February 7, 1985 | Enrique “Kiki” Camarena Kidnapped

 Billboard along California Highway 111 (Photo by Brent Clingman/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
 

“The decision [by traffickers] to kill a U.S. federal agent changed everything.”

—James Kuykendall, retired DEA agent

Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was walking down a busy street in Guadalajara, Mexico, headed to lunch with his wife, when he was kidnapped by armed gunmen. His kidnapping sparked a massive manhunt that drew international attention to Mexican drug cartels and practically shutdown the US-Mexico border.

Camarena was a 37-year-old Mexican-born American, US Marine Corps veteran, and had served with the DEA for 11 years. He was married with three young children. James Kuykendall, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA’s Guadalajara field office later described Camarena’s responsibilities,

"He was not involved in deep undercover work as I would define it. The undercover work which was done was mostly to find out who was doing what, what sort of drugs they were dealing in, what quantities... The other agents in the office were doing the same thing, but Kiki was just a little better at it. A little more motivated."

The manhunt for Camarena was to no avail. Thirty days after he was taken, his body, along with pilot Alfredo Zavala Avelar whom he worked with, was found on the side of the road in the Mexican State of Michoacan. His decomposing body showed signs of brutal torture. Evidence suggested that Camarena lived for about two days after his kidnapping and that his torturers used amphetamines to keep him awake.

The search for Camarena’s killers became a massive homicide investigation titled "Operation Leyenda." The operation found that the Guadalajara Drug Cartel ordered Camarena’s murder. This inspired a multi-year campaign by the DEA to bring down the heads of the cartel. Ernesto "Don Neto" Fonseca was convicted of Camarena’s murder in 1985, and released on home arrest in 2016 due to poor health; Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo was sentenced to 40 years in prison and is still serving his time in Guadalajara; and Rafael Caro Quintero was also sentenced to 40 years, but was released in 2013. He is currently in hiding and listed on Interpol’s 15 Most Wanted Fugitives.