The night the Lord of the Skies got away

The night the Lord of the Skies got away
Reuters; John Moore/Getty Images; Rachel Mendelson/Insider

One night in 1985, US agents may have had a chance to stop the rise of Mexico's most powerful drug lord — a chance they quickly gave up without knowing it. But the evidence gathered that night would prove valuable in a way no one could predict.


If he'd blinked he might have missed them.

The pair of cars were parked window to window, just off the side of Highway 67, nine miles north of the tiny border town of Presidio, Texas. As David Ramirez cruised by in his dun-colored U.S. Border Patrol sedan, the night sky outside the range of headlights was so pitch-black that he could have been forgiven for not spotting the vehicles.

Ramirez guessed that something was up. Slowing the cruiser, he banged a quick U-turn and headed back.

"They were on the side of the road, at that time of night, in that area, which was known for drug trafficking," Ramirez recalled. "And there wasn't any other traffic. We were out there in a patrol vehicle and we saw maybe two other vehicles in a three-hour time span."


It was May 1985, and Ramirez had only been with the Border Patrol for two and a half years. But at a posting as remote as southwest Texas, where only a handful of agents were stationed at the time, that qualified him to train the new guy. So, in the passenger seat sat his partner for the evening, a trainee agent learning the ropes as they cruised along this ribbon of pebbles, dust, and potholes masquerading as a state highway.

As Ramirez maneuvered his patrol car, two pairs of headlights came on, two engines rumbled to life, and two cars peeled out. A late-model pickup truck went first, and, following closely behind, a big-body, white Mercury Grand Marquis. They were headed south, toward Presidio, and toward Mexico.

Ramirez spun the cruiser around once again and sped off in pursuit, flashing his red-and-blues to signal the drivers to stop. The two vehicles ignored him.

The Mercury wasn't going that fast, 60, maybe 70 miles-per-hour, but it acted as a sort of rearguard, allowing the driver of the pickup truck to put more and more distance between himself and the Border Patrol agents giving chase. This went on for a while, five minutes maybe.

Finally, with the pickup truck out of sight, the driver of the Mercury eased to the side of the road and crunched to a stop. Ramirez knew it was a feint designed to let the other driver — and whatever cargo he might be carrying — get away. But he also knew that at the end of that road, just before the international port of entry, was a Border Patrol station. He radioed ahead for agents to be on the lookout, and turned his focus to the Mercury.


Carefully opening his door, Ramirez climbed out of the cruiser, unclasped the snap on his holster, and drew his .38-caliber service revolver, holding it at a downward angle. It had been dark for hours, but in these parts even after midnight in late spring can be mind-bendingly hot. The thermostat hovered around 95 degrees and the night air hung heavy like a blanket.

As Ramirez approached the Mercury from the driver-side door, his heart rate quickened. The ambient sounds of the desert night, the buzz of insects and snuffling of wild javelinas, receded into the background. His training — and his survival instinct — kicked in to guide him. The trainee, armed with a shotgun, mirrored the more experienced agent and sidled toward the car from the passenger side.

Speaking in Spanish through the rolled down window, the driver had an easy-does-it, friendly manner. With the trainee standing back, Ramirez holstered his revolver and requested the suspect's documents. The driver obliged.

One was a border-crossing card, issued by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, that allowed Mexicans living close to the border to cross back and forth for errands and jobs.

The other document identified the driver as an agent of the Federal Security Directorate, or DFS, a powerful — and phantasmagorically corrupt — branch of Mexico's federal law enforcement. For Ramirez, this didn't prove the man was a cop. The DFS was notorious for its connections to drug traffickers, and its agents were known to hand out fake badges to the smugglers they worked with. But he couldn't be sure the man wasn't a cop.


Ramirez asked the man if he had any weapons, and the driver said no, no guns. But peering into the Marquis, Ramirez could see a box of ammo sitting on the passenger seat, clear as day. He asked again. No weapons? You sure about that?

The night the Lord of the Skies got away
David Ramirez (r); John Moore/Getty Images; Rachel Mendelson/Insider

The driver made no attempt to keep the lie going and admitted that, sure, he had a small gun in the trunk. On Ramirez' orders, the driver opened the door and walked around to the rear to pop the trunk. The "small gun" turned out to be a loaded AR-15 assault rifle.

