Cops and Robbers
The central premise of The Last Narc is so outlandish that a lot of reasonable people are going to dismiss the show as temerarious conspiracy mongering. But the four-part documentary mini-series (available on Amazon Prime) lays out enough damning facts that you won’t feel inclined to give any particular entity the benefit of the doubt.
Narc follows the familiar structure of a murder mystery and a detective whose life unravels trying to solve it. The murder is that of DEA Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, who was investigating drug cartels in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1985. The detective is another DEA Agent, Hector Berrellez, who was assigned to Camarena’s murder after a distinguished undercover career. Berrellez is eventually forced into early retirement and threatened with Mexican prison, but not before he pins the blame for Camarena’s death on a conspiracy between Cartel kingpins, Mexican politicians, the CIA and the DEA itself. The latter accusation actually got him sued after the release of the documentary.
Camarena’s widow, Geneva Camarena, keeps the focus of the show where it belongs, on Camarena’s murder, even when the filmmakers start veering toward the type of international spy elements that detract from the humanity of the people involved. When Camarena is reduced to a pawn in a power struggle between D.C. and Moscow proxies, it cheapens his memory. Geneva is a necessary and important reminder that Kiki Camarena was a husband and father who was tortured and murdered by evil men. His death was a tragic murder not a war casualty. Geneva conveys her pain in a way that leaves no doubt about what truly matters in this story.
There are a few nuts-and-bolts procedural elements presented in the documentary to keep us respectable recliner-sleuths engaged, but we never get a proper Forensic Files-style breakdown of the crime itself. When evidence is introduced, such as transcripts or photographs, the documentary fails to provide the types of foundational history (where did it come from, how was it authenticated, where can it be viewed in its entirety, etc.) that discerning viewers come to expect from responsible crime journalism. Of course you can Google a lot of that information yourself, but the whole point of a documentary like this is to gather all of the facts in one place so the viewer doesn’t have to do the homework.
The documentary relies primarily on the statements of informants who claimed to have varying levels of involvement in the crime. Former Assistant United States Attorney Manny Medrado, who participated in the investigation, provides a great analysis of how to vet the credibility of informants. Given the inherent problems with snitches, Medrano’s analysis gives the documentary a bedrock of credibility from which the rest of the show builds theories of uneven believability. Absent Medrado’s participation, the entire endeavor may have amounted to little more than a Youtube conspiracy video in a pretty package. Medrado’s measured and prosecutorial tone bolsters assertions that would otherwise be hard to believe.
The crime at the heart of the story started with Camarena on his way to lunch on the afternoon of February 7, 1985. He was kidnapped off the street outside of the DEA office in Guadalajara, Mexico. Camarena was taken to a large home on the outskirts of the city where he was tortured for two days and eventually murdered. A Mexican pilot by the name of Alfredo Zavala was abducted separately, but tortured and murdered alongside Camarena. Their bodies were found a month later in a ditch over 100 miles from the site of Camarena’s abduction.
Almost nobody disputes the involvement of Mexican drug cartel kingpins, in particular Rafael Caro Quintero. Camarena led an investigation that resulted in the destruction of a multi-billion dollar marijuana plantation allegedly belonging to Quintero. Zavala flew surveillance operations for Camarena. Quintero, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo and Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo were all eventually convicted of the murders in Mexico. But Berrellez’ investigation uncovered information suggesting the involvement of Mexican police, high ranking Mexican government officials and the CIA. And that is where things get complicated.
The story presented by Narc and taken from Berrellez’ investigation alleges that Camarena’s kidnapping was planned by the DFS (like a Mexican version of the Soviet KGB) and the CIA at the behest of high ranking Mexican politicians, who were in business with Quintero, Fonseca and Gallardo. The DFS was protecting the drug trafficking business, the CIA was facilitating it to fund an illegal war in Nicaragua and the politicians were getting paid to allow it. Camarena was kidnapped because they were worried about what he learned during the Quintero marijuana investigation.
If you are interested in the story of the cartels, the DFS and the Mexican politicians, go watch Narcos: Mexico on Netflix. It covers some of the same ground as Narc, but in a scripted series that focuses predominantly on Gallardo, Fonseca and Quintero. The actors are way better looking than their real-life counterparts and the fictionalized version is cleaner and easier to digest than a purely factual account would be.
Berrellez recruited three informants who provided the basis for his accusations about the CIA and DEA. Informants can be a useful tool for finding evidence in an investigation, but you rarely want to rely on the testimony of an informant as important evidence in and of itself. Informants usually have the types of messy backstories and devious motives that jurors hate. And as far as key witnesses in a murder trial, you’d have to exhume the corpses of Larry, Moe and Curly to find a more absurd trio than the informants Berrellez found.
Ramon Lira, Rene Lopez and Jorge Godoy were police officers in Mexico who went to work as bodyguards for the Guadalajara drug cartel. Each came forward to Berrellez purportedly because they were in fear for their safety and felt guilt over what they had seen and done on behalf of the cartel. The documentary doesn’t explicitly say so, but it’s a pretty good bet that they were paid for their information as well.
