Red Ribbon Week: A DEA agent’s sacrifice leads to an enduring symbol of drug prevention

Red Ribbon Week infographicToday marks the start of Red Ribbon Week, which continues through Oct. 31.

Formally established in 1988, Red Ribbon Week encourages students to pursue healthy, drug-free lives. New themes are developed each year at the national, state and local levels, prompting schools to organize youth forums, health lessons, Spirit Day events, role-playing skits, art projects and other activities.

Last month, the Orange County Board of Education endorsed Red Ribbon Week with a resolution that affirmed the importance of schools and communities launching unified and visible drug prevention programs. Board members also encouraged the commitment of time and resources to ensure the success of Red Ribbon Week and other year-round prevention strategies.

“Our schools and our community must continue to remain vigilant to the innumerable dangers posed by alcohol, tobacco and other drugs,” Orange County Board of Education President Jack Bedell said. “Activities associated with Red Ribbon Week help raise awareness throughout our county, but even more important, they present opportunities to have candid conversations with our students about the consequences of drugs and the benefits of making healthy choices.”

If you’re a student, educator or otherwise connected to a neighborhood school, chances are you’re familiar with Red Ribbon Week. But you might not be aware of its origin — specifically the story of the man who inspired the campaign.

Enrique "Kiki" Camarena

DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was abducted by armed men on Feb. 7, 1985 and later killed. The national Red Ribbon Week campaign emerged in response to the tragic slaying.

Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Agent working in Guadalajara, Mexico in the 1980s. On Feb. 7, 1985, Camarena, a former Marine who was on the trail of a multibillion-dollar drug trafficking operation, was abducted by five armed men who forced him into a car as he left his office to meet his wife for lunch.

Camarena’s body was discovered a month later in the Mexican state of Michoacan. At 37, he was survived by his wife Mika and their three children.

In response to the shocking and tragic slaying, Congressman Duncan Hunter and high school friend Henry Lozano launched “Camarena Clubs” at schools in the DEA agent’s hometown of Calexico. Members started wearing red ribbons and pledging to lead drug-free lives to honor the sacrifices made by Kiki and others. The movement gained national attention when club members presented the “Camarena Club Proclamation” to first lady Nancy Reagan.

The following summer, communities in California, Illinois and Virginia were encouraging students to wear red ribbons in late October, and in 1988, the National Family Partnership organized the first national Red Ribbon Week. The eight-day event was formally chaired by President Ronald Reagan and the first lady.

Nearly 30 years later, millions display their red ribbons as symbols of their commitment to living healthy, drug-free lives that reduce the demand for illegal drugs — and the violence that accompanies them.

The Orange County Health Care Agency’s Alcohol and Drug Education and Prevention Team, or ADEPT, hosted a contest encouraging local youth to create a logo for this year’s Red Ribbon Week events in Orange County, as well as for countywide alcohol and drug prevention efforts throughout the school year. The winning entry, submitted by students enrolled in the Peer Assistance Leadership program at Serrano Intermediate School in Lake Forest, features the slogan “Without the Lighter, Your Life Will Be Brighter.”

Lastly, a quick footnote to the story of Enrique “Kiki” Camarena. According to the Red Ribbon Week website, Camarena’s mother initially tried to dissuade him from joining the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Yet Kiki believed he had found his calling.

“I’m only one person,” he reportedly said, “but I want to make a difference.”