Ramirez eyed the driver more closely now. He stood about six feet tall, trim and lanky, and dressed like a well-heeled cowboy, with nice boots and well-fitting clothes. Despite everything, he seemed relaxed.

Ramirez gave the driver a careful patdown and, finding no other weapons on him, escorted him back to the Border Patrol cruiser and directed him into the back seat, locking him in there but deciding not to place him in handcuffs, given the DFS badge.

"In any law enforcement, I would say there's a certain courtesy you give to [other] law enforcement," Ramirez told me. "As a young agent, I didn't really know how to deal with it. I was naive."


The trainee took the keys to the Mercury and started back to the station at the Presidio-Ojinaga border. Ramirez followed. In the backseat, the driver sat – quiet, calm, no fuss.

The man's name, according to his INS card and DFS badge, was Amado Carrillo Fuentes.

The Lord of the Skies

Within a decade of that traffic stop, Amado would be the most significant drug trafficker in Mexico.

His knack for using airplanes to smuggle huge quantities of drugs earned him the nickname "el señor de los cielos," the Lord of the Skies, and, to this day, he is easily the most prolific and most powerful drug lord the country has ever seen. His would be a household name in Mexico and a curse on the lips of U.S. federal agents tasked with fighting the narcotics trade. Another two decades after that, he would feature prominently as the absurdly white-washed protagonist of the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico.

But on the night David Ramirez encountered him on that desolate stretch of Highway 67, Amado was just one trafficker among many. Not a nobody, certainly, but his photo wouldn't yet be on any police bulletin boards, nor his name in any newspapers.


Amado was then 28 years old, and for years he had found a comfortable niche for himself in the growing drug empire run by his uncle — a fearsome brute named Ernesto "Don Neto" Fonseca — Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, and Rafael Caro Quintero. Like nearly all major drug traffickers of the era — including Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, who was born around the same time as Amado — they all hailed from the northwestern state of Sinaloa. But they ran their operation out of the city of Guadalajara, and became known as the Guadalajara cartel.

As the demand for cocaine began to surge in the late 1970s and exploded in the early 1980s, most cocaine headed to the U.S. from Colombia, across the Caribbean, and into Florida. But as the DEA and the Coast Guard cracked down on that route, the Colombians needed a new way of getting drugs north The syndicate that Don Neto, Félix Gallardo, and Caro Quintero operated, which previously focused on heroin and marijuana and was well positioned to offer an alternative route to their new friends in Colombia, was busy forging contacts with Colombian cocaine suppliers.

Within a few years, the Mexican traffickers had become an integral link in the chain that saw cocaine travel by air from its roots high in the Andes to labs in the jungles of Colombia to local smugglers in Mexico, and finally to an eager customer base in the United States. Using the staggering infusion of cash that came along with their new specialty in moving cocaine, the Guadalajara network was able to bring most of the major drug traffickers in Mexico under a unified protection racket negotiated by Félix Gallardo and overseen by the DFS and other federal police agencies.

Amado, who was quickly gaining a reputation for being cool-headed and having a talent for forging political connections, played a key role in this transformation of the drug game, coordinating cargo planes, loaded down with hundreds — and later thousands — of kilos of coke, to clandestine air strips in northern Mexico.

An act of supreme recklessness

Everything changed, however, just a few months before Amado was stopped in southwest Texas.


In February 1985, a group of gunmen snatched a young DEA agent named Enrique "Kiki" Camarena off the streets of Guadalajara, tortured and murdered him along with a pilot who'd worked with the DEA, and dumped their bodies on a distant ranch.

The night the Lord of the Skies got away
Amado Carrillo Fuentes (c). Henry Romero/Reuters; Rachel Mendelson/Insider

The brutal kidnapping, torture, and murder of a U.S. federal agent was an act of supreme recklessness and the consequences were sweeping.

