Mexico minimizes U.S. role in drug kingpin's capture

FILE PHOTO: Members of the National Guard stand outside Altiplano Federal Penitentiary, where drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero is imprisoned in Almoloya de Juarez
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By Diego Oré, Dave Graham and Drazen Jorgic

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico's president on Monday downplayed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)'s role in last week's capture of drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero, exposing tensions over security cooperation despite the major cross-border win.

The head of the DEA had hailed the arrest as the product of joint cooperation, but President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador repeatedly sought to paint a different picture.

"They had no direct intervention," the president said of the DEA at a regular news conference.

However, two Mexican sources told Reuters the DEA had provided important information that helped with the kingpin's capture.

Caro Quintero's detention on Friday in a remote part of Sinaloa state was arguably the most important arrest of a drug trafficker under the administration of Lopez Obrador, who assumed power in December 2018.

It was also a coup for the DEA, which long sought to extradite Caro Quintero to the United States as he served 28 years of a 40-year sentence in a Mexican jail for the kidnapping, torture and murder of DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena in Mexico in 1985.

After Caro Quintero was freed in 2013 under controversial circumstances by a Mexican judge, the DEA made him a top target and U.S. authorities placed a $20 million bounty on his head.

But when a journalist asked Lopez Obrador if the DEA had located Caro Quintero and passed the information to Mexico, the president replied: "No, no, no."

"The Mexican Navy carried out the whole investigation and the apprehension," said Lopez Obrador, who has argued that the DEA in the past trampled on Mexico's sovereignty.

His remarks clashed with Friday's statement by DEA chief Anne Milgram who said the arrest followed joint efforts with Mexico.

"Today, our incredible DEA team in Mexico worked in partnership with Mexican authorities to capture and arrest Rafael Caro Quintero," Milgram said.

The DEA did not respond to a request for comment.

A source in Mexico's Attorney General's Office, which worked with the Navy on the operation, told Reuters that although no member of any U.S. agency took part in the arrest of Caro Quintero, Mexico received "important information" from the DEA on his location that allowed authorities to locate him.

"Without the information from the Americans, the capture of Caro Quintero would not have been possible," the source said.

Another Mexican official said the DEA helped Mexico intercept communications which enabled the capture.

Curbs on the national intelligence budget imposed by Mexico's president had made U.S. assistance particularly invaluable in such operations, the official added.

Agustin Barrios Gomez, a former lawmaker and founding member of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations, said it was inevitable that Lopez Obrador would downplay U.S. involvement.

"Before, U.S.-Mexico cooperation was seen as a badge of honor. It meant the Mexican administration was trustworthy," he said. "In the current administration, cooperation with the United States is seen as suspect: it undermines the narrative that Mexico can and should do everything by itself."

(Reporting by Diego Ore, Dave Graham and Drazen Jorgic in Mexico City; Editing by Matthew Lewis)