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Guadalajara drug cartel founder, in first interview, talks about murdered DEA agent

Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, in an exclusive interview with Noticias Telemundo, denied any involvement in Enrique "Kiki" Camarena's murder, even sending his widow a message.
Image: Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo speaks in first interview
Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo.Noticias Telemundo

JALISCO, Mexico — Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo appeared in a wheelchair in the maximum security area of ​​the Puente Grande state prison, in Jalisco. It was an afternoon, at the beginning of August, and he was coming from the prison’s medical ward. His left arm was in a cast because he fell a few weeks ago. He has lost vision in one of his eyes and is deaf in his left ear.

Those last two conditions made the interview a bit difficult, so we had to write the questions on a poster board for him to read.

“I have half my body paralyzed,” said Félix Gallardo, 75, the co-founder of the Guadalajara cartel, one of the first drug trafficking organizations in Mexico. 

Few traces remain of the man who during the 1980s was considered one of the most powerful criminal leaders in the world.

"My health is terrible. My family is digging a grave so that I may be buried next to a tree. My life expectancy is nonexistent. I lost everything: I lost sensitivity, my hearing, my eyesight," said the man known as "The Boss of Bosses," while complaining of the health ailments that have plagued him in recent years.

The first question was why, after so many years, he had decided to grant an interview. It was a very big question, because it took me five years to meet him. In April 2016 I had the first contact with one of his lawyers in Mexico City.

It took five years and four months to face him.

“Are you asking me why I am granting you the interview? Because of your relentless efforts! Your strong efforts,” he said, knowing better than anyone I hadn't stopped insisting during all these years.

Félix Gallardo was first arrested in April 1989 and has spent 32 years in prison in Mexico for the 1985 murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena Salazar. In 2017, he was re-sentenced to 37 years for Camarena's murder; other charges included stockpiling weapons, bribery, murder, drug trafficking and money laundering.

His initial trial was the longest in Mexican history, lasting more than 28 years until his conviction in 2017 for the murders of Camarena and Mexican pilot Alfredo Zavala Avelar.

In various judicial and academic investigations, Félix Gallardo was closely linked to the beginning of the large drug trafficking organizations in Mexico. According to the DEA and multiple investigators, Félix Gallardo, along with Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo and Rafael Caro Quintero, founded the organization the DEA would name the Guadalajara cartel.

Though the three men were convicted for their participation in the kidnapping, torture and murder of Camarena Salazar, only Félix Gallardo remains incarcerated.

Drug trafficking has raised the levels of violence and conflict in Mexico. In 2019, the Mexican government increased the number of people who have disappeared during the war on drug trafficking to 60,053. In 2020 alone, a total of 34,515 homicides were registered. According to organizations such as Semáforo Delictivo, about 80 percent of these homicides are related to drugs and drug trafficking.

Many things have been said about Félix Gallardo — that he was a businessman with a lot of money in Guadalajara and that politicians, governors and public officials attended his parties.

Recently, the popular Netflix series "Narcos: Mexico" chronicled his life as the co-founder of the Guadalajara cartel, as the first drug trafficker to create a bridge between South America and the United States for the export of cocaine — negotiating with Colombian drug traffickers such as Pablo Escobar. On-screen, he's depicted as a man with smart and innovative ideas who was able to unite different criminal organizations in a kind of federation of drug traffickers.

In popular culture, he's known as the "The Boss of Bosses," and though it hasn't been confirmed, most people associate the popular song from the group Los Tigres del Norte with the drug lord. His name is still seen on T-shirts.

Félix Gallardo was 28 when he was first sentenced by a judge in Jalisco. He has lost all hope that he will be released and believes he will die in prison.

"It's been 32 years," he said. "That's a lifetime for a man who didn't commit a crime."

This is the first interview that Félix Gallardo has granted during his sentence.

Noticias Telemundo: How has your life been in prison?

Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo: I’m not going to talk about ... because they've treated us poorly. They don't let us have visitors, no phone booths, no lawyers. I don't even know why I'm here.

How was your capture in 1989?

Félix Gallardo: I was in a house in Cosmos in Guadalajara when they knocked down the door, without any arrest warrant, without any search warrant. [I was] with my family. There was my daughter, my son. I was beaten and pulled out in less than a minute, and I suffered four broken ribs. I asked what was their motive and all I got was more torture. I received a plastic bag over my head to suffocate me. They kept beating me up.

You were sentenced to almost 40 years in prison for the murder of Enrique "Kiki" Camarena. Why were you linked to this murder?

Félix Gallardo: It is a very sad subject. This Mr. Camarena, whoever they were, whoever did it, the perpetrators and masterminds are behind bars; they've paid with their lives in prison, and they've had a very rough time. I'm not aware why they've linked me to that crime. I never met that man. Let me reiterate: I'm not into weapons. I'm really sorry because I know he was a good man.

Would you say something to Agent Camarena’s widow?

Félix Gallardo: That I wish her comfort. She should feel relieved that the culprits are serving time.

What relationship did you have with Caro Quintero and Fonseca Carrillo?

Félix Gallardo: I don’t know them. We did not meet on the street. These people and I have never chatted.

A television series recently detailed your life and portrayed you as a drug trafficker, as the cocaine czar for having opened the coca routes from South America to the United States and dealings with Pablo Escobar.

Félix Gallardo: I never met that person. He, that person you're mentioning, I was never in Medellín or Cali, as the series says. I never met him. Later on, he was killed while I was in prison. There doesn't exist a czar, there's never existed such thing. Cartels have never existed in Guadalajara. I don't know if that's changed now. That never happened. In other words, we led a family life. I used to take my children to school.

Do you identify with the character that appears in the series?

Félix Gallardo: No. Miguel Félix Gallardo is an honest man.

You have spent many years in prison. Have you ever thought of escaping?

Félix Gallardo: I've never thought about escaping.

What did you do before you were arrested?

Félix Gallardo: I dedicated myself to agriculture and livestock since I was a child. My parents were the first to export legumes to the United States in 1942. I was born in ‘46. I am going on 76 years. I also owned some drugstores and two old hotels.

Do you have any regrets?

Félix Gallardo: Since I haven’t made a mistake, I have nothing to repent. I did not participate in such an act [Camarena's murder].

What would you like to do if you were to regain your freedom one day?

Félix Gallardo: I lost more than half of my family while I've been in jail: a daughter, my parents, my mother died without her furniture being returned to her, her furniture! I am not thinking of freedom. I think of my grandchildren.

Do you hope to get out of prison?

Félix Gallardo: No. My life expectancy is very low, as you can see. I had stomach surgery. They removed eight hernias. They messed up my eyesight. They messed up my hearing. As you can see, I can't walk. I'm not hoping. Of course, everyone believes in miracles, but only for my grandkids.

With President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's amnesty for inmates over 75 years of age, do you hope to benefit from that measure?

Félix Gallardo: I'm not expecting that. I know that the president is a man of goodwill. That he is fighting social inequality. He is giving pensions. He is doing many things, and I wouldn't like to take up his time. I'm a corpse who's only looking forward to being buried next to a tree. I'm not asking anything from the president. Quite the opposite, I hope he succeeds. This thing, with the bacteria [Covid-19] has severely affected Mexicans' purchasing power, but this man is of goodwill and I hope God will help him.

How do you see the situation of violence in the country?

Félix Gallardo: I have to tell you, ma'am, I've had a 5-inch TV set in prison; I'm not aware of any violence. Violence is a consequence of unemployment, of social inequality, which Mr. López Obrador is solving little by little. We have to give it time.

How would you like to be remembered?

Félix Gallardo: As the honest person that I always was, a man who wasn't into weapons.

A version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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Albinson Linares, Noticias Telemundo contributed.