A look into slain DEA agent Enrique Camarena's story during Red Ribbon Week

October 27, 2011|By ROMAN FLORES | Imperial Valley Press Staff Writer
  • A bust of Enrique Camarena Sr. sits on a table next to the entrance of the Imperial Valley College library. Camarena was inducted into the IVC Hall of Fame in February.
Eric Miller

Though Red Ribbon Week is traditionally known as a week to wear small, red ribbons in an effort to promote anti-drug efforts, only family members and certain law enforcement of the Imperial Valley know the whole story about the heroism of slain Drug Enforcement Agent Enrique Camarena. 

Though different versions of Camarena’s story exist those who were close to him knew Camarena for his prowess as an investigator and great father. 

Mexicali-born Camarena moved to Calexico with his family at the age of 9, said his son Enrique Camarena Jr. At some point he became a naturalized U.S.-citizen. 

According to the DEA Web site, he graduated from Calexico High School in 1966 and joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1968.

His wife Geneva Camarena, also of Calexico, said her husband joined the Calexico Fire Department in the fall of 1970 and stayed with them for about one year before becoming part of the Calexico Police Department. 


After about two years, Camarena became part of the original crew in the Imperial Valley Narcotic Task Force under the Imperial County Sheriff's Office in early 1972, said former IVNTF field supervisor and El Centro resident Vicente G. Palacio. 

“I hired him because he was more gung-ho, more of a go-getter,” Palacio said. “He’s the one that produced the most (cases) for me as a field commander. 

“When he was with us he was careful and he would tell me what he was doing. Most of the time I would go with him (on assignment),” Palacio said. 

“Fortunately, or unfortunately, I encouraged him to go into the DEA for better pay and so forth,” Palacio said, “but over there in Mexico it was a different place.” 

After being part of the IVNTF through the Sheriff's Office, Camarena joined the DEA and was assigned to the Calexico district in 1974, according to the DEA Web site. 

Six years later he was transferred to the Guadalajara Resident Office where he worked against Mexico’s biggest marijuana and cocaine traffickers for about four years. 

According to, "his efforts led to a tip that resulted in the discovery of a multi-million dollar narcotics manufacturing operation in Chihuahua, Mexico. The successful eradication of this and other drug production operations angered leaders of several drug cartels who sought revenge.” 

Camarena was kidnapped Feb. 7, 1985 by five armed men in the middle of the day while on his way to have lunch with his wife in Guadalajara, where he and his family lived since his transfer. Camarena's frequently hired Mexican pilot, Alfredo Zavala-Avelar, was also kidnapped in a separate but related incident, according to 

“He was working undercover, I honestly don’t know how far in,” Camarena Jr., now a deputy district attorney in San Diego County, said in an interview Wednesday. 

“He was getting closer and closer,” Camarena said. “He was supposed to be transferred but he had asked to stay a little bit longer.” 

Palacio concurred, saying that Camarena told him in December 1984 there had been word going around that the cartels wanted to get rid of him and the DEA might transfer him out of Guadalajara. 

“At that time we were never too careful because you never knew who the crooks were, and (the DEA) were right in the middle of it,” he said. “(The cartels) already had him under the scope. 

“(Camarena's kidnapping) happened almost right in front of the Mexican Consulate’s office in Guadalajara,” Palacio said. 

“They just grabbed him and threw him in the car, they took him to some house and kept him for three or four days,” Palacio said, becoming emotional. 

“They tortured him,” Palacio said between long pauses. “They beat the (heck) out of him and tore him up into pieces. They even had a doctor there when they were torturing him in order to keep him alive (through the process).” 

After raiding the small ranch in Angostura, Michoacan, Mexico where Camarena and his pilot’s bodies were found nearby, Palacio said law enforcement obtained the killers' audio recordings of Camarena’s torture sessions. 

While some law enforcement heard the sessions in detail, Palacio did not want to hear it. Palacio said he advocated keeping the recording away from the public for the sake of Camarena’s family. 

The ensuing manhunt for Camarena’s killers became as much of an international incident as the search for Camarena himself with the DEA, Federal Bureau of Investigations, U.S. Border Patrol and others helping in the investigation. 

Camarena said the Mexican government was aiding the U.S. but “in the end we knew that there was corruption in many levels of the government; some were helping, some were not.” 

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