By April, Don Neto and Caro Quintero were in prison, Félix Gallardo was in hiding, and the network they had carefully built and paid a fortune to protect was in disarray, cracking under the pressure of a vengeful United States, and the obligatory, if belated, efforts of Mexican cops. (Just this month, on July 15, Caro Quintero was arrested in Mexico in a joint U.S.-Mexican operation. In 2013, while serving a 40-year sentence for the murders, a Mexican court had ordered Caro Quintero released. U.S. officials immediately sought to re-arrest him, adding him to the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, but Caro Quintero went into hiding. During the operation on July 15, 14 marines died when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed outside the city of Los Mochis. A few days after the re-capture of Caro Quintero, in a seemingly unrelated move, Félix Gallardo officially trademarked his own name, apparently for a fashion brand.)

Mid-level traffickers who were lucky or savvy enough to escape the dragnet exploited a sudden power vacuum and set up territorial fiefdoms, negotiating new protection pacts with corrupt officials and continuing to traffic all the cocaine, heroin, and marijuana that North Americans could sniff, shoot up?, or smoke.

Amado was one of those survivors, but he couldn't stay in Guadalajara. So he headed to Ojinaga, just across the border from Presidio, Texas, where he joined forces with a rough-and-tumble smuggler named Pablo Acosta.


The Wild West

At the northern extreme of the Chihuahuan Desert and the southwest extreme of Texas, Presidio sits just east of Ojinaga — rather than the proverbial "north of the border," as the Rio Grande runs south there. Located just to the south and east lies Big Bend National Park, and with its canyons, culverts, and deep ravines scored into the earth over millennia, the landscape is such a godsend to smugglers of all kinds that it could almost seem as if it was created for that express purpose.

For as long as the border has divided Presidio and Ojinaga, this remote land has been a causeway for smugglers looking to take advantage of prohibition in the U.S. — first of alcohol, later of marijuana and heroin, and finally cocaine — and of Mexico's booming black market for illegally imported commercial goods that resulted from the country's high tariffs.

David Ramirez, a native of of El Paso, arrived in Presidio in 1982, shortly after joining the Border Patrol. He could almost count his fellow agents on two hands, and together they were tasked with patrolling not only the port of entry, with its wooden, two lane bridge crossing the river, but also the vast desert landscape stretching out on either side. (It was still many years before the Border Patrol would morph into the veritable army that polices the border today, with its drones, seismic motion sensors, and agents more numerous than the armies of more than a dozen small nations.)

"We often had no radio comms, and all of Big Bend [National Park] to deal with," Ramirez recalled. "It was like the Wild West."

Ramirez and his fellow agents may have had the might of the U.S. government at their backs, but down in Presidio, with the drug trade in overdrive, they were tilting at windmills.


It wasn't like they could rely much on the Mexican authorities across the border either. The dirty and not so well-kept secret of the drug trade in Mexico is that it is inextricably tied to and controlled by extra-official protection rackets run by corrupt members of the country's business, political, and judicial elite. Just like every other lucrative smuggling corridor along the border, Ojinaga was controlled by a local boss.

For much of the 1970s, that person had been Manuel Carrasco; when he eventually ran afoul of too many people he fled town and with time — and after a few shootouts — control passed to an up-and-coming trafficker named Pablo Acosta.

'He's their guy'

According to the journalist Terrence Poppa, who chronicled the rise and fall of Acosta in his 1991 book "Drug Lord," Acosta came to power in Ojinaga in the late 1970s or early 1980s, and by 1982 he was either directly involved with, or charging a tax on, all illegal merchandise flowing across the border.

Acosta, like Amado, was treated to a sympathetic portrayal in Narcos: Mexico. The actor Gerardo Taraceno plays Acosta up as a sentimental, old-school cowboy — reckless and violent at times, sure, but living by a code of honor and harboring a sentimental streak to boot. This flies in the face of all available evidence.

Poppa — and a number of sources I spoke with who either investigated Acosta or did business with him — said that the real-life Acosta was a brutal thug, quick to mete out violence and shocking cruelty against anyone he saw as a threat. He shot men down in the street in broad daylight, subjected people to brutal torture, and was said to have once strapped a rival to the back of his pickup truck and dragged him to his bloody, horrible death. And as the years wore on, Acosta grew ever more erratic, thanks in part to his growing number of enemies and also to his fondness for basuco, a crude cocaine paste that he sprinkled into cigarettes and smoked around the clock.


He was, in other words, the polar opposite of Amado.

