FORMER BNDD/DEA AGENT DISCUSSES ENRIQUE "KIKI" CAMARENA CASE
David G. Herrera was one of the finest agents that served in the BNDD/DEA.
We met as newly sworn agents in 1970. We have remained very close to each other, as have our families. I traveled with David on assignments to dozens of foreign countries, while members of the International Training Division at the Department of Justice. His wife and mine are friends to this day. We have attended the weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, christening of each others children and grandchildren, some in foreign countries. We both attended the funerals of each others parents.
We have no secrets, except one.
David recently penned a personal account of his involvement with Enrique “Kiki” Camarena investigation. Surely, I knew about some of his involvement in the investigation. Although we spoke to each other as brothers and fellow agents, this topic was too sensitive and confidential for David to discuss.
This was a game-changing event in his life he never has discussed.
Of course, David had a commitment to certain secret aspects of the case that I knew must remain within his own heart and mind. More importantly, I knew that when he was an agent, he was assigned the task of listening to, translating and transcribing the brutal torture of Kiki. This was a game-changing event in his life he never has discussed. Over these past 35 years, I knew never to ask him about it.
Recently, there have been many TV shows about Enrique… some good, some not. Many of the agents involved have spoken out and their words are to be given great consideration. Many people never knew Enrique, have never worked at the DEA or have ever been to Mexico. Some people have taken poetic license with the story, while others cast stones from the sidelines.
In this thoughtful essay, David will provide you with a front row seat from that horrific day on Thursday, February 7, 1985. That is the day when Enrique was kidnapped. Many of us do not think it is a stretch to categorize this entire case as one the world’s most intense, prolonged and dangerous narcotics investigations of all time.
The case file is still open. Why? Many of the principal actors, even though indicted in a Los Angeles federal court, are still at large, fugitives and not in U.S. custody.
David was at the center of this storm from day one. You will now be privy to a timeline of events that most agents never knew. David decided it was time for his former brother agents, current DEA personnel and future agents to see things from his chair.
This timeline was sent only to the Association of Federal Narcotics Agents (AFNA). I asked David and he gave me permission to publish. I am honored to do so. If you ever read or seen something that varies from David’s account, be assured the truth lies with David’s words.
David is currently the President of Herrera Investigative Services in Torrance, California. His phone number is (626) 705-0600.
The Kidnapping of Enrique Camarena
On Thursday, February 7, 1985, my friend and fellow US Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent, Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was kidnapped shortly after he had departed the US Consulate in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico for a luncheon date with his wife, Mika. Kiki never arrived to that luncheon date even though it was located just a few blocks away from his office. Thugs comprised of corrupt Mexican security officers and Mexican drug traffickers kidnapped him as he exited the US Consulate on the way to his vehicle. They placed him into another vehicle and eventually took him to a residence at 88 Lope de Vega in Guadalajara where after about 24 plus hours of interrogation and torture, he was killed. Shortly thereafter, his body was taken and crudely buried in Primavera Forest until it was exhumed and discovered about 30 days later on a roadside. His wife assumed that Kiki had been called away on official business as the reason for not meeting with her. As the day passed and the night entered, Kiki never arrived back home. Mika fearing the worst notified James Kuykendall that following morning and Kuykendall immediately notified DEA Headquarters where I was stationed and assigned to the Cocaine Desk.
Kiki was my Guadalajara contact as I coordinated the Operation Padrino investigation
I knew Kiki as he was my Guadalajara contact as I coordinated the Operation Padrino investigation which touched upon the cocaine traffic between South America, Mexico and the Western part of the United States. I recall that Friday morning of February 8, 1985 when we received the information and notice that Kiki was missing, I was asked to go into the DEA Administrator’s office and brief him on how some of the personalities in Operation Padrino could possibly fit into what would eventually be named as Operation Leyenda. As investigation proved, many of the principals in Operation Padrino were the leaders and operators in Operation Leyenda. Personally, as far as finding Kiki alive, I feared the worst and hoped it was nothing more than a kidnapping and that the ransom would be an exchange of Mexican prisoners that had been captured as part of Operation Padrino. Several days of investigation passed which turned into weeks until we received word that Kiki’s body along with his informant, Captain Alfredo Zavala, who had also been kidnapped and murdered the same day, were found in Guadalajara.
