Liposuctioned To Death

AMADO CARRILLO FUENTES WASnicknamed ""the capo without a face'' because police didn't know exactly what Mexico's most powerful drug boss looked like. But when the 41- (or maybe 42-) year-old drug trafficker suddenly died of heart failure after eight hours of plastic surgery and liposuction, his face was beyond recognition. The tip of the nose looked like it had been snipped off. The eyelids were purple with bruises and scarred by surgical incisions. The chin had been reshaped with a surgical implant, sliced open during the autopsy and hastily stitched back together with thick white thread. Carrillo's body looked withered, partly because several liters of fat had been sucked out of him. Still, his mother identified the corpse as that of her eldest child. ""Yes, it's my son,'' Aurora Fuentes told reporters.

At first, almost no one believed her. Was Carrillo faking his own death in order to disappear? He was famous for such ingenuity. Officials said he smuggled four times more drugs into the United States than any other trafficker and built a fortune estimated at $25 billion. Mexican authorities charge that he even had the head of the country's anti-drug agency, Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, on his vast payroll until the general's arrest last February. That gave Carrillo a motive to disappear; one anti-narcotics source says Gutierrez is ""singing like a bird'' about Carrillo's operations. That the drug lord could wind up dead at a posh maternity hospital in Mexico City seemed, in the words of a senior U.S. official, entirely ""too cute.''

Mexicans love a good conspiracy theory. One currently hot rumor says Carrillo has disappeared into the U.S. witness- protection program. Another says he was killed by one of his own bodyguards after the operation. ""Nobody really knows if he's dead but his mom. He could buy a whole country if he wanted to,'' says Luis Olivas, 27, who lives in Carrillo's home state of Sinaloa, northwest of Mexico City.

The evidence suggests that Carrillo is really dead, but Mexican and American officials, who often clash over drug policy, got into a nasty spat over identifying the corpse. First the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Thomas Constantine, confirmed that the body's fingerprints matched those on a border-crossing card from Carrillo's early days as a ""mule'' in the drug trade. The Mexicans weren't happy about the Americans beating them to their own story; their ambassador to Washington, Jesus Silva Herzog, called Constantine ""a cretin'' for spilling the beans. But last week the Mexican government announced that DNA tests had ""definitely'' identified the corpse as Carrillo's.

His death may not be a major blow to the drug trade. In 1994, when the last notorious drug kingpin, Juan Garcia Abrego, was arrested, the flow of drugs didn't slow a bit. With Garcia out of action, Carrillo moved in, took over and expanded his business. Now Carrillo's younger brother, Vincente, may take the helm of his cartel. Or it could disintegrate in turf warfare. In either case, the drugs will continue to flow.

Some Mexican drug agents think the time is ripe, politically, for an assault on the drug trade. In elections last week the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost its working majority in the lower house of Congress for the first time in 68 years. Carrillo had invested heavily in bribing government officials, but now his cartel may find that its protection is wearing thin. ""This is the time to turn up the pressure,'' says former U.S. drug agent Phil Jordan.

Carrillo got a hero's send-off in a funeral at the family ranch. Business associates arrived in Chevy Suburbans with tinted windows. Admirers sent floral arrangements up to eight feet tall (sashes identifying the donors were quickly cut off). Drug dealers are nearly mythic figures in Sinaloa, an agricultural state that - with U.S. encouragement - grew poppies for morphine during World War II. Drug ballads like ""Little Colombian Rock'' are popular. The local folk religion even includes a patron saint for drug traffickers: Jesus Malverde, a 19th-century Robin Hood-style outlaw who has his own chapel in the city of Culiacan. Carrillo gets similar respect. Villagers who live near the ranch tell how ""Don Amado'' built their modest yellow church and how his family slaughters cattle to give away at Christmas. ""He is famous to some people, infamous to others,'' says one neighbor, Andrea Machado, 19. And now he belongs to the ages. Even if Amado Carrillo is still alive, he appears to be out of the drug business for good.