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

RED RIBBON WEEK by the numbers ... Started in 1985; about 80 million participate each year, $18 is saved per $1 invested in effective school-based prevention; the three most widely used drugs by youth and adults are alcohol, prescription drugs and marijuana; 4,300 children under 21 die each year from underage drinking-related causes; 2018 theme is Life Is Your Journey, Travel Drug Free; ONE is the number of people required to make a difference.Today marks the official start of Red Ribbon Week, which continues through Oct. 31.

Formally established in 1988, Red Ribbon Week encourages students of all backgrounds 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.

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

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 his tragic death.

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 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.

Shocked and heartbroken, friends and neighbors mourned the violent slaying by wearing red satin badges, and “Camarena Clubs” popped up at schools in Kiki’s hometown of Calexico. Meanwhile, parents formed coalitions to stand against drug and alcohol abuse, and some of them adopted the red ribbon as a symbol of the DEA agent’s sacrifice and a pledge to pursue drug-free lives. 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.

Thirty years later, millions annually display their red ribbons, which have come to symbolize commitments to living healthy, drug-free lives that reduce the demand for illegal drugs — and the violence that accompanies them. This year’s theme is “Life Is Your Journey, Travel Drug Free.”

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.

And one final 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.”


A version of this story was originally published on Oct. 23, 2017.