Trying to reconstruct what happened 35 years ago, and now at age 76, is no easy task but because this incident was the most trying of all my BNDD/DEA experiences, I have always kept more memories of it than what I ever wanted to have. My two-fold purpose of this writing is to memorialize my recollections of some of the actions that DEA took following the kidnapping of Kiki, and to outline some of responses the US Government took to try and locate Kiki and bring him home, as well as to let our newer DEA Special Agents some of whom were not even born in 1985 know that DEA stood by us then, and they will stand by you today. At no time is this an effort to write a book as others before me have done but rather tell this story as a representative slice of some of the memories that still linger in my head about this subject matter.
The Creation of Operation Leyenda
In 1985, I was 41 years of age with about 15 years on the job. I was on my second DEA Headquarters tour. The first tour was in International Training and this tour had me assigned to the Cocaine Desk as a GS-14. Since this is the first time that something of this magnitude had ever happened to a DEA Special Agent, it took a little time to get the Headquarters focused on what actions to take. Our first reactions were to try and get the Camarena family stabilized and moved out of Mexico. Then DEA had to take inventory of the situation regarding the safety of all existing Special Agents in Mexico. Finally, on May 3, 1985, a meeting was held at DEA Headquarters chaired by William “Bill” Coonce, Deputy Chief of Operations – Cocaine Section. The results of this meeting clarified the objectives that DEA was going to take relative to this incident.
Bill Coonce suggested the name of the operation to be named Operation Leyenda, a name representative of Kiki who had become a legend
First of all, Bill Coonce suggested the name of the operation to be named Operation Leyenda, a name representative of Kiki who had become a legend because of the outstanding work he had done during his assignment to Mexico. At the same meeting, everyone agreed there was a need to (1) Reconstruct all the key events and incidents, and preserve testimony and evidence; (2) Identify and locate all of the co-conspirators in the abduction, interrogation, and murder of Special Agent Camarena, and his source, Captain Alfredo Zavala; (3) Develop prosecutorial evidence to bring to justice those who conspired to commit the above offenses in Mexico and the United States; and finally, (4) locate, identify and seize assets, and (5) formally assign and designate an investigative team to investigate this crime. On May 7, 1985, approval was given to form the Operation Leyenda team. It was comprised of William R. Coonce, Deputy Chief, Cocaine Investigations Section; William F. Mockler, Inspector, Office of Inspections; Matthew J. Maher, Staff Coordinator, Cocaine Investigations Section, myself, David G. Herrera, Staff Coordinator, Cocaine Investigations Section. In addition, Leticia C. Smith, Intelligence Analyst and Alfred Rascon, Intelligence Analyst, were made part of the team. All the above Special Agents were then transferred from the Cocaine Investigation Section to the Office of Inspections and given the secondary title of Inspector.
The Search for Kiki
Even prior to the officially forming the Operation Leyenda team under the direction of Bill Coonce, the team had already come together and attempted to coordinate the information and learn what investigations Kiki had been working, who were the principals involved, and what enforcement actions either in Mexico, South America or the United States had been undertaken at the direction of DEA that could have possibly impacted this kidnapping. All regions and offices who had activity that could enlighten this operation were asked to name local coordinators. A “War Room” was established at DEA Headquarters specifically for this endeavor. All the Operation Leyenda team members made it their new home. So many memories of Jack Lawn visiting the War Room after hours trying to keep our spirits high, always asking if there was anything else he could do for the investigation by using his position as DEA Administrator.
There was a need for outside agency help to establish secure communications. Without getting into detail, I know that our US Department of Defense provided overhead coverage for some of the localities that needed to be identified and surveilled. NSA provided us with secure communications gear. The US Navy provided us with photo interpreters, and the US Army provided us with 10 Laws missiles should they be needed to breach a high-walled compound which surrounded a mansion where Kiki was thought to be located. Our DEA Air Wing was even called into action to transport the laws missiles to a ready place in Mexico. There was total support from the US State Department as well as the US Ambassador to Mexico. I even traveled to Mexico City and accompanied two FBI Forensic personnel who took samples of the sheet in which the body of Kiki had been wrapped. They also obtained samples of the tie cord used to wrap Kiki’s hands behind his back. They also visited the 88 Lope de Vega house and obtained additional evidence.