Each of the men provide the type of after-the-fact descriptions that don’t carry much weight in an American court of law. They know everything and they know nothing. They were there all the time but didn’t participate. They were just chauffeurs and errand boys, but for some reason they were trusted with the most intimate details of a vast international criminal conspiracy. If you make it worth their while, they were there for the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the planning of 9/11 too.
Lira has a Yosemite Sam mustache and an old cowboy’s confidence, but he played both sides of the law for so long that every statement he makes carries the stink of deception. Rene Lopez feels more sincere but carries the exact same baggage. Godoy is so unhinged in front of the camera that you can’t help but wonder if it’s a performance. Either way, it’s almost impossible to take him seriously.
But that’s not to say that the informants were necessarily wrong. Whether they were there or not, whether they participated or not, people on the fringes of criminal organizations learn a lot just by hanging around. The word on the street may not always get all of the details exactly right, but it usually has some truth behind it.
Camarena’s captors interrogated him about what he knew, and the interrogation and torture were audio recorded. The documentary fails to explain how the recordings came to light, but according to an LA Times report, the tapes were recovered by the Mexican government from Quintero’s home.
On the recordings, Berrellez recognized that one of the interrogators had a distinct Cuban accent. Lira, Lopez and Godoy all identified the Cuban voice as a man named Max Gomez and claimed that he was a cartel associate. Berrellez researched the name and found that a CIA agent by the name of Felix Rodriguez, who played a prominent role in the Iran Contra scandal, often utilized the name Max Gomez.
Berrellez presented photo lineups to his informants and each of the three picked Rodriguez as the same Max Gomez who had interrogated Camarena. The lineups were administered separately and Lira, Lopez and Godoy were kept apart during that phase of the investigation.
Photo lineups are falling out of style because they aren’t as reliable as they sound and they used to carry too much weight in the public’s mind. Innocent people have gone to prison because of misidentifications in a photo lineup. But used correctly and in an appropriate context, photo lineups still have value. Particularly in a case like this, where each of the witnesses claimed to have seen Max Gomez multiple times and knew him by sight, those photo lineups are meaningful.
Of course, Felix Rodriguez was in the news and had testified on camera before congress. It’s possible that the witnesses recognized him from tv or news coverage. It’s also possible that Berrellez tainted the identification with a fat finger or suggestive nod. But Berrellez was a decorated investigator with a sterling reputation, so that seems like a stretch. And if he wanted to drum up false evidence to accuse somebody of Camarena’s murder, a CIA agent seems like a really unlikely choice. That hornets’ nest wasn’t worth kicking if he just wanted credit for solving Camarena’s murder. I’m sure there were other Cuban guys in Mexico that he could have manufactured a case against, if he were so inclined.
For what it’s worth, Rodriguez claimed that he had absolutely no association with Mexican drug cartels, no involvement in Camarena’s interrogation and was not even in Mexico during those years. Of course, he’d say that whether it was true or not. But given the history of the CIA, particularly in that era, I’m as inclined to believe Berrellez as I am Rodriguez.
If the CIA wasn’t involved in Camarena’s interrogation, then Berrellez had to have fed information to his informants for them to parrot back. I can’t conceive of any other scenario where all three men identified the guy with a Cuban accent as Max Gomez and Max Gomez happened to be the alias of a Cuban-America CIA agent working covert shenanigans in Central and South America. And then all three men identified the agent in a photo lineup. Either Berrellez was lying or Rodriguez was lying, and given the two scenarios, Rodriguez would have a lot more reason to lie.
Narc ends on an unfortunate throwaway accusation that isn’t substantiated enough to warrant an appearance in the documentary. An anonymous source tells the filmmaker in a phone call that a DEA agent helped arrange the kidnapping because Camarena refused to accept the bribes that the rest of agents in the office were taking. The source claims to be a former Mexican government official and Guadalajara cartel member.
Narc makes a hollow show of censoring the DEA agents name, but it was obvious from the information presented in the rest of the documentary that they were accusing former DEA supervisor James Kuykendall. So obvious that Kuykendall sued.
Earlier in the series, the filmmakers made a very big deal of Kuykendall’s testimony in the trial of an accused cartel associate. They insinuated that a single controversial statement by Kuykendall (that he was not personally aware of the suspect, a prominent politician’s brother, being involved in narcotics trafficking) single-handedly doomed the trial of an important drug figure.
The film suggested that Kuykendall’s testimony was tantamount to perjury and hinted at nefarious motives. But rather than ask Medrado, the actual prosecutor, about Kuykendalls testimony, the film had Berrellez describe Medrado’s reaction to the testimony. Medrado participated extensively in the documentary and was in the best position to analyze Kuykendall’s testimony. The fact that they relied on an irrelevant second-hand account to support their allegation when they had access to Medrado himself tells me everything I need to know about the strength of their evidence.
I have no idea whether or not Kuykendall was accepting bribes, but the documentary didn’t show any compelling evidence that he was. It’s a disservice to Camarena’s memory that the documentary would end on a horrific and unsupported allegation against a man that Camarena likely considered a friend.
That’s exactly the type of thing that gets a filmmaker sued, and I hope the truth comes to light in a court of law.
For more from Barney, check out Reckless Speculation about Murder