Here’s the story behind Red Ribbon Week, which continues through Oct. 31

The Orange County Department of Education has updated its online toolkit to support schools that plan on hosting activities tied to Red Ribbon Week, which begins Oct. 23 and continues through Oct. 31.

Curated by OCDE staff, the digital storehouse features suggested activities, events, presentations, trainings, online resources and more. It can be accessed at

Red Ribbon Week is the largest program of its kind in the nation, encouraging students to pursue healthy, drug-free lives. It was established in 1988, but a new theme is unveiled every year, prompting schools to organize youth forums, health lessons, Spirit Day events, role-playing skits, art projects and other activities.

Remembering Kiki

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 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.

DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was abducted by armed men on Feb. 7, 1985 and later killed, inspiring the campaign now known as Red Ribbon Week.

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.

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

Making a difference

More than three decades 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 “Be Kind to Your Mind. Live Drug Free.”

The Orange County Board of Education recently 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 here’s a 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. But Kiki believed he had found his calling.

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

Additional resources

A version of this story originally ran in 2020. For more information on local Red Ribbon Week activities, contact OCDE Coordinator Elke Petras at 714-966-4458 or