Personally, I was amazed at the power to the US government. I recall that about three weeks after the kidnapping of Kiki, John C. Lawn, a former FBI Special Agent in Charge, former Acting Deputy DEA Administrator, was appointed as the DEA Administrator on March 1, 1985. Jack, as he was fondly known to many, became widely accepted and respected by all of DEA as an “Agent’s Agent.” Lawn mounted a relentless campaign to pressure the Mexican government to investigate the involvement of its high-level officials in the brutal murder of DEA agent Enrique (Kiki) Camarena. To help in the search of intelligence as well as to locate Kiki and Mr. Zavala, Administrator Lawn authorized and sent about 25 DEA Special Agents TDY into Mexico, primarily into the Guadalajara area to work under the direction of James Kuykendall. United States Customs Commissioner William von Raab even ordered the US-Mexico border closed where cross border traffic which came to a crawl for a short period of time forcing the Mexican government to come around to cooperating more fully with the US Government and DEA regarding the death of Kiki. I recall my Headquarters boss asking us to prepare briefing papers that were taken over to the White House where President Ronald Reagan was briefed. We know for a fact that President Reagan met with Mexican President Miguel De La Madrid, and that Kiki was the topic of conversation. Luckily, all these efforts finally led to the bodies of Kiki and Zavala being recovered almost 30 days after they had been kidnapped and murdered. For those that ever worked in Mexico either assigned or TDY, know the name of Ed Heath. Ed and his staff of Special Agents and Intelligence Analysts were also of great help in the recovery of Kiki and Zavala as they knew and had the trust of the Mexican Federal Police Director and his chief deputies. There are so many other back stories where some of our TDY Special Agents as well as many Special Agents stationed in Mexico took the initiative and performed extraordinary in trying to locate Kiki and Zavala.
Personally, I was amazed at the power to the US government.
I recall that during the first 10 months of the investigation, DEA Headquarters created a field team of GS-11’s and GS-12’s selected from Special Agents throughout the US to travel to Los Angeles to conduct surveillance on a possible target residing in the Montebello area. Starting with almost nothing of information, including the lack of photos, these young and ambitious Special Agents worked approximately 6 days per week, 12-14 hours per day without ever complaining about the long hours or the hot sunshine. Their efforts paid off on Christmas Eve, 1985. This team made the first arrest in the Camarena investigation by arresting Jesus Felix Gutierrez aka “Cachas” on Christmas Eve 1985. Cachas received 10 years to run consecutive with the 15 years already being served. He was the individual who had traveled to Costa Rica from Guadalajara to find a new hiding place and home for Rafael Caro Quintero, the person responsible for Kiki’s death. I had the pleasure to direct that TDY team for all the months they were in Los Angeles. That team is one of the finest I had ever worked with as they knew what the objective was and why it was the important that it be completed successfully.
I recall another small but very important story. Administrator Lawn traveled to Mexico with Johnny Phelps, one of our senior chiefs in DEA. They attended a sensitive briefing with the Mexican Deputy Attorney General. At that meeting, 5 recorded tapes provided by the Mexican government were played in the open. The tapes were recorded tapes of Kiki being interrogated by his captors. After that meeting both Phelps and Lawn returned to Dulles Airport that Friday evening where I met them. Johnny provided me with the tapes with instructions to translate them and bring the work product back into the office on Monday.
The Interrogation Tapes
I complied with Phelp’s request to translate the tapes. I have to say that never have I had to translate or listen to anything as awful as the interrogation of a fellow Special Agent being tortured and hearing the screams and groans that accompanied the questions. One has no idea what it is to plead for one’s life until placed into a situation such as this. There are several things I can say about the interrogation which was conducted in Spanish. The adult male person conducting the questioning knew what he was asking and why he was asking it. My guess is that the interrogator’s boss wanted to know specific answers.
Kiki never divulged anything secret to them.
I give Kiki credit that he never divulged anything secret to them, even under pressure when his life was at stake other than tell them something, they probably already knew about the makeup of our DEA resident office in Guadalajara. A sample of questions and responses provided by Kiki and his interrogator are provided in a 2005 book written by James Kuykendall, “O PLATA O PLOMO? Loosely translated: What’s it’s going to be – lead or silver?
There have been allegations that the interrogator was a Cuban. I really do not know his nationality as I only heard a man’s voice and never saw a face. I recall referring to the man as Comandante, either out of respect or possibly because he knew who the interrogator was. However, the interrogator’s name was never revealed. However, I can say that both as a former undercover Special Agent as well as part of my familial experiences, I believe that if called upon, I could distinguish a Cuban’s voice and accent as compared to one of a Mexican. In my opinion, the voice was that of a Mexican man and not that of a Cuban. The tapes were returned to Special Agent Phelps. I never made a copy of those tapes for myself. I can only assume they were saved as part of the prosecutorial evidence. My wish is that they still exist. More so, with the pressure of the day no longer around me, I would willingly listen to those tapes once again and make that final determination as to the nationality of the interrogator based on the voice.
