The son of a heroic DEA agent slain in the line of duty nearly three decades ago took his oath of office to become the newest San Diego Superior Court judge Thursday, following his father's "legacy of duty."
Enrique S. Camarena Jr. was 11 when members of a narco-trafficking cartel tortured and murdered his father, nicknamed “Kiki,” in Mexico in February, 1985 -- a tragic milestone in a drug war that still rages on.
For Kiki’s son, Thursday was a brighter milestone he said his dad would have treasured.
"You know, I think about him every day,” Camarena Jr. “And so for me, it's still a little bit about the legacy of duty. And that's what I've been doing up until yesterday. And I'm going to be serving my county, serving this community in a different way."
At age 40, Camarena Jr. takes the Superior Court bench after 15 years as a deputy district attorney in San Diego County, and his swearing-in ceremony drew a capacity gallery in the court's presiding department.
He specialized in prosecuting domestic violence and child abuse cases, having promised his father early on that he wouldn't become a police officer because of the dangers.
Kiki Camarena’s slaying outside Guadalajara created international shock waves.
Eventually the cartel's kingpin, Rafael Caro Quintero, and more than two dozen others were convicted in U.S. and Mexican courts -- Caro Quintero's release last year sparking outrage and a new arrest warrant.
Now, schools in Chula Vista and Calexico – Camarena’s hometown – bear his name.
Following his oath of office, administered by presiding Superior Court Judge David Danielsen, Camarena Jr. prompted smiles and laughter in a low-keyed acceptance speech in which he explained the strategy behind building his prosecutorial career.
“I grab a little bit from one supervisor, I grab a little bit from another, and added on to me to become who I am today,” he said, as his former colleagues in the district attorney’s office nodded appreciatively along with his family and friends. “And I’m not talking about who you are as a lawyer or trial skills. I’m talking about who you are as a person. You’ve learned a lot from people in this job.”
But he told NBC 7 after the ceremony that now his job is to think more like a judge than a prosecutor.
"It's morphed into something else; I have to oversee everything now," said Camarena Jr. "Not just the prosecution, but oversee the entire way the case is handled and all that's put forth in the case and the decisions that need to be made. And I'm ready for it."
Later Thursday, another former prosecutor recently appointed to the local judiciary by Gov. Brown was sworn in.
Daniel Link, 38, a deputy district attorney since 2001, is the son of Judge Frederic Link -- who’s now in his 34th year on the San Diego bench.
Former deputy public defenders Matthew Braner and Selena Eply get their robes Monday and Tuesday, respectively.