Little is known of Amado and Acosta's working relationship, one the young face of the drug trade to come and the other the proud, battle-scarred avatar of what came before. Amado was there not to do Acosta's bidding but to look after the interests of his uncle's syndicate in Guadalajara, which was increasingly coordinating shipments of cocaine on behalf of the Colombians and moving it through Ojinaga.

The night the Lord of the Skies got away
David Ramirez (r); Rachel Mendelson/Insider

One player who had the opportunity — or misfortune — to see that dynamic up close was Don Henry Ford, Jr, a former drug trafficker working in the region in the '70s and '80s.

"Amado Carrillo was never working for Pablo Acosta, not for one fucking day," Ford told me. "He represents the big guys down there, the cartel, he's their guy."

When Pablo Acosta was finally gunned down in a raid by Mexican police in the tiny village of his birth in 1987, rumors immediately proliferated that Amado had paid a corrupt police commander $1 million to take him out.


Unrepentant cowboy

If Ramirez that night in 1985 saw the amiable, confident face that Amado showed when being detained, Don Henry Ford Jr., two years prior, saw something closer to the real Amado — the careful balance of friendly and ruthless with which Amado gained the trust of business partners and government benefactors, while rooting out potential traitors and rivals.

Ford grew up on a Texas ranch a few hundred miles north of the border, but as his family's business started to fail in the late 1970s he began to drift down to Mexico, making trips back and forth across the border in search of easy money and unlimited weed.

"You may consider one side Mexico and one the U.S., but it ain't either. It's the border," Ford told me recently when I reached him by phone. "People in Presidio and Ojinaga have more in common with each other than with anyone in Washington or Mexico City."

By the time I talked to him, Ford had been out of the drug game for decades.

The beginning of the end had come in 1986 when he was arrested in Texas but then managed to escape and spend a year or so as an honest-to-god fugitive outlaw, laying low in a tiny communal ejido south of the border, guarding multi-ton shipments of Colombian weed in a cave with just a rifle by his side. In 1987, he was caught while moving about a hundred pounds of weed in southern Texas and ended up serving seven years of a 15-year sentence before being released on good behavior — after which he spent another few years under tight restrictions, pissing in a cup for his parole officer as many as three times a week.


As much as he hated giving up those years to prison and parole, Ford knows how lucky he was: less than a year after his second arrest, in 1988, the US eliminated parole for federal offenses and introduced mandatory minimums for large-scale drug trafficking. If he'd been busted any later, he could have spent the rest of his life behind bars, as did many drug traffickers — particularly Black and Brown people — sentenced amid the drastic ramping up of the U.S. war on drugs.

He put that life behind him — raised kids, raised cattle, and even put aside some land and a business to pass on to his children. But he still has the spark of an outlaw in his voice. Even his email address, which includes the words "unrepentant cowboy," makes clear that he remains resolutely nonconformist. The south Texas ranch where Ford spends his days is so remote that his cell phone barely gets a signal. When we spoke, his voice crackled out of earshot every time he moved in the wrong direction or when he sat down.

Ford had a rather haphazard start as a drug trafficker, running into some greedy cops on his first trip to Mexico who were happy to relieve him of his seed money and send him packing. But before long he found a knack for the business, and developed a lucrative operation trading with a loose network of marijuana growers and wholesalers, trafficking hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars in weed at a time.

He did most of his business in the state of Coahuila, east of Acosta's territory in Chihuahua, where he could work without having to deal with Acosta, who he knew by reputation to be a fickle and violent man. Years later, Ford would find that out firsthand, when he was attacked by men he believes to have been working for Acosta, and interrogated at length by a man he believes to be Acosta himself. He believes it to have been Acosta because he was blindfolded, and Ford is not one to say things he's not 100% sure of. (I had to take Ford's word on this incident, as there's no record of it aside from Ford's memory of the experience, and Acosta is not around to confirm it.)

But before his near-death encounter with Acosta, it was in Coahuila, in the home of his main connect, a guy named Oscar, that he first met Amado around 1983.


Their first meeting was just in passing; Amado was one of several cowboy-looking guys milling about during a visit to the home of his partner, where Ford was visiting on one of his many trips south to score wholesale loads of weed. Amado was dressed, like the rest of the guys, in wide-cut polyester pants and the boots popular with Mexican cowboys with a high, slanted Spanish riding heel.