After about one year, the focus of Operation Leyenda changed. We knew who some of the responsible criminals were in the kidnapping and murder of Kiki. We knew that over the first year, there had been some “street justice” imposed in Guadalajara – first at the “Bravo Ranch” by members of the Mexican Federal Police who had been sent to Guadalajara to investigate, and later during their interrogation of the State Police Comandante. However, by this time, the US did have or was about to have its first Mexican defendants lodged in Los Angeles. A strong wing of Operation Leyenda Special Agents was formed within the Los Angeles Division. Special Agent Doug Kuehl was the leader of that group and did an outstanding job in coordinating with Headquarters and more so in coordinating with the US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles to bring the defendants to justice followed by indictments and eventual convictions. I recall that the first defendants convicted in Los Angeles were Jesus Felix Gutierrez who received 10 years to run consecutive with the 15 years already being served. Rene Verdugo Urquidez received 240 years plus life in prison, and Raul Lopez Alvarez received 240 plus life in prison, plus 10 years. None of this would have been possible without the outstanding support from our Los Angeles DEA Regional office and the support of the LA US Attorney”s Office under the direction of Rob Bonner and his worthy Assistant United States Attorneys. I have no idea how much DEA and the US Attorney’s office spent on this investigation but can only assume that it ran into the several millions of dollars. The point here, DEA supported its Special Agents to the end, and I am sure they would do it again if need be. Money was never a problem for DEA when it came to this investigation.
Fast forward – Books and Documentaries
Producer Michael Mann (of “Miami Vice” fame) bought the rights to an outstanding book written by Elaine Shannon back in 1988 known as “Desperados – Latin Drug Lords, US Lawmen, and the War America Can’t Win.” I always thought this book should be required reading for all DEA Special Agents. Maybe someday. Ms. Shannon focused much of her book on the Camarena investigation as well as the international drug trade. Administrator Lawn gave Ms. Shannon special access to DEA. I recall seeing her in the DEA War Room at least once or twice per week while the search for Kiki was ongoing. As most of us know, Michael Mann made and produced for NBC a 6-hour mini-series, “Drug Wars: The Camarena Story” covering the kidnapping, murder, and search for Kiki’s killers. Our own retired DEA Special Agent, John Marcello served as Technical Advisor, and this production won an Emmy Award for the Outstanding Mini-Series of 1989-1990 season.
I’ve already mentioned the book by James Kuykendall – “O Plomo o Plata”. Again, another excellent book that tells a slice of the story.
Finally, we get to the recent August 2020 Amazon release documentary – “The Last Narc,” primarily written based on the story as told by retired DEA Special Agent Hector Berrellez to writers from the Amazon staff. As the readers will soon come to appreciate, none of what is written here by me criticizes any person or personalities mentioned. Those names mentioned should be looked upon as resources who are able to tell a slice or piece of the story from their perspective of what happened and if they possess strong evidence, why it happened and who was involved in the kidnapping and murder of Kiki Camarena. In other words, I personally do not believe that we have answered those questions to the fullest extent. Some homicides are not solved overnight and some take more years than others to solve. I believe this case is one of those cases.
Knowing that while I spent 22 months working on the Camarena investigation from day one up and until the day before I was transferred to the Madrid Country Office in March 1987, I was one of the persons along with my fellow Operation Leyenda counterparts very familiar with all aspects of the Camarena investigation. But again, over the years, yes years, not days or months, new information and intelligence was gathered and arrests, indictments, and convictions were made.
We also know that as time progressed, and following my transfer to Madrid, the prosecutorial aspect of the investigation switched to Los Angeles and DEA Headquarters and the Operation Leyenda team became supportive of their actions in that locale. Overall, and to date, the Los Angeles DEA and the Los Angeles US Attorneys Office have done a marvelous job of handling prosecutions with an international flavor. These types of investigations are never easy, and as we all know, the Camarena investigation was no exception.
Getting back to The Last Narc,” I’ve known Hector Berrellez since he first came to DEA in March of 1975 when he was part of the newly selected class of Basic Agent Trainees. I was his Class Coordinator. I recall that Hector was an outstanding trainee and overall, at the upper end of the class of 35 other new basic agent trainees. Following his graduation from DEA Basic Agent School, he was sent to the field. Eventually, we met again when he was transferred to Los Angeles office in the 1980’s.
There are lots of things attributed to Hector based on what he said or had said in the documentary, “The Last Narc.” Some things seem far out from the normal day to day things that our domestic Special Agents are not used to working with. However, in an investigation with international ramifications such as the Camarena investigation, this investigation was a horse of a different color. As some Special Agents with overseas experience will tell you, some things occur in an overseas environment that would never be either questioned or tolerated in the US. But those who criticize Hector for things he is alleged to have done, most likely have never lived or worked overseas. Hector always had gumption, something that not all Special Agents possess. Without his gumption, he would not have accomplished half of what he set out to do. Therefore, DEA would still be in the dark about many things and questions as they pertain to the Camarena investigation.
