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  Drug Lord Goes Home in Coffin

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 12 1997; Page A01

The people of this tiny village gathered today to bury an international legend -- a man who reputedly built a multibillion-dollar drug empire, bought off layer upon layer of his nation's government and outwitted the best intelligence apparatus U.S. tax dollars could buy.

Amado Carrillo Fuentes, one of the world's most powerful drug traffickers and one of Mexico's wealthiest men, returned Thursday night to his childhood village in a silver-colored metal coffin after years of eluding the law and changing the way international drug trafficking is conducted.

"He always said they'd never take him alive," said his younger sister, Alicia, angered by the police and military that swarmed along the gravel road leading to the family's walled compound in the midst of flat, sun-baked farmland. "Now that he's dead, they've come for him."

The cronies of Carrillo's recent years -- gun-toting gangsters or rich and powerful associates -- did not appear, however, to make up the bulk of the crowd that trudged through the guarded metal gates of his family compound and past the immense rose gardens to pay homage. Rather, it was the peasants and farmhands who inhabit this dusty village of about 1,200 people who attended the services throughout the day at the modest blue stucco house, where funeral wreaths the size of refrigerators wilted in sweltering heat.

Only as the time of the sunset burial ceremony neared did about 200 late arrivals -- most from distant states and many obviously dressing down -- filter into the Carrillo compound. Their numbers may have been diminished by the several dozen soldiers and police who photographed visitors and frisked some for weapons.

Inside the house, Carrillo's mother, Aurora Fuentes Lopez, 63, and his sisters, dressed in black and heavily adorned with gold jewelry, wept through the services said over the scarred body that lay in an open coffin.

Some U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents described Carrillo as the most powerful drug trafficker of all. Some analysts claim he made $25 billion and he put Mexico's top law enforcement and political figures on his payroll, often ingeniously making them look like anti-drug crusaders by helping them eliminate his competitors.

Carrillo's fabled life of crime was cut short after 41 years -- not by a shootout or contract hit job but under questionable circumstances at a Mexico City women's clinic, reportedly after having plastic surgery on his face and 3 1/2 gallons of fat sucked from his body. The Mexican news media have reported that police are investigating whether Carrillo may have been murdered with an intentional overdose of drugs or by suffocation after the surgery.

Carrillo's reputation is based more on myth than fact. In the end, although U.S. anti-drug agencies concentrated much of their efforts on tracking Carrillo, and Mexican authorities seized dozens of his properties, law enforcement authorities had little concrete information about him, his family or his business. Even the most basic details of Carrillo's background have only been revealed since his death last Friday, in interviews with family acquaintances who remain too fearful to allow their names to be used.

"He would ask me for advice," said a priest who said he sometimes served as Carrillo's confessor. "We don't only follow saints. I wasn't going to turn my back on him." The priest added, "I once told him, `This is not right,' " referring to Carrillo's chosen profession. "He told me, `Father, I can't retire. I have to keep going. I have to support thousands of families.' "

Sometimes Carrillo would try to convince the clergyman, "Father, I am not a criminal. I never killed anyone. Some of my workers, they have killed -- but I myself never ordered them to kill anyone." Law enforcement officials, however, have accused Carrillo and his cartel of at least 400 drug-related killings.

Carrillo was born here in the western state of Sinaloa, a region of flat farm land and jagged mountain ranges, best known for producing winter vegetables and narcotics traffickers.

The second of 10 children, he spent his early childhood in this farming village, where his father was a modest landowner -- by no means wealthy, but with more money than most.

Local myth holds that the young Carrillo left the village when he was he was 12 or 13, telling people, "I won't come back until I'm rich." He did, in fact, go to live with a relative in the highlands of Chihuahua state, where marijuana, opium poppies and the drug trade were flourishing. The relative took him on as an apprentice in his poppy fields, and young Amado, with his sixth-grade education, learned the trade from the fields to the distribution routes.

Within two decades, Mexican drug cartels had become better organized, more powerful and more violent. Carrillo had moved so far up the ladder -- with the help of internal shake-ups and a few assassinations -- that he was one of the chief lieutenants of the drug cartel based in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Tex.

About the same time -- in the mid-1980s -- the priest met Carrillo and spoke hopefully to the by then wealthy man: "A few acquaintances who have known you since you were little have told me that I might be able to ask you for something," the priest recalled saying to Carrillo. "That something is that you build me a little, tiny chapel . . . so people can celebrate Mass."

According to the priest, Carrillo paid every centavo to build and furnish the modern yellow church that rises slightly Oz-like amid the pig pens and rutted roads.

In 1993, Carrillo became the leader of the Juarez cartel and in four years turned it into the predominant trafficking organization in the hemisphere, forging business deals with Colombian cartels that eventually gave Mexican cartels vastly more independence, influence and wealth. His innovative use of airplanes earned him the nickname "the Lord of the Skies."

Unlike his chief rivals -- the flashier Arellano Felix brothers, who operated out of Tijuana -- Carrillo kept a low public profile, except when he returned to this village. On such occasions, it was party time at the sprawling Carrillo family compound, according to invitees.

"They were the biggest parties you could imagine -- they sometimes lasted two days," said a regular guest. Carrillo would order several cows barbecued, summon his favorite mariachi musicians and start passing out gifts.

Not everyone in the village agreed. "People think we're all well off because drug traffickers live here," said a laborer who works in the Carrillo family corn fields. "But if they helped us, would we be living like this?" he asked, waving his arm toward his family's one-room dwelling, part of which is constructed of mud and bamboo.

Of Carrillo's grieving mother, one close family friend said: "She felt like she lost him a long time ago."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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