"He didn't look like anybody extraordinary at all, he looked like Oscar was giving him some work on the farm," Ford told me. "He wasn't wearing a bunch of gold jewelry and shit that would give away the sense of being wealthy. His boots were worn."

For most of his career, Ford had stuck to marijuana. And even in the early years of the cocaine boom he said he could see the effect that the introduction of cocaine was having on the business of smuggling. Guys he had known to be sworn pacifists motivated by peace and love as much as money, began carrying weapons, acting all jittery.

"All of a sudden it was like Miami Vice," he recalled.

But he wasn't so altruistic as to turn down good business, and it soon became clear to him that the real money was in cocaine. He wanted in. So he made some inquiries and was told the person to talk to was Amado — that quiet guy in cowboy boots he'd met once a while back.


The meeting happened sometime in 1983, just Ford, his cousin, his partner Oscar, and Amado in a motel room in the city of Torreon, in the southern reaches of Coahuila.

It started off well enough — like many meetings between drug traffickers, it was mostly a chance to size each other up. Amado brought with him some of the product he had on hand, and for a few hours, the wirey Texan and the Sinaloan trafficker hung out, drank, sniffed cocaine, and chatted pleasantly. Just as Ramirez would observe later, Ford recalled Amado as a smooth customer, calm and collected but friendly. Even a few drinks and a few lines deep, Amado kept his wits about him.

"He did a lot more listening than he did talking," Ford said.

Ford liked that, and he told Amado that he didn't have any interest in working with a hothead like Acosta.

"I told him 'If you're like that, I don't wanna do business with you,'" Ford said. "I'm interested in fuckin' moving some drugs and making some money."


Ford and Amado didn't make a deal that night, but Ford said they agreed to "something tentative."

When it was time for Amado to go, but he left the remaining coke as a gift, more where that came from, and Ford and his cousin set about enjoying it.

The night the Lord of the Skies got away
Rachel Mendelson/Insider

A few hours later, as they were trying to sleep off their coke jitters, there came a series of thunderous knocks on the door, bam-bam-bam, and chaos descended on them. A team of heavily armed men rushed into the hotel room. They wore no uniforms, but they moved with such trained precision that Ford immediately took them for cops of some sort. Over the next few hours, he said, they questioned the pair relentlessly.

"This motherfucker did this to see if I was a cop," Ford said. "He didn't trust us, and decided he was gonna find out who we were."

He never saw Amado again.


200 miles from El Paso

Two years or so after Ford met him in Torreon, Amado sat patiently in the Border Patrol station in Presidio with agent David Ramirez.

The other driver, the one Amado had slowed down to let escape, had made it to the point of entry. His car was clean and, after showing his ID — along with a DFS badge like Amado's — the agents who spoke to him had nothing to charge him with, and let him cruise back into Mexico.

(In an interview, Ramirez told me ruefully that he had written the man's name down in his notebook but later lost it, and the question of the man's identity piques his curiosity to this day.)

As for Amado, Ramirez may not have caught him trafficking drugs in flagrante, nor had he proven any collusion with the driver of the pickup truck. But there was the AR-15 he'd found in the trunk. For a nonresident of the United States, it was a serious crime to be in possession of a loaded assault rifle. If charges were brought, it could have earned him a few solid years in a federal prison. No one knew it then, but that could have put a serious crimp in Amado's upward trajectory.

But that wasn't the purview of the Border Patrol. If they were going to hold Amado, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms — 200 miles away in El Paso — would have to get involved. If they agreed, someone would have to come in from El Paso, a four-hour drive away, bring Amado back, and then take him to magistrate court in Pecos, another two-hour drive from El Paso


Ramirez made the call, and waited. In the meantime, in case Amado would be charged, Ramirez fingerprinted the suspect, and took a couple mugshots.

By now it was around three in the morning. Amado had been pretty quiet as they drove into Presidio, but sitting in the Border Patrol station, he started to open up a bit more, chatting with Ramirez, even boasting a bit as they made small talk to kill time.

"The guy, once again, had not a worry in the world," Ramirez said. "Real easy guy, and you know it was strange, he offered a lot of info, like that his uncle was Don Neto and that Caro Quintero was his partner."

