Perhaps the excitement of dressing up (or down for pajama day) is what piques our kids' interest, but what is the real story behind Red Ribbon Week? Forewarning: it had little to do with matching outfits, or dressing up like Steve Urkel.
It began after the kidnapping, torture, and murder of DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena in 1985. Camarena had been working undercover for Guadalajara, Mexico for over four years. His efforts led to a tip that resulted in the discovery of a multimillion-dollar narcotics manufacturing operation in Chihuahua, Mexico. Corrupt politicians working for drug traffickers kidnapped Camarena and his pilot, Captain Alfredo Zavala-Avelar (taken separately on the same day).
Soon, representatives of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police (MFJP) presented a tip to DEA agents claiming that Camarena had been mistakenly kidnapped by a man and his three sons. The MFJP informed the agents that a raid of the man's ranch in Angostura would take place the following morning and invited them to come. However, the MFJP raided the ranch before DEA agents arrived. During the raid, they shot and killed five individuals. Not long after, a passerby discovered the bodies of both Camarena and Zavala-Avelar by the side of the road not far from the ranch.
The DEA's investigation revealed that Camarena had been tortured before he was murdered. Audiotapes of the torture showed that medical doctors actually kept Camarena alive in order to continue the interrogation. Evidence collected revealed that both Camarena and Zavala-Avelar were initially buried in another location, then moved to the ranch where they were found. The events that followed Camarena's disappearance were chronicled in U.S. media, exposing the world of drug trafficking including how far drug traffickers would go to maintain power and control.
After the men were found murdered, citizens in Camarena's hometown of Calexico, California donned red ribbons in his honor. The red ribbon became their symbol for prevention in order to reduce the demand of illegal drugs. California Congressman Duncan Hunter and teacher David Dhillon launched "Camarena Clubs" in California high schools. In 1986, club members presented a proclamation to Nancy Reagan, First Lady of the United States, who had initiated nationwide anti-drug programs. The following year, parent-teacher organizations in California, Illinois, and Virginia wore the red ribbons in late October and November. In 1988, the first National Red Ribbon Week was organized by the National Family Partnership (NFP), proclaimed by the U.S. Congress and chaired by Nancy Reagan.
Henry Lozano, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of USA Freedom Corps in 2007-2008, helped to launch Red Ribbon Week in 1985. In 1985, Lozano, along with the Californian's for Drug-Free Youth Board of Directors, created the first Statewide Red Ribbon Campaign in memory of his high school friend, Enrique "Kiki" Camarena, a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent. With the support of Congressman Duncan Hunter and City Councilman David Dhillo, Lozano helped to promote "Camarena Clubs" in Imperial Valley, California, Camarena's home. From these clubs emerged the Red Ribbon Week campaign, and during the administration of President Bill Clinton it grew into a nationwide service effort.