Héctor Luis “El Güero” Palma is scheduled for release from federal prison in Atwater, California, on June 11. Palma was the business partner of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in the early 1990s during the grisly war for succession in the Pacific Cartel.
A U.S. court sentenced Palma to 16 years in prison in 2008, but the judge credited him for time served in Mexico, knocking off nearly eight years from the sentence. An Atwater prison spokesman told the Univision/Disney website Fusion that Palma, 55, will walk free via the “good conduct time release” program.
But he may be a dead man walking, and U.S. officials certainly know that.
El Güero (meaning Whitey, or Blondie) Palma and El Chapo (meaning Shorty) Guzmán got their first taste of power as hit men in the 1980s working for Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, known as El Padrino, the Godfather, who was one of three kingpins in the Pacific Cartel.
El Padrino and his partners Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo had led the effort to merge what previously were disparate drug-trafficking operations into one central enterprise, interlocked with Mexican state and federal security forces and government officials.
Over a decade, the original bosses of the Pacific Cartel amassed enormous fortunes. Eventually they came to feel invincible, so much so that when a gumshoe DEA agent named Enrique “Kiki” Camarena began making large-scale busts, confiscating their merchandise and seizing their assets, they had him abducted in broad daylight.
Camarena was tortured for 30 hours, his skull, jaw, nose, cheekbones, and windpipe crushed, a hold drilled into his skull with a screwdriver. He reportedly was injected with drugs to keep him conscious during the ordeal. His body, wrapped in plastic bags, was dumped on the side of a road outside Guadalajara.
The fallout from the Camarena murder was immense, and it exposed for the first time the massive scale of the drug business in Mexico. But for El Güero Palma and El Chapo Guzmán there was a silver lining. Fonseca and Caro Quintero were arrested in 1985, and El Padrino Félix, sensing his own days were numbered, divided up his empire and put Palma and Guzmán in charge of his affairs. He was arrested in 1989 and sentenced to 40 years for drug trafficking and his role in the Camarena murder.
The careful plans he had made for his own succession, however, were in vain. El Padrino Félix had given strict orders for El Güero Palma to run the business in consort with El Chapo Guzmán and El Padrino’s nephews, a clan of five temperamental brothers in Tijuana who formed the eponymous Arrellano-Félix Organization. But even before El Padrino was arrested, a deadly rift developed between his nephews and his erstwhile hitmen.
In 1988, the Arrellano-Félix brothers had El Güero Palma’s wife murdered in San Francisco, and her head delivered to him in a giftwrapped box. El Güero’s ghastly calling card back when he worked for El Padrino had been to place the head of his victim in a cooler and have it delivered to the victim’s family. In the days that followed the wife’s murder, Palma’s two young children, ages 4 and 5, were abducted and pushed to their deaths from a height of 500 feet—accounts differ as to whether they were pushed from a bridge or a low-flying plane.
Jorge Godoy was there in the pre-trial lockup when El Padrino regretted his decision to promote El Güero and El Chapo. Today, Godoy is a federally protected witness in the United States, but in the 1980s he was a homicide detective in Guadalajara who moonlighted as a bodyguard for the crime boss Fonseca. Godoy went to jail with Fonseca in 1985, and was there when the guards brought in El Padrino in 1989.
The bosses may have been behind bars, but they were still calling the shots, and Godoy was privy to meetings with big-time traffickers on the outside, like El Azul Esparragoza, who paid a visit to El Padrino in prison. “I was there, I saw when they put Chapo Guzman in command,” Godoy told The Daily Beast. Godoy also overheard El Padrino bemoan having asked Palma and his nephews to work together and share the spoils.
“Then,” said Godoy, “El Güero Palma betrayed them.”
Godoy recalls the reports that trickled into the jail that El Güero wasn’t following orders; he was freelancing, doing private deals on the sly, and hiding the money from his boss, Godoy recalled. Blood was thicker than water in the Pacific Cartel, and when the nephews requested El Padrino’s blessing to eliminate El Güero Palma, he gave it.
