Rafael Caro Quintero: The True Story Of The Narcos Drug Lord Still On The Run

Published May 4, 2021
Updated July 28, 2021

Rafael Caro Quintero was one of Mexico's first and most powerful cartel leaders until he was suspected of orchestrating the brutal torture and murder of a DEA agent.

Rafael Caro Quintero was considered the “Narco of Narcos.” The bloodthirsty drug lord thought he was untouchable, but he overstepped his bounds when he brutally murdered an American agent.

Let out of jail on a technicality, the trafficker is still at large — and wanted by the FBI. Now, Caro Quintero is the central figure of season four of Netflix’s popular series Narcos. Here’s his true story.

Early Life And Finding The Guadalajara Cartel

Rafael Caro Quintero

fbi.govA photo of Rafael Caro Quintero from 2016.

Rafael Caro Quintero was born sometime in October 1952, in Sinaloa, Mexico. He has listed various birthdays spanning October to November or March of 1952.

Caro Quintero was one of 12 children and his father died when he was just 14-years-old. As the eldest son, the responsibility to support his mother and 11 siblings fell on Caro Quintero. After stints as a cattle rancher and working on corn and bean plantations, Caro Quintero realized that there was vastly more money to be made in a less traditional crop and began dabbling in growing marijuana under the guidance of a famously elusive Mexican drug lord Pedro Avilés Pérez.

Caro Quintero quickly amassed enough money to buy his own ranches entirely dedicated to producing the drug and soon had his entire family in on the business. His maternal uncles, his brother, and his wife’s family were all involved in the trafficking business.

Described by DEA agent James Kuykendall as “a true product of the Sinaloa drug traffic and the personification of the Sinaloa drug trafficker,” by the time he was 29-years-old, Caro Quintero was a “rising star in the Mexican underworld.”

In the 1970s, Rafael Caro Quintero partnered with Mexican narcotrafficker Felix Galardo and Ecuadorian drug lord Ernesto Fonseca Carillo in a bloodthirsty triumvirate. They founded the Guadalajara Cartel, which would become a prototype for the drug organizations that still plague Mexico to this day.

Together, the three men were known as the Grandfather of Mexican Drug Trafficking, El Padrino or The Godfather, and Don Neto. Rafael Caro Quintero himself was described by FBI officials as “one of the primary suppliers of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana to the United States” in the 1970s and 1980s.


Rafael Caro Quintero’s Downfall

In Netflix’s Narcos, Rafael Caro Quintero’s downfall begins when he starts to use cocaine himself and becomes increasingly paranoid and unpredictable.

In reality, Caro Quintero’s web began to unravel in November of 1984, when Mexican authorities raided his enormous “Buffalo Ranch” marijuana farm in Chihuahua which cost him an estimated $2.5 billion to $5 billion in street sales of the drug. The authorities had been tipped off by an undercover DEA agent and Caro Quintero, who was enraged at the loss, immediately began to plot his revenge.

In 1985, Caro Quintero with associates allegedly murdered two Americans, John Clay Walker and Alberto Radelat, who an increasingly paranoid Caro Quintero mistakenly thought to be DEA agents.

Meanwhile, it was believed that Enrique “Kiki” Camarena Salazar, a Mexican-born agent in deep undercover with the DEA, tipped off authorities about Buffalo Ranch and thus dealt the head of the powerful Guadalajara Cartel a significant blow.

Consequently, on February 7, 1985, Camarena was grabbed off the streets of Guadalajara in broad daylight. His body and the body of his pilot, Capt. Alfredo Zavala Avelar, were found wrapped in plastic nearly a month later on March 5, at a ranch 60 miles southwest of the city and Caro Quintero and his crew were the main suspects.

Camarena and Avelar had not been granted easy deaths. Over the course of 30 hours, the bones of Camarena’s face had been crushed, as had his windpipe. His ribs had been broken and a hole had been drilled into his head. The agent’s lungs were found to contain traces of drugs that his captors had cruelly given him in order to force him to remain awake during the ordeal.

Enrique Camarena

Wikimedia CommonsThe brutal murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena Salazar in the midst of Caro Quintero’s downfall.

Camarena’s death provoked massive outrage in the United States. The public was horrified by his torture and authorities were enraged by the ease with which one of their agents had been abducted, though several Mexican law enforcement officers would later be indicted for aid in the murder.

The United States began to seriously consider closing the border and President Regan put immense pressure on Mexican president Miguel de la Madrid to bring Camarena’s murderers to justice.

As much power and influence as Caro Quintero might have enjoyed in Mexico’s infamously corrupt government, he was no match for the concentrated fury of the United States. Which is why in April of 1985, two months after Camarena’s murder, Caro Quintero’s nearly two decades of bloody free reign in Mexico were brought to an end.

He was arrested in a Costa Rican mansion where he had fled and extradited back to Mexico where he was sentenced to 40 years of jail time as the suspected orchestrator of Camarena’s murder.

Caro Quintero’s arrest combined with that of Ernesto Fonseca caused the Guadalajara Cartel to crumble from within.

His Controversial Release

Rafael Caro Quintero’s story at first seemed a rare instance of justice being brought to one of Mexico’s most powerful cartel leaders, many of whom — such as El Chapo — wind up escaping if ever brought to jail at all.

In 2013, however, Caro Quintero was suddenly released from prison after 28 years behind bars. A Mexican federal court had ordered he be set free after overturning his conviction on the technicality that he had been tried in a federal court for state crimes. At the age of 53, the “Narco of Narcos” walked free again.

Caro Quintero Cell

Wikimedia CommonsCaro Quintero during a 2016 interview in Mexico.

Caro Quintero’s release infuriated American officials. The Obama White House issued a statement declaring “we remain as committed today in seeing Quintero and others involved in this crime face justice in the United States as we were in the immediate aftermath of Kiki Camarena’s murder.”

But Caro Quintero, for his part, claimed that he had officially retired from the bloody business. In a 2016 interview with a Mexican journalist, he swore “I was a drug trafficker 31 years ago, and from that moment I am telling you that when I lost the crops from [Buffalo Ranch], there I ended that activity.”

Caro Quintero Wanted

fbi.govIn 2018 the FBI added Caro Quintero to their list of Top 10 Most Wanted criminals.

The United States, perhaps unsurprisingly, seems wary of the idea Rafael Caro Quintero wants to live out his days in peace. In 2017 the DEA identified Caro Quintero as one of the functioning leaders of the Sinaloa cartel “responsible for smuggling hundreds of tons of methamphetamine, marijuana, and cocaine into the United States.”

In April of 2018, the FBI added the now 58-year-old “Grandfather of Drug Trafficking” to its list of the Top 10 Most Wanted, offering a $20 million reward — one of the highest amounts in FBI history — for any information on his whereabouts.

So far no one has come forward to claim the millions and it is speculated that Caro Quintero remains at large somewhere in Northern Mexico.

Next, check out these 31 insane photos posted by actual narcos. Then, read about Sandra Avila Beltran, Mexico’s only female cartel leader.

Gina Dimuro
A graduate of New York University, Gina Dimuro is a New York-based writer and translator.
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.
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Dimuro, Gina. "Rafael Caro Quintero: The True Story Of The Narcos Drug Lord Still On The Run." AllThatsInteresting.com, May 4, 2021, https://allthatsinteresting.com/rafael-caro-quintero. Accessed May 22, 2024.