It might seem strange that an experienced heavy in the drug trade would brag about his connections to a well-known trafficker like Don Neto and the notorious killer of a federal agent like Caro Quintero, but the code of silence only applies to the saps at the bottom of the totem pole, or to the civilians ensnared in the web of violence, corruption, and extortion that funnels money up to the bosses. For the guys making the real money, the relationship with law enforcement is a lot more fluid, with a lot more give and take.

Perhaps Amado saw an opportunity to cultivate a contact, pocket a card that he could play at a later date. Or maybe he just knew that no ATF agents were getting their asses out of bed at three in the morning and driving all the way to Presidio and back to book him. Much more likely was that he'd be back in Mexico by sun-up no matter what he said to Ramirez.


An hour passed, and then Ramirez got word from the Bureau that they weren't going to bother with this one. Coming all that distance to Presidio, it was too much trouble.

So he let Amado go. Ramirez held on to the box of ammo, but Amado drove back into Mexico a free man with the illegal AR-15 in his trunk.

'You can't live in what-ifs'

Looking back to that night in Presidio in 1985, It's hard to fathom how it was possible that agents of the federal government had one of the top drug traffickers in Mexico in their custody and didn't even know it. But according to Ramirez, that was par for the course back then.

"At that time, in that area, there was no intelligence collection. It was very primitive," he said. "We were patrol, we weren't really trained for intelligence gathering. Unfortunately that was the attitude back then."

Ramirez doesn't pester himself much wondering how things might have gone if the ATF had bothered to haul Amado in. "He coulda done some time, sure," Ramirez replied when I pushed the point. "But you can't live in what-ifs."


After that night in 1985, Ramirez would see Amado from time to time around town on the other side of the border. Ramirez would mostly avert his gaze so as not to make eye contact with the man whose night he'd ruined. He saw him at the border crossing too, and from the way Amado carried himself there, Ramirez said he could tell Amado had pull among Mexican officials.

"He was a charismatic kinda guy," Ramirez recalled. "He made friends with the inspectors there on the U.S. side, the Customs inspectors and the immigration inspectors, invited them to his ranch and they would go over and come back and tell about the cookouts and the time they had." One of the inspectors even invited Ramirez to the party. Ramirez politely declined.

Whatever scrutiny caused him to flee Guadalajara did not appear to have followed Amado to Ojinaga, according to Ramirez.

"He wasn't hiding! I mean he was out in the open," Ramirez said with some bemusement.

In the years that followed, Amado continued to plot his deliberate, careful rise to power. That evening he spent with Ramirez would go down as his only known brush with US authorities — or at least the only one in which he was a suspected criminal rather than a guy asking Customs inspectors over for lunch.


Alongside other major traffickers of his generation, like "El Chapo" in Sinaloa and Sonora and the Arellano-Félix brothers in Tijuana, Amado expertly navigated every power vacuum that presented itself — or triggered power vacuums himself.

By the late 1980s Amado had moved his base of operations to Ciudad Juárez, the sprawling metropolis that sits across the river from El Paso, where the multiple ports of entry allow a far greater amount of train, truck, and car traffic — and contraband — than Ojinaga ever could. It was there that Amado truly came into his own, controlling organized crime in the city so tightly that normal, everyday street crime became a rarity, lest criminals incur the wrath of the henchmen tasked with keeping things quiet and orderly.

David Ramirez had left Presidio as well, transferring to his hometown of El Paso, where he began doing undercover work investigating trafficking networks alongside Mexican cops. He saw firsthand the control that Amado exercised in the city.

He even saw Amado once. Ramirez was in Juárez, eating breakfast with some Mexican colleagues, including a federal police commander, when who walks in but Amado, surrounded by a swarm of burly, heavily armed guards. Amado made a beeline for their table and greeted the commander warmly as Ramirez studied his food and preyed that he wouldn't be recognized.

"I thought 'oh shoot, this is the guy I arrested!'" Ramirez recalled. "Everybody says they're looking for him, and he's right there!"


Once again, though, Ramirez's hands were tied: no matter how much the U.S. might want its hands on Amado, he was out of reach in Mexico, where his massive web of bribes and political connections made him largely untouchable.

