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  After Death, Kingpin's Life Is an Open Book

Drug trafficker Amado Carrillo Fuentes (La Reforma Archives)
By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 25, 1997; Page A1

MEXICO CITY—When Amado Carrillo Fuentes was alive, the drug lord was one of Mexico's most mysterious men. He lived discreetly – no wild shootouts, no late-night disco hopping. Few pictures of him appeared in newspapers or on television. He was from a new breed, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration liked to say, a low-profile kingpin who behaved like a businessman.

But since he died in July following high-risk surgery to change his appearance, an unprecedented flood of information has emerged about Carrillo from Mexican, Chilean and U.S. law enforcement officials as well as other published accounts. The newly available details illuminate his travels, families, properties and businesses. They show that he was in the process of shifting his drug operations to Chile, that he allegedly used a money exchange there to launder money through Citibank accounts in New York, that he had a second family in Cuba and that he was a benefactor of the Catholic Church in Mexico.

The fact that so much information is emerging now that Carrillo is dead underscores, according to analysts here, the untouchability he enjoyed during his years as one of the world's top drug lords. It follows a time-honored tradition in Mexico that the most damning information about powerful people gets aired only after they lose their influence and the information loses its urgency – after the money and drugs have left the country, after the principals are dead, have left office or are hiding elsewhere.

"This is standard operating procedure," said Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, an independent senator and frequent critic of the Mexican government. "The attorney general's office had all this information before Amado Carrillo's death, but they couldn't digest it politically or integrate it in a court of law" because of the powerful people who might have been implicated.

"This has always been the central issue in how the attorney general's office builds its cases," Aguilar said. "They are more compelled by what they have to hide than what they are willing to prosecute."

Among most Mexicans, for instance, it is accepted as an article of faith that sitting presidents are corrupt, but that evidence of their alleged crimes will emerge only after they leave office.

In that sense, some analysts said, the Carrillo case resembles the situation faced by former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whose administration from 1988 to 1994 was marked by rumors of high-level corruption. It was not until after he left office, however, that evidence of the alleged crimes began to surface.

Salinas, who has denied any wrongdoing and who has not been charged with any crime, went into exile in early 1995 in Ireland, which has no extradition treaty with Mexico. His older brother, Raul, was arrested and charged with murder, illegal enrichment and abuse of public office. He also has denied any wrongdoing.

The administration of President Ernesto Zedillo remains unmarred by the sort of rumors that plagued the Salinas presidency. But it, too, has been touched by scandals. The head of the anti-drug agency, army Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested earlier this year for allegedly working for Carrillo. A short time later, Zedillo abolished the agency on grounds that it was too corrupt to be put right.

A senior official in the office of Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cuellar said detailed information about Carrillo is coming out only now mainly because Madrazo has stopped politically motivated leaks. "Investigations are following professional procedures and have nothing to do with politics," the official said. "Madrazo was very clear about stopping leaks and litigating in the media."

Given his protection payments of as much as $500 million a year, his ruthlessness in dealing with snitches and enemies – by some accounts, he ordered as many as 400 people killed – and his informant network, it is not surprising that so little information about Carrillo became public when he was alive. Nobody wanted to talk.

Carrillo enjoyed tremendous freedom to run his drug business from Mexico and to come and go as he pleased in the months before his death. But he and his cartel also came under increasing pressure from Mexican anti-drug forces. Not only did they nab Gutierrez, his alleged top protector. Carrillo himself barely escaped arrest a month earlier when Mexican agents raided his sister's wedding at the family ranch. A corrupt law enforcement official apparently tipped him to the impending raid and Carrillo fled just before soldiers and police arrived.

"His infrastructure was starting to collapse. No one could withstand the focus," a senior U.S. drug official said, adding that Carrillo made a critical mistake: "He got too big, too notorious."

Feeling the heat, Carrillo, 42, began scrambling to safeguard himself, his family and his drug business. His flight from the law ended July 4, when he died from a lethal combination of drugs administered following radical plastic surgery and liposuction at a small Mexico City hospital.

According to the accounts now available, Carrillo rarely saw his family or spent the night in the same place twice in the months before his death. He frequently traveled abroad, reportedly to Europe, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Argentina and Chile. Shortly after he died, newspapers here published a picture of Carrillo in Jerusalem in the summer of 1995 with a priest from Mexico. Other priests subsequently said that Carrillo gave generously to the Catholic Church.