There were comments made in the documentary about the character of the three identified informants and one unidentified source of information. To my readers, if you want to know what happened to Camarena, you go to the people who were present so they can tell you. Hector did this. There are no choir boys here. The Camarena investigation did not originate in a church but was born in a hell hole that some DEA personnel with gumption chose to work. God Bless those Special Agents who take on those foreign assignments in far away places where only dirt roads exist and maybe a cell tower might or might not be there for your cell phone to work. Forget about calling 911 when trouble nears. In most cases, there is no 911 or any other back up.
Comments have been made about Hector allegedly recruiting unsavory informants, as well as allegedly paying them large amounts of money. I am like most of you reading what I write. I do not know what he paid them but I do know that the money he paid them was DEA money and it had to be approved by someone in authority. I also know there are rules for paying certain amounts of money including providing an approved rationale. It is subject matter such as this that can and should be answered by former LA Regional supervisory staff and Headquarters staff who authorized the large informant payments. To think that Hector worked in a vacuum without supervision is just wrong. Unless requirements have changed in the 26 years ago that I retired, there have to be emails requesting payment of a very large sum of money to the informants, a signed DEA-103 for each payment received, and a DEA-6 or memorandum explaining the rationale for such payment. If Inspections was doing its work, there is most likely a report on their efforts to justify continuance of this type of operation.
There are questions that I have as an Investigator which I cannot answer. These three informants made some very serious allegations about being present during the torture, and another source claimed to have
knowledge about an under the table multiple payments to an unidentified DEA Special Agent located at the US Consulate in Guadalajara. Serious allegations they are. Regardless of the severity of the allegations, the DEA Special Agent debriefing the informant has the responsibility to bring forth that allegation and report it to his supervisory. It is up to DEA management to take the appropriate action.
Payments to informants: To pay a source of information $250,000 to a million dollars is rare but still possible. In the instant case, allegations exist that payments of this caliber were made at different times for different aspects of the investigation to move forward. Again, if true, who approved them? Is there a paper trail for this approval? Where is that paper trail located? Were any of the 3 +1 persons ever placed on a polygraph? If no, why not? Does DEA still have some control over the 3+1 sources of information? Are they willing to undergo and polygraph examination relative to what they allegedly told Hector about the Camarena investigation? Is there an open OPR investigation? Was Hector ever told in writing not to conduct a certain aspect of the investigation which he alleges to have conducted? It’s doubtful Hector was a rogue DEA Special Agent traveling between Mexico and the US with a blank book of GTR’s. DEA never did business in that manner as there was always supervisory control.
Again, there are several questions that can be asked and commented on by many. However, the truth to many of the questions can only be responded by a few. We know from “The Last Narc” that former Los Angeles AUSA Manny Medrano stated that he took the information developed by Hector and questioned the informants from front to back, back to front and middle to front. It is also understood that if official investigations are presently open, Headquarters cannot comment on open investigations, then it is understandable why official responses cannot be made. Others have alluded to litigation. If that is the case, then we all wait for the litigation and the uncovering and opening of the files. The commentary, while interesting, may be interesting, but it is not factual unless those in the know produce the evidence that makes it factual.
In short, having spent 12 years of my DEA life in an overseas environment (Santiago, Mexico City and Madrid), 6 years in Headquarters (International Training, and as a Staff Coordinator/Inspector), and a total of 6 years more working in Los Angeles, Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, nothing surprises me as to the way DEA operates. What does surprise me is the ease in the willingness to criticize one of our own Special Agents before we have all the facts, and creating and accepting an atmosphere where we have Agent versus Agent.
Most importantly, having known Hector Berrellez for over 45 years, I always found him to be an honorable and credible man who gave many years of outstanding service to DEA. He hired on as a junior Agent and through hard work and success including risking his life on several undercover assignments, he rose to a supervisory position. That is a credit to his tenacity and character. In Hector’s case he was given an assignment to try and development more information as to what really happened to Kiki and who was involved. Because some of us may not like the answers or dislike the way the investigation was conducted is no reason to be critical of the results. At least Hector tried to do the job to the best of his abilities.
DEA selected each of us because we are different and had the ability to contribute to the DEA mission. In the end we are all DEA and I appreciate what all have done and continue to do to answer the lingering questions surrounding the Camarena investigation where Truth and Justice are sought.
– David G. Herrera
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