Kiki Camarena is one of the key protagonists in the new Netflix series Narcos: Mexico, which traces the growth of the drug trade, moving it from Colombia to Guadalajara, Mexico. Warning: Because the real story so closely tracks the fictional one, this article will contain spoilers for Narcos: Mexico.
The series, which is now available for streaming on Netflix, has been hotly anticipated because of the popularity of the previous seasons, which focused on the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar and the Cali Cartel. Narcos: Mexico shows the growth of the Guadalajara Cartel, pieced together through sheer will and gumption by a man named Felix Gallardo out of warring factions. His full name was Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, and, in real life, he was a brutal and clever man called “El Padrino” AKA The Godfather. (You can see photos of the real people behind the Narcos: Mexico characters here.)
In the first episodes of Narcos: Mexico, Kiki Camarena (played by Michael Pena) and Felix Gallardo (played by Diego Luna) are juxtaposed as twin protagonists: One trying to solidify the drug trade and the other trying to stop it in an era when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was still an underappreciated agency headquartered over a strip club. One could call Gallardo the antagonist, of course, but the Narcos series digs into all of its key characters’ motivations and back stories.
Camarena opens the show in a scene that shows he’s been abducted. Who was the real Kiki Camarena? What’s the true story? Did he really move to Guadalajara, Mexico and work for the DEA? Was he really abducted? The ending is a sad one, and what happened to Kiki Camarena would change the face of Mexican drug cartels forever – and lead to the emergence of El Chapo.
Here’s what you need to know:
Kiki Camarena Was Born in Mexico & Was an U.S. Marine, Police Officer & Firefighter
Kiki Camarena was born Enrique (Kiki) S. Camarena on July 26, 1947, in Mexicali, Mexico. He was raised in California, graduating from Calexico High School in Calexico, California in 1966. He was also a veteran, having joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1968, according to a DEA biography of him.
Camarena held other positions in law enforcement before joining the DEA.
Camarena served in the Marines for two years, was a firefighter and police officer and deputy sheriff in California, and then joined the DEA in 1974. Actor Michael Pena, who played Kiki in Narcos, researched the role of Kiki Camarena for Narcos: Mexico in part by speaking with the agent’s widow.
“I wanted to find out what made the guy tick, and I did a lot of research and thank God I spoke with Mika (Camarena’s wife),” he told Newsweek. “What she was able to tell me was that he was a guy that just wanted to do good. He was a Marine. He worked locally. He was a police officer, and then he became part of the DEA. He was the kind of guy who just wanted to keep the streets safe. He saw the possibility and the signs of an empire being built—this narcotics empire—and he wanted to put an end to it because he saw what it could possibly become.”
In Narcos: Mexico, Mika Camarena is depicted as a loyal and loving wife to DEA agent Kiki Camarena. She is pregnant throughout part of the show and living with him in Mexico with their family while his job increases in danger. In real life, Camarena’s wife was indeed named Mika, and she is the mother of his three children.
Mika Camarena, whose given name is Geneva Camarena, was high school sweethearts with Kiki. According to The San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper, after his death, she “formed the Enrique S. Camarena Foundation in 2004 with the help of retired DEA agents and her oldest son, Enrique, a deputy district attorney working in the South Bay. She dedicates her time to promoting drug awareness in schools and communities nationwide.”
She told the newspaper, “Since retiring as a skin-care consultant, I can spend more time as president of the foundation. We sell bronze life-size busts of Kiki that are unveiled in schools and libraries throughout the country, not just in San Diego. The money goes toward scholarships. Each year we issue six scholarships to high school seniors throughout the nation. We also speak in favor of the Red Ribbon campaign and drug awareness. We are helping law enforcement get the word out about drugs to our youth, parents and schools.”
Kiki Camarena’s son, Enrique Camarena is now a judge in California after serving as a deputy district attorney for years. He decided not to become a police officer because his dad thought it was too dangerous, according to NBC San Diego, which quoted him as saying, “I grab a little bit from one supervisor, I grab a little bit from another, and added on to me to become who I am today.”
