I refused to admit Rafael Caro Quintero, the co-founder of the Guadalajara Cartel, was a villain until episode 7 of Narcos: Mexico, when Rafa brutally murders two American tourists during a paranoid, cocaine-fueled delusion. And yet, because I am a susceptible mortal, about 2% of me was still was charmed by Rafa (in my defense: I am not the only person thirsty for Rafa). It's all thanks to Tenoch Huerta, who spins Quintero into a drug-addled Byronic hero with a knack for botany and the ability to seduce women with a single glance. Simply put, Rafa is one of the Narcos' franchise's most magnetic characters.
While so much of Narcos: Mexico follows the chase between Guadalajara Cartel founder Felix Gallardo (Diego Luna) and Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), the dogged DEA agent on his trail, Rafa is an essential part of the story — and he's an essential part of the real history that went into the making of Narcos: Mexico, too.
How did Rafael Caro Quintero get involved in the trafficking business?
By the time we meet him in Narcos: Mexico, Rafa is fully incorporated into Sinaloa’s trafficking world, along with Gallardo and Ernesto “Don Neto” Fonesca Carillo (Joaquín Cosio). According to the real DEA agent James Kuykendall, who wrote the book O Plata O Plomo? about his time as in Guadalajara in the ‘80s, Caro Quintero was “a true product of the Sinaloa drug traffic and the personification of the Sinaloa drug trafficker.” For context, Elaine Shannon provides a picture of the quintessential “Sinaloa drug trafficker” in her book Desperados: “They traveled around Guadalajara with platoons of guards armed with automatic weapons, and with suitcases full of cash they bought whatever caught their fancy. They lived like clannish people, marrying cousins, entertaining one another with raucous and violence parties, settling scores with impulsive savager.”
Caro Quintero was very much of this world. Caro Quintero was born in October 3, 1952 in Sinaloa, and was the eldest son in a family of 12 children. His entire family was wrapped up in the drug world — seriously. Caro Quintero’s father was killed in a drug dispute. Afterwards, eldest son Caro Quintero began growing marijuana to support his family. When he eventually became a cartel kingpin, Caro Quintero’s brothers and sisters worked for him (his brothers in San Diego packaged and sold marijuana from his fields). Caro Quintero also partnered with his maternal uncles, Juan Jose and Emilio Quintero-Payan. To complete the circle, Caro Quintero was married to Maria Elizabeth Elenes Lerma, the daughter of a trafficking family.
By the time he was 29, Caro Quintero was a “rising star in the Mexican underworld.” He, along with Fonseca Carrillo and Gallardo, led the Guadalajara Cartel.
Did Caro Quintero invent the sinsemilla strain?
Not quite. According to the book Desperadoes by Elaine Shannon, growers in California and Oregon had already invented the potent strain of marijuana that grew without seeds. Caro Quintero, however, implemented this “boutique” strain on a grand scale. He partnered with Ernesto “Don Neto” Fonesca to create gigantic fields of sinsemilla in Mexico's isolated northern deserts.
Was Caro Quintero's affair with Sofia Conesa (Tessa Ia) real?
In the show, Rafa is consumed by a torrid love affair with Sofia Conesa, the daughter of a privileged family. Together, they plan a kidnapping so they can be together without her family’s surveillance. Her father, a minister for Mexico's PRI political party, threatens to expose the entire Guadalajara Cartel unless she’s returned.
This segment is inspired by a real affair, the facts of which are shrouded in legend. Caro Quintero met 17-year-old Sara Cosio, the niece of the then-president of PRI, in a Guadalajara nightclub in 1985. According to the book Mexican Postcards, that’s all we know for sure. Cosio’s actual feelings for Caro Quintero remain unclear. However, Caro Quintero really did kidnap Cosia on a night out, and a manhunt really did ensue. Later, after Camarena’s murder, Caro Quintero fled Guadalajara and took Cosio with him to San Jose, Costa Rica on a jet. While there, Cosio called home, and the phone was traced. When the DEA burst into their bedroom, Cosio told the agents she’d been “kidnapped” and identified her lover as Caro Quintero.
Caro Quintero’s love wasn’t limited to just Sara. He was known for being a real womanizer. As he explained to Playboy Magazine, “I always live in love. I love them all, because I was born of a woman.” After Gilberto, Don Neto’s son, was murdered, Quintero had an affair with his widow, Sylvia Fernandez.
Currently, Caro Quintero is married to Diana Espinoza Aguilar, whom Caro Quintero met in prison in 2010. They have a five-year-old son. Caro Quintero also had four children with his first wife.
Did Caro Quintero murder those two American tourists?
Narcos: Mexico is punctuated by scenes of Rafa’s unspooling. Once he starts using cocaine, he unravels. At one point, Rafa murders two American tourists in a restaurant. That incident, unfortunately, is based in reality. In 1985, John Clay Walker, a writer, and Albert Radelat, a dentistry student, were dining at the same Guadalajara restaurant that Caro Quintero was hosting a private party. Caro Quintero, likely mistaking Walker and Radelat for undercover agents, allegedly ordered the men's torture and murder.
As part of the DEA’s Operation Leyenda, a task force created to solve Camarena’s death, five people were indicted in the murders of Walker and Radelat in 1989, including Caro Quintero and Fonseca Carrillo. Camarena was murdered a week after Walker and Radelat’s deaths.
Did Caro Quintero order Kiki Camarena’s death?
To be clear, no one really knows who in the Guadalajara Cartel ordered Camarena’s kidnapping. In the show, it’s clearly Caro Quintero, still furious over the DEA and Mexican Army’s raid of the Rancho Bufalo marijuana fields in 1984.
Narcos: Mexico showrunner Eric Newman explained his creative decision to place blame Caro Quintero. “We believe Gallardo was too smart to [to kidnap him] on his own — and Rafael Quintero had ordered his abduction without consulting Gallardo because the government needed to know what he knew,” Newman told Entertainment Weekly.
Caro Quintero has denied orchestrating the murder. "No, no, no, I didn't order, kidnap, or murder señor Camarena," Caro Quintero told Proceso magazine in 2016.
Where is Caro Quintero now?
He's a man on the run. Caro Quintero was arrested in 1985 and sentenced to 40 years in prison for orchestrating the murder and torture of Kiki Camarena. Then, in 2013, he was released on a legal loophole. The court ruled that Caro had been improperly tried in a federal court, though his crime was a state offense. A few days after he was freed, a Mexican judge issued another arrest warrant. By then, Quintero was on the run.
According to an interview in the Huffington Post, Quintero is transient: “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.”
Caro Quintero says he has given up trafficking and wants to be left alone. “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,” Quintero said in an in-depth interview with Proceso magazine.
But it’s likely he won’t be getting any. In April 2018, Caro Quintero was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Despite Caro Quintero's statement indicating otherwise, the newly issued wanted notice states that Caro Quintero holds “an active key leadership position directing the activities of the Sinaloa Cartel." The U.S. State Department is offering $20 million for information leading to his arrest.