DEA Museum Lecture: “Brought to Justice:
 Operation Leyenda and the Search for Kiki’s Killers”

Operation Leyenda: Justice for Kiki
Operation Leyenda Panel (L-R): Sean Fearns, Jack Lawn, Jack Taylor and Elaine Shannon

Operation Leyenda Panel (L-R): Sean Fearns, Jack Lawn, Jack Taylor and Elaine Shannon

During 2013 Red Ribbon Week activities at DEA Headquarters, the DEA Museum hosted one in a series of lectures that highlight different aspects of DEA’s history and the lessons we learned that can be applied today. The program on October 29th was a panel presentation focused on Operation Leyenda, the agency-wide operation launched in the weeks following the 1985 kidnapping of DEA Special Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Former DEA Administrator Jack Lawn

Former DEA Administrator Jack Lawn

The lecture panel included Former DEA Administrator John C. “Jack” Lawn, Retired Special Agent and Former Deputy Chief of Intelligence Jack Taylor, and celebrated journalist Elaine Shannon, author of Desperados, a book about the Camarena kidnapping, the drug situation in Central and South America at the time, and Operation Leyenda. The panel was moderated by DEA Museum Director Sean Fearns.

Administrator Leonhart, in remarks that kicked off the lecture, said, “It is important to have this program because we need to remember the lessons we learned from those in leadership at the time. I remember as a young agent when we lost Kiki, however I also remember years later the legacy of Operation Leyenda, so much of what we learned then is being put in place now, without even thinking about it, and we are now doing everything possible to get Rafael Caro Quintero back in custody.”

Former Administrator Lawn provided historical context to the events leading up to the kidnapping, torture and murder of Special Agent Camarena in February 1985 as well as
 the trafficking situation in both Colombia and Mexico at the time. “We knew we were in great trouble, and we learned that if the case were to be resolved, it had to be resolved
 by our investigation, our collecting evidence, and our presenting information to grand juries within the United States,” stated Mr. Lawn as he recalled the corruption in Mexican law enforcement at the time which was hampering DEA’s efforts to find the perpetrators of Camarena’s kidnapping, torture, and murder.

Lawn also added, “People in the Justice Department had said that DEA was over-reacting [to Special Agent Camarena’s disappearance]. Other people, senior people in the Secretary of State’s office, said that we shouldn’t be making a fuss, that we’re only losing one person, and Americans are being lost around the world…This did not help us to feel better: in fact it strengthened our resolve that we were going to do it [find SA Camarena’s murderers] we had to do it ourselves.”

Jack Taylor added that “Operation Leyenda was a very challenging case for everybody involved, particularly the agents, because of the emotion involved with the killing of a DEA Special Agent. I mean, all of us know what this is like first hand. So, you had that on top of a very complex case, where you’re trying to get evidence out of a country, that they [Mexico] promised us everything. And, they gave us nothing.”

Elaine Shannon, author of Desperados

Elaine Shannon, author of Desperados

Journalist and author Elaine Shannon, who brought an outside perspective both to her coverage of Operation Leyenda at the time and to the Museum Lecture commented, “I’m a reporter. I’m not an agent. I don’t want to be an agent. You should never trust a reporter who wants to be an agent… I knew DEA to be an institution that is obsessed in a good way with finding the truth. One thing that reporters and most law enforcement people have in common is they want the truth, even if it hurts. Even if it’s ugly. They want the truth. And, they will not rest.”

When asked about the challenges of running Operation Leyenda up against business and other political interests in Mexico, Mr. Lawn commented, “Big business was not an ally of DEA during the course of this investigation. I had a phone call from a president of a major United States bank, telling me that he was very concerned because my efforts might mean that his bank would lose $25 billion in assets which they had invested in Mexico. He said, ‘did I understand the implications of our conducting an investigation which could hurt big business in the United States?’ There was not great support from the oil industry. There was not great support from the banking industry. There was not great support from any entity which had any monies invested in Mexico. DEA had people invested in Mexico, and to us, that was substantially more important than dollars.”

Another concern at the time was where cases that resulted from Operation Leyenda would be tried. According to Jack Taylor, the Department of Justice General Litigation Section wanted the venue to be in San Diego, and they wanted a straight up murder case which was going to be very hard to prove because we had no cooperating witnesses down at the scene. On the other hand, Los Angeles wanted a drug conspiracy 848 (continuing criminal enterprise) case. Those who understood federal conspiracy law knew that there’s a lot more evidence you can get into an 848 case, and that is what was eventually chosen.

Former DEA Deputy Chief of Intelligence Jack Taylor

Former DEA Deputy Chief of Intelligence Jack Taylor

When asked to reflect on the lessons learned from Operation Leyenda, each panelist had a different but important perspective. Former Administrator Lawn commented, “One of the lessons learned was that at the time we had a failing. Our failing was that we didn’t understand the issues that were being faced by Agents Jaime [Kirkendal], by Kiki [Camarena], by Victor Cortez, by our agents on the ground. We have now learned a lesson. We have amended what we do to make sure that Kiki Camarena’s incident does not happen again, and that our headquarters will do a much better job at knowing what’s going on, everything that’s in field, and, that the exchange of information is more certain so we get it to the necessary partners.”

Journalist Elaine Shannon commented, “Kiki Camarena made a terrible sacrifice, but, I think he’s taught us all something. I think he’s taught us about intellectual courage as well as physical courage… persistence. One of the things that impresses me about DEA when I go to various offices, and I talk to policemen and officials in other countries, is that nobody ever accuses DEA of getting involved in brutality, torture, or in underhanded, irregular or illegal activities.”

Retired Special Agent Jack Taylor stated, “I think, that they [the drug traffickers also] took a big lesson out of this: they realized that if they’re going to go after a DEA agent, they’re going to have problems the rest of their life.”

Wanted for the Murder of DEA Special Agent Enrique Camarena: Rafael Caro Quintero

Wanted for the Murder of DEA Special Agent Enrique Camarena: Rafael Caro Quintero

For those who missed the live museum lecture about this historic case, it can be viewed on the DEA Museum website, www.deamuseum.org, under “videos” using a non-Firebird internet-accessible computer.

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