The History Behind Red Ribbon Week

Every year America’s schools celebrate Red Ribbon Week during the last week of October. Students know that Red Ribbon Week is about raising awareness of the dangers of substance abuse, but many students might not know the story behind the red ribbons.

“Kiki” Camarena was born on July 26, 1947. He was a Mexican immigrant to California, and he joined the Marine Corps after graduating from high school. After he was discharged, Kiki worked as a fireman, a police investigator, and a narcotics investigator in California.

As a result of his concern over the growing drug problem in the United States, he became a Special Agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1974. In July of 1981, Kiki was assigned to a DEA office in Mexico. His mission was to find those who were dealing illegal substances and help stop the drug trade across the Mexican border into the United States. During his work, Kiki discovered leads into a multi-billion dollar drug pipeline.

On February 7, 1985, Kiki was on his way to meet his wife for lunch when he was kidnapped in broad daylight, then brutally tortured and murdered. His body was not found until March 5, 1985. Many organized crime figures from Mexico were arrested for his torture and murder.

Reflecting on his life and work, his family remembers something Kiki once said: “Even if I’m only one person, I can make a difference.”

Not long after Kiki’s death, a congressman and one of Kiki’s friends from high school established a club in Kiki’s hometown where the members promised to lead a drug-free life and wore a red ribbon to honor those who have been lost in the war against drugs.

This program gained popularity and in 1988, the grass roots campaign went national with President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan serving as honorary chairpersons. Since then, the Red Ribbon campaign has grown and is now celebrated in most American schools.

When you see a student wearing a red ribbon, ask if they know Kiki’s story and the reasons behind Red Ribbon Week.