A former Mexican federal police officer who spent three decades in prison for the high-profile murder of a U.S. DEA agent is now a free man, thanks in part to his jailhouse transformation from crooked cop to acclaimed artist.
Francisco Javier Tejeda, who was sentenced to 40 years for his connection to the 1985 torture and murder of DEA officer Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, says painting images of Uncle Sam behind bars has helped him cope with his involvement in a murder case that altered U.S.-Mexico relations.
But his artwork, which also includes other diverse themes, suggests the events of 31 years ago are still haunting his thoughts.
In 1985, DEA agent Camarena was kidnapped, tortured and killed by members of the now-defunct Guadalajara cartel. At the time, Tejeda was a Mexican cop on the cartel's payroll, and was eventually linked to the murder of Camarena and two other Americans. He denies involvement in any of the killings, but now admits to being on the take from the Guadalajara cartel.
“Yes, I knew those people, and this is the price I should have paid,” said Tejeda, who was released from jail on Oct. 28, after serving 31 years and four months of his 40-year sentence.
Now he insists he's paid off his debt to society and is ready to get on with his life as a self-taught artist.
“Now I’m demonstrating that you can overcome being inside prison, that you can turn yourself into a good citizen,” Tejeda told me this week from a relative's home in Mexico City.
Tejeda’s narrative of a reformed narco is well-documented. In numerous profiles in Mexican newspapers over the years, he’s retold the story of his journey from corrupt cop to "maestro", as he was known in prison, where he became an art teacher and sold some of his paintings for thousands of dollars.
Uncle Sam with his pointing hand is a recurring theme in many of Tejeda’s pieces. The inspiration for his art comes from his own experience behind bars.
“Uncle Sam was applying pressure so that none of use would be released,” Tejeda said. Even though he and other cartel accomplices were convicted by Mexican judges, sent to Mexican prisons and had appeals heard in the Mexican justice system, Tejeda saw Uncle Sam's hand influencing his fate from behind the scenes.
Tejeda says he blames the United States for the repeated denial of all his petitions for early release on good behavior. That torment was reflected in his paintings. One piece depicts the silhouette of a face, Uncle Sam's iconic top hat, and a rope tied in a noose.
“I felt that my only exit was to commit suicide,” Tejeda said. “I even included the rope.”
But the longer he spent behind bars, the more his reputation as an artist grew.
Three years ago, a Mexican judge released drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero, convicted as the mastermind behind Camarena’s killing, on a procedural issue. That gave Tejeda new hope that he too might be get released someday. But Quintero's release was met with new outrage from the U.S. government, and the pressure to keep Tejeda behind bars “increased, not decreased,” Tejeda claims.
James Kuykendall, Camarena’s former boss at the DEA office in Guadalajara, recalls Tejeda’s name coming up repeatedly in connection with the crimes he was convicted of. And although 30 years in prison is a long time, Kuykendall says it still doesn’t make up for lives that were taken.
“That price, in my mind, should have been life in prison,” Kuykendall, who has long since retired and lives in South Texas, told me in a phone interview.
For his part, Tejeda didn't want to talk about his role in the drug underworld in 1985, outside of unequivocal denials. And he said people shouldn't read too much into his artwork for secret confessions or other hidden truths.
Tejeda says he’s repentant. His former prison mates who were awaiting his release are not criminals, rather former art students from his prison studio who want to continue painting with him, Tejeda said.
Indeed, listening to Tejeda's story now is a bit like searching for meaning in his paintings. It all depends on which angle you approach it from.
Mariano Castillo is a journalist based in Atlanta, Georgia.