Red Ribbon Week: A Law Enforcement Legacy

The war on drugs is fought at every level in the United States, from the upper echelons of the federal government to elementary school classrooms, but during Red Ribbon Week students and officials alike commemorate the sacrifice of one man and pledge to strive for a drug-free future.
Unlike most American wars, the war on drugs has primarily been fought by law enforcement officers, most prominently the agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). From President Richard Nixon’s declaration of drug abuse as Public Enemy No. 1 in 1971 through today, the national conversation surrounding the issue of drugs has shifted, with the 1985 murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena driving change in how drug resistance is presented to American youth.
Kiki Camarena, a former U.S. Marine and Imperial County (CA) Deputy Sheriff, joined the Drug Enforcement Administration as a special agent in 1974. At this time, the administration was young and followed a three-pronged approach in its collaborative drug enforcement mission in Mexico: eradicate crops, halt the trafficking of drugs, and disband drug trafficking organizations.[1] Camarena excelled in this approach following his 1981 assignment to Guadalajara, Mexico. While raising his three sons with his wife, Mika, Kiki worked tirelessly in covert operations that resulted in the 1984 seizure of a Mexican marijuana plantation worth $2.5 billion.[2] This operation was the largest seizure of its kind in history, but also made Camarena a target for retribution from drug traffickers.
In February 1985, Camarena was working on another large-scale covert operation for the DEA when he was kidnapped in broad daylight and taken away in a speeding car. The story took both the American government and the American public by surprise. On March 5, 1985, Kiki Camarena’s body was recovered, a tragic loss reverberating across American airwaves and heartstrings.

TIME Magazine covering Enrique Camarena’s murder, 1988
2017.14.1, from the collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum

In the wake of Kiki Camarena’s murder, efforts behind the war on drugs increased dramatically. For law enforcement, this meant the tripling of the DEA’s budget over the course of a decade and an increased international police presence.[3] For local communities, this meant the beginning of drug awareness programs that would shape the education of American schoolchildren for decades to come.
Red Ribbon Week was established in 1985, beginning with “Camarena Clubs” established in Camarena’s hometown of Calexico, California, where participants would wear red ribbons to commemorate his sacrifice in the fight against drugs. Gaining the ear of President Ronald Reagan, who had met with Mika Camarena in the spring, the clubs presented the Camarena Club Proclamation to First Lady Nancy Reagan in the fall of 1985.[4] The Proclamation drew national attention, which resulted in the decision to wear red ribbons in late October in a national symbol of solidarity against drug use and abuse.[5]

D.A.R.E bear-shaped magnet, 2008.26.35, from the collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum

The Red Ribbon Campaign, formally established in 1988 by the National Family Partnership, is now the United States’ oldest and largest drug prevention awareness campaign. Its momentum increased the implementation of similar programs such as D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), which are viewed as staples of American primary and secondary education today. While many of these drug prevention programs are spearheaded by law enforcement and promote similar values, Red Ribbon Week distinguishes itself as a campaign that also reflects on those who have lost their lives in the pursuit of safe and drug-free communities.
This week, the legacy of Enrique “Kiki” Camarena lives on through the millions of Americans who will don red ribbons in a pledge to living a drug-free lifestyle. Camarena’s legacy is carried every day through the work of his eldest son, Judge Enrique Camarena Jr., who works with law enforcement and local schools to promote drug-free communities in southern California. At the National Law Enforcement Museum, we continue Camarena’s legacy by discussing the history of law enforcement in the History Time Capsules exhibit, and by commemorating fallen law enforcement officers in the Hall of Remembrance.
Please join us at the Museum in observing Red Ribbon Week by picking up a ribbon at the Visitor Services desk through October 31.

Hall of Remembrance, National Law Enforcement Museum
Sarah Farver is the Museum Educator for Adult & Family programs. She has a Bachelor of Arts in History from the College of William & Mary. Her favorite item on display at the Museum is the Drunkometer breath-testing kit.

[1] Toro, María Celia. “The Internationalization of Police: The DEA in Mexico.” The Journal of American History 86, no. 2 (1999): 628. doi:10.2307/2567049.
[2] Google and Drug Enforcement Administration. “The Life of Kiki Camarena, Inspiration of Red Ribbon Week.” Video, 2:34.
[3] Toro, 634.
[4] President Reagan meeting with Geneva Camarena Salazar, wife of slain DEA agent Enrique Camarena Salazar in Oval Office on May 29, 1985, 75717828, Records of the White House Television Office (WHTV) (Reagan Administration), 1/20/1981-1/20/1989, Ronald Reagan Library, Simi Valley, CA.
[5] Drug Enforcement Administration. “Kiki and the History of Red Ribbon Week.”