He told NBC San Diego of his dad, “You know, I think about him every day. 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.”
Kiki Camarena Was Abducted & Murdered, Leading to the Fall of the Guadalajara Cartel
Kiki Camarena spent three years in Calexico for the DEA before he was assigned to the agency’s Fresno office and then to Mexico, where he worked out of its office in Guadalajara. He spent four years in Mexico tracking the country’s drug dealers (the drugs of choice were marijuana and cocaine back then.)
By 1985, which is when Narcos: Mexico roughly starts, “he was extremely close to unlocking a multi-billion dollar drug pipeline,” the DEA says. He was about to expose the operation when he was kidnapped on February 7 while he went to have lunch with his wife, Mika.
“Kiki was surrounded by five armed men who threw him into a car and sped away. That was the last time anyone but his kidnappers would see him alive,” reveals the DEA, adding that he likely died two days later.
In March 1985, the DEA recovered the body of Kiki Camarena, 37, who left behind Mika and three children named Enrique, Daniel, and Erik. According to El Pais, Camarena’s “skull, jaw, nose and cheekbones were crushed with a tire iron. As he lay dying, a cartel doctor was ordered to keep him alert by administering drugs.”
According to The Los Angeles Times, Camarena’s murder “led to the fall of Gallardo and his close associates” and the fracturing of their cartel. Amazingly, Gallardo was only recently sentenced in the death (he’d been sentenced before but a retrial was ordered; he never left prison after 1989, though). Gallardo was sentenced to 37 years in 2017 for the death of Camarena by a Mexican court (as well as the murder of Alfredo Zavala, a Mexican pilot), according to The Times. He’s been in custody since 1989, however. Zavala was helping Camarena in his “undercover operations,” The LA Times reported.
The Times noted that the bodies appeared to have been tortured and were found near a ranch in Michoacan state. Ernesto “Don Neto” Fonseca and Rafael Caro Quintero were other cartel leaders involved. Today, Fonseca is on house arrest, and Caro Quintera was “released from prison in 2013 on a legal technicality” and is being sought by the U.S.
Camarena’s death changed the face of Mexican drug cartels. The implosion of Guadalajara led to the rise of the Sinaloa cartel, led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who is now in U.S. custody.
The bottom line: Gallardo went way too far by targeting Camarena. The Reagan Administration predictably freaked out and exercised its power. It was his end, and his new cartel’s end, and it was El Chapo’s beginning (the eventual drug lord is first seen in the beginning of Narcos: Mexico in all his humble beginnings as a driver for a Sinaloan drug lord).
Kiki Camarena Was Much Honored in Life & Death
Camarena received many awards and is considered an American hero. “Kiki received two Sustained Superior Performance Awards, a Special Achievement Award and, posthumously, the Administrator’s Award of Honor, the highest award granted by DEA,” the DEA says.
A high school friend and congressman in California created what were called Camarena Clubs, and people across the country wore red ribbons to indicate they were rejecting drugs, an effort that drew the support of First Lady Nancy Reagan.
In later years, some have argued that Mexican operatives working for the CIA were involved in Kiki Camarena’s death, according to El Pais. The CIA has denied the allegations.
In later years, DEA agent James Kuykendall, who was Camarena’s supervisor in Guadalajara, has spoken out about the CIA and the Kiki Camarena murder. Kuykendall is quoted in the book Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs, and the Press by Alexander Cockburn. The book alleges that DEA officers investigating Camarena’s death “knew that the drug agent’s murder was a joint operation between the drug cartel and the DFS, an agency with intimate ties to the CIA.”
Kuykendall said, “The CIA didn’t give a damn about anything but Cuba and the Soiets. Indirectly, they (the CIA) have got to take some of the blame.” He alleged the CIA “protected the DFS for decades,” and stated “The DFS just got out of hand.”
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