Rafael Caro Quintero, the cartel leader called “Rafa,” is painted in Narcos: Mexico as a rakish inventor, whose out-of-control personal life almost leads to the downfall of the cartel. (Warning: This article will contain plot spoilers.)
However, his marketing and growth of seedless marijuana – called sinsemilla – gave the cartel its beginnings. Today, Rafael Caro-Quintero is one of the FBI’s 10 most wanted fugitives. (Tenoch Huerto is the actor who plays Rafa in Narcos: Mexico.) (You can see photos of the real people behind the Narcos: Mexico characters here.)
As viewers of the Netflix series know, Don Neto was already a leader in a Sinaloan organization of drug traffickers before he helped Felix Gallardo unite various fractious groups into one unit. According to the book, Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State? By George W. Grayson, Don Neto mentored Rafael Caro Quintero, who is described in the book as a “shrewd and youthful entrepreneur who converted Mexican marijuana from second-rate weed to the choice of connoisseurs by perfecting a seedless variety of the plant (sinsemilla.)” However, other growers had pioneered the technique first on a far smaller scale.
However, in real life, what happened to Rafael Caro Quintero? Where is Rafa today? That’s anyone’s guess.
Rafael Caro Quintero Is At Large & the U.S. Government Is Offering Millions of Dollars in Reward Money
How is it that Rafael Caro Quintero came to be free? His cohort in the Guadalajara Cartel – Felix Gallardo – remains imprisoned to this day, where he has been since the 1980s (learn more about Felix Gallardo today here). Don Neto was released to house arrest and then granted early release.
Rafa was in custody for 28 years after the cartel murdered U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Kiki Camarena (learn more about the real Kiki Camarena here). Camarena also existed in real life, and his 1985 torture and death sparked a major crisis between the American and Mexican governments and led to what we know as the modern drug war (the busting up of the Guadalajara Cartel also created the vacuum that produced El Chapo, who has a bit role in Narcos: Mexico, which streamed on November 16, 2018.)
Quintero was sentenced to serve 40 years in prison for Camarena’s death in the 1980s, but in 2013, he was freed after a Mexican court, on appeal, ruled that he should have been tried in state court, not federal court. In only days, though, the Mexican Attorney General issued an order for the arrest of Rafael Caro-Quintero. He subsequently disappeared.
In 2018, The Huffington Post described Rafa’s life on the run: “Hunted by Mexican and American authorities, he never sleeps in the same spot twice, according to his guards. His bed is a sleeping bag, his roof the canvas of a tent. During the day, he haunts the mountains like a ghost, his head perpetually craned toward the sky, scanning for the drones that search the impassable mountains for signs of life.”
He has given other interviews on the run, now denying that he killed Camarena. In one detailed interview, he explained his background, his ties to El Chapo, and claimed he had given up drug trafficking. “I’m not involved in any such problems and less involved in a war. I’m struggling to fix my problem … Imagine, with almost 29 years in prison, would I want more trouble? I WANT PEACE,” he claimed in the interview.
HuffPost reports that Caro-Quintero is severed from his family, which includes five children, a wife he met in prison in 2010 named Diana Espinoza, and an ex-wife, María Elizabeth Elenes. (In the 1980s, he really did have a love affair with a woman from a powerful political family; you can read about that here.)
The FBI wanted poster for Rafa says he’s being sought for “Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering; Conspiracy to Commit Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering; Conspiracy to Kidnap a Federal Agent; Kidnapping of a Federal Agent; Felony Murder of a Federal Agent; Aiding and Abetting; Accessory After the Fact.”
The FBI concludes, “Rafael Caro-Quintero, a Mexican cartel leader wanted for his role in the murder of a DEA special agent in 1985, has been named to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. A reward of up to $20 million is available for information leading to his arrest and/or conviction.”
The government provided this sequence of events:
“Caro‐Quintero is widely regarded as one of the Mexican godfathers of drug trafficking and helped to form the Guadalajara Cartel in the late 1970s. Allegedly, he became one of the primary suppliers of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana to the U.S., and was in charge of the cartel in Costa Rica and the U.S./Mexico border.
In November of 1984, Mexican authorities raided a 2,500-acre marijuana plantation owned by Caro‐Quintero. The Guadalajara Cartel blamed Special Agent Camarena for the takedown and decided to retaliate.
Special Agent Camarena—a former Marine, fireman, police officer, and deputy sheriff—was extremely close to unlocking a million‐dollar drug pipeline from Mexico to the U.S. in 1985. Before he was able to expose the drug trafficking operations, he was kidnapped en route to lunch with his wife on February 7, 1985, in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. Allegedly, the direct orders for the kidnapping came from Caro‐Quintero. Camarena was surrounded by five armed men who threw him into a car, then sped away. It is believed that Camarena died within two to three days of his kidnapping, but his body was not found until March 5, 1985. Special Agent Camarena is survived by his wife and three sons.”
In the book Desperados: Latin Drug Lords, U.S. Lawmen, and the War America Can’t Win, author Elaine Shannon writes that other growers had come up with sinsemilla first. Still, she notes, Caro Quintero dramatically increased the drug’s production and reach.
Caro Quintero “realized that cheap Mexican labor could be used to grow sinsemilla on a grand scale” and he and Don Neto “supervised the cultivation of thousands of acres of irrigated desert using commercial agricultural techniques.”
According to the book, Rafael Caro Quintero was “the youngest and most audacious of the lot, who captured the imagination of the Mexican peasantry” like Robin Hood or Pancho Villa. The book says that Rafael Caro Quintero “transformed Mexican marijuana from common weed to the smoke of connoisseurs” but didn’t invent it. It credits growers in “California and Oregon” with pioneering the technique that “yielded extraordinarily potent marijuana, called sinsemilla ‘without seeds'” but said they only “worked tiny plots,” and Caro Quintero spotted the potential and took this to a “grand scale.”
According to the FBI, these are the personal details for Rafael Caro-Quintero:
Name: Rafael Caro‐Quintero, a.k.a. “Rafa”
Dates of Birth Used: October 24, 1952; October 2, 1952; November 24,1952; October 24, 1955; November 24, 1955; March 9, 1963
Weight: Approximately 159 to 170 pounds
Place of Birth: Badiraguato, Sinaloa, Mexico
Caro-Quintero was raised in violence, according to HuffPo, seeing his father murdered and turning to marijuana growing early on.
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