Still, even if Ramirez's actions did nothing to stop Amado's rise to power, it wasn't all for naught.

The Lord of the Skies is dead

On July 3, 1997, Amado Carrillo Fuentes entered Hospital Ángeles Santa Mónica in the ritzy Mexico City neighborhood of Polanco. Amado had had a rough time of it recently, and it would have shown, his voracious cocaine habit and relentless workload taking their toll on his face and his increasingly heavy frame. The hospital was under heavy security, with an entire wing shut down for the guest of honor's privacy.

The night the Lord of the Skies got away
Reuters; Rachel Mendelson/Insider

Amado was by now the undisputed public face of the drug trade in Mexico, with mansions all over the country and countless men doing his bidding. Being the boss is great for a guy like Amado, but not if everyone knows it. In Juárez he and his henchmen had worked hard to keep his name out of the papers, intimidating and threatening journalists and even discouraging singers from composing narcocorridos, the norteño ballads penned in honor of prominent drug traffickers that form an important role in the folk history of organized crime in Mexico. But when you amass power and wealth like Amado had, you can only remain in the shadows for so long.

Things had really taken a turn for Amado that February, when one of his most important guardian angels — General Jesús Héctor Gutierrez Rebollo, Mexico's drug czar — was arrested and publicly accused of collaboration with Amado. Just a few months earlier, Guttierrez Rebollo had been feted in Washington, described by his American counterpart as "a guy of absolute, unquestioned integrity." So it was with a deeply embarrassed vengeance that the attention of both governments now trained itself on Amado.


Amado knew as well as anyone that a drug lord's days are numbered as soon as he becomes a liability to the government. By multiple accounts, Amado started looking for an exit almost immediately. He bought property in Chile, moved money abroad, and was even rumored to have approached contacts in the government to offer a massive bribe in exchange for his freedom to retire in anonymity.

On July 3, he checked in under a fake name at the hospital in Polanco to undergo plastic surgery to alter his features. (Or, it was rumored later, for a bit of liposuction. It may have been both.)

He was never seen alive again.

The next day, July 4, about two miles away from the hospital in the similarly posh Lomas Altas neighborhood, Fourth of July festivities were underway at the fortress-like mansion that was home to the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Diplomats and dignitaries, bureaucrats and spooks were spread out across the lawn, mingling with their spouses. Among the revelers were a handful of agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration, who, as Amado might have suspected, had been racing to pin down Amado before he could vanish.

Their day off came to a sudden end when one of the DEA agents got a call. According to his source, Amado had succumbed to an overdose on the operating table and the body was headed for burial in his home state of Sinaloa.


The call kicked off a furious race by U.S. and Mexican officials alike desperate to confirm the drug lord's death. Rumors were swirling that it was all a lie, that Amado couldn't possibly be dead, and to quiet this talk Mexican officials would a few days later take the extraordinary step of laying out Amado's body — puffy by now; his skin a ghastly grey-green — for a viewing at a government building in Mexico City, inviting journalists to show his corpse to the world.

Meanwhile, a young intelligence officer for the DEA named Larry Villalobos was racking his brains to think of a way to confirm that the body was Amado's.

Then it hit him: the fingerprints.

Villalobos had worked for a while as a fingerprint technician with the FBI before joining the DEA, and, prior to his posting in Mexico City, he had been stationed at the DEA field office in El Paso, where he'd helped build a dossier on Amado. As part of his research, he had learned of Amado's brief detention by Border Patrol agent David Ramirez back in 1985, and he knew Ramirez had taken Amado's mugshot and fingerprints. Villalobos made some calls, and it wasn't long before Ramirez found himself awoken by the ring of his telephone. Amado may not have been worth getting out of bed for when Ramirez called the ATF back in 1985, but he sure was now..

"They called me about 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, wanting to know if I still had his prints," Ramirez recalled rather matter-of-factly. "So I dug 'em up and I sent 'em to him."


In Mexico City, Villalobos received a fax of the prints and headed to the morgue to compare them with those belonging to the corpse.

They were a match.

Noah Hurowitz is a journalist and the author of the book El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World's Most Infamous Drug Lord. His previous work for Insider was: The Curious Afterlife of the Lord of the Skies