

Still, Berrellez went public with what he knew.

In a 2013 TV interview with FOX News, Berrellez, another former DEA agent named Phil Jordan, and a CIA contractor named Tosh Plumlee all shared the belief that the CIA was to blame for Camarena’s death.

“I know and from what I have been told by a former head of the Mexican federal police, Comandante (Guillermo Gónzales) Calderoni, the CIA was involved in the movement of drugs from South America to Mexico and to the US,” Jordan said in the interview.

“In (Camarena’s) interrogation room, I was told by Mexican authorities, that CIA operatives were in there – actually conducting the interrogation; actually taping Kiki.”

Kiki Camarena’s Legacy

Kiki Camarena’s sacrifice in the War on Drugs did not go unnoticed. In 1988, just as an investigation into his murder was kicking off, TIME magazine put him on their cover. He received many awards while working in the DEA and he posthumously received the Administrator’s Award of Honor, the highest award given by the organization.

In this CBS Evening News segment, Kiki Camarena’s son Enrique Jr. explains how his father inspired him to become a judge.

In Fresno today, the DEA hosts a yearly golf tournament named after him. A school, a library, and a street in his home town of Calexico, California, are also named after him. The nationwide annual Red Ribbon Week, which teaches school children and youths to avoid drug use, was also established in his honor.

The DEA building in San Diego, a road in Carmel Valley, and the El Paso Intelligence Center in Texas all bear Camarena’s name. His name was also added to the law enforcement memorial in Washington, D.C.

After her husband’s murder, Geneva “Mika” Camarena moved her three boys back to the United States. She now runs the Enrique S. Camarena Educational Foundation which provides scholarships to high school students and advocates for drug prevention.

Though little is known publicly about two of Camarena’s three sons, one has been following in his father’s “legacy of duty.” Enrique S. Camarena Jr. took an oath of office in 2014 to become a San Diego Superior Court judge. Previously, he served 15 years as a deputy district attorney in San Diego County.

He was 11 years old when his father went missing.

“You know, I think about him every day,” Camarena Jr. said during his swearing-in ceremony. “And so for me, it’s still a little bit about the legacy of duty. And that’s what I’ve been doing up until yesterday. And I’m going to be serving my county, serving this community in a different way.”

When asked if she felt the DEA did enough to bring Camarena’s murderers to justice, Mika Camarena said she thought they got the key people who were responsible.

“But I try not to concentrate on that because it will keep me from doing my job and the things I need to do,” she said. “If that happens, then I’m letting them (the drug cartels) win.”

For Camarena’s mother, Dora, any documentary or TV series on his work is an opportunity to keep her son’s legacy alive. “He gave his full strength and everything he could to combat the drug trafficking in a foreign country. He left an example…I have a lot of faith, and that keeps me going.”

Indeed, Kiki Camarena did make a difference. His years of undercover work helped launch the largest DEA crackdown on Mexican drug cartels in the agency’s history. And though Camarena did not live to see it, generations after him will benefit from it.

After this look at the horrifying and complicated story of Kiki Camarena’s demise, see what the CIA, a poisoned milkshake, the American Mafia, and Fidel Castro all have in common. Then, explore the origin story writ in blood for Escobar’s Medellin cartel.

Leah Silverman
A former associate editor for All That's Interesting, Leah Silverman holds a Master's in Fine Arts from Columbia University's Creative Writing Program and her work has appeared in Catapult, Town & Country, Women's Health, and Publishers Weekly.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Cite This Article
Silverman, Leah. "Inside The Brave Life And Horrifying Death Of Undercover DEA Agent Kiki Camarena.", November 25, 2023, Accessed April 23, 2024.