Outraged by the release of an infamous Mexican drug boss jailed for ordering the brutal 1985 murder of a U.S. drug enforcement agent, the United States may soon face the galling prospect of watching his accomplices walk free.
A Mexican court on Friday cut short Rafael Caro Quintero's 40-year sentence for orchestrating the killing of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena, ending his 28-year stay behind bars after ruling he should have been tried at a state level rather than on federal charges.
The decision dealt a painful blow to the DEA, which said it was "deeply troubled" by his early release and would push for him to be tried in a U.S. court.
Caro Quintero's lawyer also is seeking the release of Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, who ran the Guadalajara cartel alongside Caro Quintero, and was convicted and imprisoned for planning Camarena's abduction and murder with fellow Guadalajara drug lord Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo.
Fonseca Carrillo's lawyer said he had already presented an appeal for his client's release, and expected him to be freed in about two weeks.
"Rafael shouldn't have been tried or sentenced at a federal level for that crime," attorney Jose Luis Guizar said. "This is the same situation, but even more so, because of (Fonseca Carrillo's) age and illness ... the law is the same for everyone."
Felix Gallardo's lawyers are widely expected to follow suit, in a case that has worried the White House, which on Sunday said it feared Caro Quintero's release could result in others involved in Camarena's killing being freed.
"We have seen reports that another individual connected to Camarena's killing could also be released," White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said, reading a statement.
"We remain as committed today in seeing Quintero and others involved in this crime face justice in the United States as we were in the immediate aftermath of Kiki Camarena's murder and will work closely with the Mexican authorities on this."
The three aging drug lords hold a special place in Mexican narcotics lore. They were the leaders of the Guadalajara cartel, a forerunner of the Sinaloa cartel, which is led by Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, the country's most-wanted drug kingpin.
Camarena, an undercover DEA agent behind a string of successful drug busts, was killed at the drug bosses' behest in 1985, triggering the biggest homicide operation in the DEA's history and damaging U.S.-Mexican relations.
At the time, the United States was furious about the perceived lackluster effort to catch Camarena's killer.
Ironically, the release of Caro Quintero comes as Mexico seeks to overhaul its ragged legal system, which has long been seen as antiquated and lagging international standards.
"Here in Mexico, for the first time in history ... it seems the government of Pena Nieto has given (judges) full autonomy - which means they have no fear, no anxiety - to resolve cases according to the letter of the law," Guizar said.
Analysts said they thought sufficient precedent was set by Caro Quintero's release to warrant freeing his accomplices - a potential headache for President Enrique Pena Nieto's dealings with his northern neighbor.
"Pena Nieto is in a tricky spot," said Sylvia Longmire, a former agent with the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations who now works as a drug war analyst. "I think it's very realistic to believe the authorities in Jalisco will follow the same procedures to overturn Carrillo's conviction."
She said she did not expect the United States would go out of its way to ensure Caro Quintero, or his accomplices, would be extradited.
More than 70,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico since 2007 when former President Felipe Calderon launched a militarized attack on the warring cartels.
Pena Nieto, who took office in December, has shifted the focus away from capturing cartel bosses to tackling violent crimes such as extortion and kidnapping.
The shift has raised concerns that Mexico may cooperate less with U.S. security forces in the fight against the cartels.
"Pena Nieto has been slowly pulling back from the relationship the two countries had under Calderon, so I don't really see Pena Nieto responding with anything other than, 'This is our business and we'll let you know if we need anything,'" Longmire said.