Some of the foreign trips were to find a new headquarters for his cartel, the Chilean police director, Gen. Ruben Olivares Rojas, told the Mexico City daily Reforma.

A prominent Mexican weekly magazine, Proceso, citing secret military documents, reported Carrillo's right-hand man, Eduardo Gonzalez Quirarte, met earlier this year with high-ranking Mexican military officials to propose a live-and-let-live arrangement: If the government would stop pursuing Carrillo and his family and let them keep half their assets, he would agree to continue pumping drug profits into the Mexican economy, but only from trafficking in the United States and Europe, and to help Mexican police curtail freelance drug smuggling in Mexico.

Mexico's Defense Secretariat acknowledged that four generals met Gonzalez Quirarte in January. However, its statement said, the generals did not know who he was at the time and rejected his offer.

Then came a curious twist.

Gutierrez, in testimony from jail cited by Proceso, said Carrillo aides arranged meetings with the highest brass – including the defense secretary, Gen. Enrique Cervantes – through two attorneys who supposedly worked for the president's office. Gutierrez alleged that cartel representatives offered to pay a $60 million bribe – it is unclear to whom – if the government would cool its pursuit of Carrillo. As a gesture, Carrillo's aides made a $6 million down payment, Gutierrez said, and the Mexican officials pocketed the money but then reneged on the deal.

In a separate court case, another imprisoned army general repeated Gutierrez's allegations about the $60 million bribe and down payment.

Military officials have acknowledged a meeting. But they have declined to identify who attended and denied bribes were offered or money taken.

Antonio Ocaranza, a Zedillo spokesman, called the allegations "a complete lie" and a "smoke screen" to divert attention from the drug-trafficking charges the accusers themselves face. He said the two attorneys named by the generals did not work for the government, although their law firm may have done some legal work for it.

Among other details that have emerged since Carrillo's death:

  • Absent a deal that would let him live and operate his cartel in peace in Mexico, Carrillo began planning to move his drug business from northern Mexico to Chile, where he, his family and top lieutenants spent three months last spring establishing a business bulkhead and buying cars and real estate.

    Carrillo entered Chile by car from Argentina on March 3 using a fake passport in the name of Juan Antonio Arriaga Rangel. Among the people who accompanied or joined him there were his wife, Sonia Barragan Perez; their three small children; his 20-year-old son by another woman, Vicente Carrillo Leyva; and three associates who law enforcement officials report were cartel officials.

    According to the officials, they were Gonzalez Quirarte, who conducted much of Carrillo's most sensitive business dealings and was allegedly the liaison between the cartel and Gutierrez; Ricardo Reyes Rincon, a physician present during the drug lord's fatal surgery in July and whose tortured body, Mexican police say, was found in an oil drum three weeks ago beside the Mexico-Acapulco highway; and Manuel Bitar Tafich, a prominent businessman from northern Mexico and a long-time Carrillo friend.

  • While in Santiago, Carrillo and his assistants allegedly enlisted a local money exchange that had two bank accounts at Citibank in New York to launder drug proceeds and provide them with cash. The U.S. government has frozen the accounts, which have a total of about $26 million, and has filed to seize their assets.

    A spokesman for Citibank declined to comment.

  • Bitar applied to Chile's Foreign Investment Commission for permission to operate a construction and real estate business in the country. Carrillo, using his pseudonym, was listed as a partner.

    During his three-month stay, according to Chilean law enforcement officials, Carrillo and his entourage purchased 11 cars, bought or rented almost a dozen mansions, ranches and condominiums, and established a company, Hercules Ltd., to manage his drug operations. He and his associates invested about $6 million in the country in what Chile's interior secretary called "a classic case of money laundering."

  • Using his fake passport, Carrillo left Chile on June 6 and traveled to Cuba, where he stayed for about three weeks in a residential enclave reserved for government guests. Mexican law enforcement officials said travel records showed Carrillo went to Cuba often in the last three years, perhaps to visit his second family – a woman named Marta and their 2-year-old daughter. U.S. officials said he may have received special treatment from the Cuban government because he appeared to be a rich Mexican businessman willing to invest there.

    "The Cubans had no clue who he was," a senior U.S. law enforcement official said. "He presented himself as a Mexican investor with lots of money. No one asked any questions."

    Washington Post correspondents Molly Moore in Juarez, Mexico, and Douglas Farah in Washington contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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