DEA agent’s murder in Mexico unhealed wound for ex-Fresno partner

Fresno police officer Pete Santellano and DEA agent “Kiki” Camarena walk out of La Flor de Mexico in Fresno’s Chinatown after making a heroin buy in this 1974 photo taken from an undercover surveillance van.
Fresno police officer Pete Santellano and DEA agent “Kiki” Camarena walk out of La Flor de Mexico in Fresno’s Chinatown after making a heroin buy in this 1974 photo taken from an undercover surveillance van. Special to The Bee

It’s an old wound that still aches.

Rafael Caro Quintero, a founding member of the Sinaloa Cartel and the man responsible for the kidnapping, torture and murder of a DEA agent with strong ties to Fresno, is a free man somewhere in Mexico.

Caro Quintero, once known as “El Jefe de Jefes,” (Boss of Bosses), was freed from a Mexican prison on a technicality in 2013 after serving 28 years for the 1985 abduction and murder in Mexico of one-time Fresno federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique Camarena. The 1985 murder took place after Camarena’s investigation led to the destruction of a vast Caro Quintero marijuana growing operation in Chihuahua state.

The Association of Former Federal Narcotics Agents calls the release of Caro Quintero an “outrage.” The DEA itself is offering a $5 million reward for his capture. But for Pete Santellano, a retired Fresno police narcotics detective, it’s more personal: “Kiki” Camarena, for whom Red Ribbon week is dedicated, was his best friend, someone Santelleno met as a young man as he began his four-decade law enforcement career.

Santellano joined the Fresno Police Department in 1969 and soon began working narcotics, making buys from street-level heroin dealers. Narcotics work was different then. The officers were lightly armed, usually carrying only their personal sidearms. They didn’t have body armor. Santellano remembers asking his mother to help make him a “raid jacket” – the marked windbreakers officers slip on over plain clothes before kicking in a dealer’s door.

Things were about to change. In 1974, then-Fresno police Sgt. Ed Winchester (later Fresno police chief) became head of the newly formed Major Narcotics Unit and directed his team to bypass street dealers and go for the big operators. The heroin was coming from Mexico and Santellano, a fluent Spanish speaker who could fit in wearing the cowboy hat and jeans of a Norteño cowboy, was a natural fit to make buys.

The narcotics unit collaborated with the DEA, and Santellano began his close working relationship with Camarena.

Rise of a drug kingpin

As the 1980s began, Caro Quintero was becoming one of the major players among Mexican drug smugglers. According to the U.S. Army’s West Point magazine, the CTC (Combatting Terrorism Center) Sentinel, the native of Sinaloa state was a key figure in the Guadalajara Cartel and oversaw the vast marijuana operation in Chihuahua state at a place called Rancho Bufalo, with an annual production worth $8 billion.

The Guadalajara Cartel also was among the first Mexican cartels to forge ties with Colombian drug trafficking networks. At 29, Caro Quintero had $500 million in the bank, 36 houses and 300 companies in the Guadalajara metropolitan area.

Back in Fresno, Santellano quickly learned the intricacies of narcotics work.

“If you get along with people, you do well,” he said of the dangerous assignment of meeting major heroin smugglers. The key, he said, was treating them as businessmen.

“When you deal in large quantities, you are dealing with people who don’t even do the drugs. They might as well be selling tires.”

But there were dangers, as well.

While making buys and arrests, “I was hit by a car once.”

Another time, “I was dragged by a car through the bushes by Fresno City College.”

He remembers when Fresno County sheriff’s detective Ross Kelly, who was doing the same type of work, was shot while making a buy from an outlaw biker. In court, the biker pleaded it was a case of mistaken identity; he didn’t know he was shooting at a cop.

“It’s always been violent,” Santellano said of narcotics work.

The drug dealers that he was up against favored Colt 1911 pistols firing the .38 Super round, “un super,” or even an AK-47, with the curved magazine that looks like a goat’s horn, “un Cuerno de Chiva,” as it is called in Mexico.

Once, while making a buy from a heroin dealer in a van parked in an orchard south of Fresno, Santellano was covered by a smuggler with a Thompson sub-machine gun, straight out of a 1930s gangster film.

Rise of a drug-fighting team

One of the first big busts Santellano made with Camarena was at La Flor de Mexico, at Tulare and F streets in Fresno’s Chinatown. “La Flor” served Mexican food 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was also being used by a heroin dealer as a meeting place for sales.

Santellano and Camarena frequented the eatery, became familiar and bought several balloons of the drug. Then they returned with a warrant and shut down the major heroin operation. The bust made headlines and woke Fresno to its hard-core drug problem.

Santellano and Camarena were making connections with up-and-coming cartel leaders. They were loaned to other police agencies around the state as they sought out the source of drugs coming to the Central Valley.

On one occasion, Santellano was able to “turn” a heroin dealer, convincing him to switch sides, and the dealer introduced him to the Beltran-Leyva family, who would go on to become partners with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman as leaders of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel.

But Kiki Camarena had ambitions beyond Fresno. He wanted to work as a DEA agent in Guadalajara, the source of many of the drugs entering the United States. His fateful clash with Caro Quintero started after he was assigned there and his investigation led to the seizure of Rancho Bufalo by the Mexican Army in 1984.

A crop of marijuana estimated at up to 6,000 tons was confiscated – at the time, the largest seizure in history, according to Forbes magazine. The raid reportedly enraged Caro Qiintero.

Santellano remembers Camarena showing him photos of the operation before it was raided. He believes that his friend’s role led to his kidnapping in Guadalajara on Feb. 7, 1985. The DEA believes Camarena was tortured for several days before he was killed and his body dumped in Michoacan state.

Memory still alive

The slaying was devastating to Camarena’s many friends in Fresno, including Santellano. When he heard that his friend was missing and presumed kidnapped, he joined agents and friends in a scramble to save him. Informants were ordered to hit the street for information. Some were sent to Mexico. To no avail.

“No one could find him,” Santellano said. “It was too late.”

Caro Quintero fled Guadalajara after the slaying. He was captured in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, and returned to Mexico, where he was sentenced to a 40-year prison term. His release in 2013 followed a Jalisco state court ruling that he was improperly tried in a federal court instead of a state court.

He disappeared after gaining his freedom. The Mexican government later issued a warrant for his rearrest but insists that Caro Quintero will not be extradited to the U.S.

In July, Caro Quintero granted an interview from a hidden sanctuary to the Mexican newsmagazine Proceso in which he denied any role in the abduction of Camarena. He also said he did not want to return to his former life as a cartel leader and had rejected overtures from El Chapo Guzman to rejoin the business. Peace is all that he wanted, he said.

As for Santellano, the memories remain difficult. He doesn’t always dwell on the news coming from the place from which his friend never returned.

“Sometimes, I keep up, and sometimes it just brings back bad memories,” he said.