MEXICO CITY – Fugitive drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero denied in an interview published Sunday that he is getting back into the drug trade or trying to muscle in on the Sinaloa cartel's operations.
Caro Quintero is a fugitive with a $5 million reward on his head after being erroneously released from prison in 2013, where he had served 28 years of a 40-year sentence in the 1985 kidnapping, torture and murder of U.S. DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena.
He has since been ordered recaptured, but was interviewed while on the run by the news magazine Proceso.
Caro Quintero said was "very worried" about reports he was in a dispute with the Sinaloa cartel.
"I don't have problems with any cartel," said the drug lord, who appeared simply dressed and was interviewed in a humble shack.
Jorge Gonzalez, the attorney general of the northern state of Chihuahua, said earlier this month there was evidence that Caro Quintero may be trying to muscle in on the Sinaloa cartel's operations. The area on the border between Sinaloa and Chihuahua states has seen an upsurge in violence in recent weeks.
Believed to be around 63, Caro Quintero said "I was a drug trafficker 31 years ago," but said that stopped in 1984 with a raid on a massive marijuana ranch he ran. "I have stopped being a drug trafficker and I repeat, please, leave me in peace. "
That kind of disavowal may not convince many people.
"Caro Quintero will deny anything and everything," said Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said "But Caro Quintero knows that for him to survive being on the run, now that they're looking for him again, he needs money ... he's got to get involved in the drug trade."
"What he's doing is denying that he's trying to carve out a piece of territory where he can traffic ... but right now he is going to deny because he is not anywhere near powerful enough to take on in a frontal assault the Sinaloa cartel."
Caro Quintero said that after he was released he had a friendly meeting with now-imprisoned drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
"He came to greet me," Caro Quintero said. The two men ate breakfast together and Caro Quintero said "I told him I didn't want to have anything to do with illegal activities."
He said he had a similar meeting with Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, another top Sinaloa cartel leader.
Caro Quintero walked free in 2013 after a three-judge appeals court in the western state of Jalisco ordered him released on procedural grounds after 28 years behind bars, saying he should have originally been prosecuted in a state court instead of federal court.
Mexico's Supreme Court later annulled the order, saying Camarena was a registered U.S. government agent and therefore his killing was a federal crime. An arrest warrant was issued for Caro Quintero, but he had gone underground after his release.
Caro Quintero was a founding member of one of Mexico's earliest and biggest drug gangs, the Guadalajara cartel. He helped establish a powerful cartel based in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa that later split into some of Mexico's largest drug organizations, including the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels.
In the interview, he denied involvement in the Camarena killing; the DEA has issued a $5 million reward for his re-arrest.
"I didn't organize or kidnap or kill Mr. Camarena," he said "I was in the wrong place."
Still, he asked forgiveness from Camarena's family, saying "I am very repentant, if I made some mistake I ask forgiveness."
Vigil said "we have a lot of witnesses who say that Caro Quintero was high on coke, he went in there and struck Kiki Camarena on the head with a blunt instrument" as the agent was dying.
A Mexican official said Saturday that the government is studying a request to place another drug lord convicted in Camarena's death under house arrest because of his age and illnesses.
Imprisoned 86-year-old drug lord Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo also was serving a 40-year sentence. Mexican courts have said Fonseca Carrillo is eligible for the program, as are other aged or ill inmates.
Another aging drug lord, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, remains in prison in the case.