Hector Berrellez, the DEA’s lead investigator on the Camarena murder, recalls the ensuing vendetta as the most gruesome wave of cocaine-related violence ever to seize the northern Pacific coast of Mexico. El Güero was unhinged; he sought to avenge the murders of his wife and children by the Arrellano-Félix brothers at all costs and with every violent means at his disposal.
Scores of innocent people died in the crossfire. There were indiscriminate bombings, public shootouts, a massacre at a discotheque in Puerto Vallarta; the high-profile murder victims included the attorney general for the state of Sinaloa, Francisco Rodolfo Álvarez Faber; the Sinaloan human rights activist Norma Corona, and the Archbishop of Guadalajara Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas y Ocampo.
El Güero shifted his base of operations to Tepic, the largest city in the western state of Nayarit, and built his organization to serve as a conduit for smuggling Colombian cocaine into the United States. A court filing from the U.S. Attorney’s office estimates that from 1991-93 El Güero Palma, in an alliance with El Chapo Guzmán that would become the Sinaloa Cartel, sneaked 25 tons of cocaine across the border hidden in cans of jalapeño peppers.
The Mexican Army arrested Palma in 1995 at the home of a federal police supervisor in Zapopan. At the time, he was with a security detail of several armed men carrying authentic federal police credentials. In Mexico, between the years of 1995 and 2004, Palma’s lawyers succeeded in having at least 20 criminal charges against him dropped, including multiple charges for murder and drug trafficking.
It is rumored that Palma aided in El Chapo’s first prison escape in 2001, even though he himself was still in prison. In 2007 then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón had Palma extradited to face charges in the U.S.
The bitter blood feud with the Arrellano-Félix brothers had continued, and Agent Berrellez believes the extradition in 2007 may actually have saved Palma’s life. Once Palma is deported back to Mexico, as expected, after his release from U.S. federal prison in June, his old enemies in the Félix family will be waiting for him. “I don’t know if he’s going to go back to drug-trafficking or what he’s going to do,” Berrellez said. “But it’s going to be very dangerous for him to return to Mexico.”
There is, for example, the likely vendetta tied to the fate of Francisco Rafael Arrellano Félix, one of the brothers, who was released from prison in the U.S. and deported to Mexico. In 2013, at a celebration of his birthday, he was murdered by a cartel assassin disguised as a clown; the order is widely believed to have been come from El Chapo Guzmán.
Palma may have another reason to worry about his safety in Mexico. Legal observers in Mexico anticipate that El Padrino Félix, 70, will be granted humanitarian release later this year. El Padrino has nine years remaining on his 40-year sentence for the Camarena murder; his lawyers are arguing that his advanced age and reportedly delicate state of his health merit a special dispensation of house arrest for the don.
Lawyers for Ernesto Fonseca, 87, the second of the three imprisoned bosses of the Pacific Cartel, are similarly optimistic about the capo’s chances for humanitarian release later this year. Fonseca has 10 years remaining on his 40-year sentence.
Indeed, history in Mexico doesn’t stay in the past very long. Talk of a Pacific Cartel revival began with the 2013 release of Rafael Caro Quintero on a dubious legal technicality (The DEA stated it was “deeply troubled” by the release.) That ruling was overturned by the Mexican Supreme Court, but by then Caro Quintero was long gone, and sources in law enforcement suspect he has resumed leadership of cartel activity on the Pacific coast.
Prison may be a kind of living death, but the original bosses of the Pacific Cartel are still very much alive, not to mention very wealthy. The U.S. Treasury Department’s blacklist of Mexican businesses linked to drug cartels shows that of the 216 money-laundering business fronts tied to Mexican drug cartels, 64 percent of the total were tied to leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel, and 44 belonged to Rafael Caro Quintero alone.
“Mexico doesn’t stop being corrupt in protecting these guys,” said Agent Berrellez. “I mean, that’s the way they operate down there.”