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US accused of collusion with Mexican cartels

January 30, 2012

Blurring the lines between infiltrating and aiding organized crime, U.S. drug-enforcement agents have been supplying Mexican cartels with arms and helping them launder millions of dollars of drug money. In recent months the U.S. government has even been accused of protecting and turning a blind eye to the dealings of the world’s most wanted drug lord by a senior member of his organization.

Welcome to the murky world of counternarcotics operations. Such measures are justified by the powers that be as a necessary means to an end, but at what point do immunity bargains and sting operations cross the line and become self-defeating?

A prominent member of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel awaiting trial in Chicago alleges that the U.S. government has been providing his organization with weapons and allowing them to smuggle drugs across the border in return for information on rival criminal gangs.

Vicente Jesus Zambada Niebla, 36, was arrested in Mexico in March 2009 and extradited to the United States eleven months later. He is the son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who runs the Sinaloa Cartel alongside Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the notorious kingpin who last year succeeded Osama Bin Laden as the world’s most wanted man.

Vicente Zambada stands accused of smuggling tons of cocaine and heroin into the United States. His federal trial is expected to begin later this year.

It is rare for high-ranked drug lords from Mexico or Colombia to go on public trial in the United States; most tend to make behind-closed door agreements with prosecutors to divulge information in return for a reduced sentence. But Zambada is not going quietly, raising eyebrows on both sides of the border with a series of stunning allegations.

Zamabada does not deny drug trafficking, but claims he did so with the permission of senior U.S. officials. In pre-trial proceedings he claimed immunity under a deal allegedly struck between the U.S. government and the Sinaloa Cartel in exchange for information on rival organizations.

The defendant says the agreement protects him from federal prosecution, as the cartel’s leadership was granted “carte blanche to continue to smuggle tons of illicit drugs into Chicago and the rest of the United States” between 2004 and 2009. Zambada also claims the Sinaloa Cartel received weapons through operation “Fast and Furious” as part of the ongoing arrangement.

Under this operation, which began in September 2009, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) allowed 2,000 firearms to be sold illegally to gangs in Mexico, with the aim of tracing the weapons and prosecuting the criminals. Similar ATF “gunwalking” operations had been running since 2006.

The botched Fast and Furious operation came under congressional scrutiny after it was linked to the murder of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in December 2010. An investigative report found that federal agents lost track of nearly 1,400 weapons, most of which were supplied to the Sinaloa Cartel.

Zambada wants the U.S. government to release files relating to the operation, arguing that it would benefit his defense. His lawyers say the documents will prove federal agents were supplying his organization with arms under an agreement reached between the two parties; and that the U.S. government “has a policy and pattern of providing benefits, including immunity, to cartel leaders, including the Sinaloa Cartel and their members, who are willing to provide information against rival drug cartels.”

U.S. prosecutors deny the existence of any immunity deal, rejecting Zambada’s claims as “simply untrue” and dismissing his request for the documents as “gratuitous and wholly unrelated to any legitimate discovery issues in this case.”

Despite this denial, the U.S. government filed a motion under the Classified Information Procedures Act (CIPA) last September, to prevent any potentially sensitive information being made public during court proceedings. Zambada’s lawyers say the prosecution has withheld critical evidence that the government has now suppressed under the false pretext of national security.

While the defense and prosecution disagree over any deal struck with Zambada, both acknowledge that one of the Sinaloa Cartel’s top officials has been a U.S. informant for years.

Mexican lawyer Humberto Loya Castro, whose location is unknown, has long been a top confidant of Guzman and Ismael Zambada. According to the prosecution, Loya agreed on behalf of the cartel leadership to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement officials, providing them with information on rival gangs. He worked as an informant since around 2004.

This was confirmed by Zambada’s lawyers, who say “U.S. government agents aided the leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel” and provided them with immunity in exchange for the information passed on by Loya. Furthermore, Zambada claims that in return, the U.S. government “agreed it would not share any of the information that it had about the Sinaloa Cartel and/or the leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel with the Mexican government in order to ensure that the Cartel’s operations would not be disrupted and its leaders would not be apprehended.”

Coming hot on the heels of the Fast and Furious scandal, Zambada’s allegations have increased doubts over the United States’ role in the war on drugs, implying that Mexico’s northern neighbor has put self-interest above attempts to prevent trafficking or detain the biggest fish in the narco shark tank.

This is not the only evidence of U.S. involvement with major drug-trafficking organizations. Recent reports by the New York Times and Mexican online magazine Emeequis reveal that agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) helped smuggle narcotics and launder millions of dollars for Mexico’s now-defunct Beltran Leyva cartel. Yet the benefits in this case were more tangible than they would be from any alleged collusion with the Sinaloa Cartel.

Part of an effort to infiltrate and dismantle large drug-trafficking organizations, the role of the DEA agents was disclosed in documents released by the Mexican Foreign Ministry earlier this month. The files were made public after the United States requested the extradition of Harold Mauricio Poveda Ortega, a Colombian drug lord arrested in Mexico in November 2010.

Poveda, also known as “The Rabbit,” is accused of trafficking 150 tons of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico (much of it destined for the United States) between 2000 and 2010.  The extradition papers reveal that in 2007 a DEA informant began laundering money for Poveda, who was the main supplier for the Mexican cartel headed by Arturo Beltran Leyva and his three brothers.

From July to September 2007, the informant and a group of DEA agents laundered around 2.5 million dollars, at least one million of which went through a Bank of America branch in Dallas, before being smuggled – in cash – into Panama.

Then, in October 2007, the DEA helped the Beltran Leyva cartel smuggle a 330-kilogram cocaine shipment from Ecuador through Dallas and on to Madrid. Upon arrival the drugs were seized by Spanish authorities, who had been tipped off by the DEA.

Infiltration of this kind has become more common as the DEA’s role in fighting organized crime has expanded during President Felipe Calderon’s war on drugs. According to Chief of Operations Thomas Harrigan, the DEA “has the largest U.S. law enforcement presence in Mexico, with offices in Mexico City, Tijuana, Hermosillo, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Mazatlan, Guadalajara, Monterrey, Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, and Merida, with 60 Special Agent positions.”

The U.S. government claims sting operations are essential for tracking criminal activity and bringing about the arrests of cartel leaders. But Morris Panner, a former assistant U.S. attorney and an adviser on drug policy at Harvard University, told the New York Times that “the same rules required domestically do not apply when agencies are operating overseas. So the agencies can be forced to make up the rules as they go along.” She warned, “it’s a slippery slope. If it’s not careful, the United States could end up helping the bad guys more than hurting them.”

In response to this month’s reports, the DEA released a statement defending its activities, asserting that it had aided the Mexican authorities in capturing or killing dozens of mid- or high-level traffickers.

It often takes time for such operations to yield results. Poveda escaped a raid on his mansion outside Mexico City in 2008, but the authorities finally captured him in the capital in November 2010. Beltran Leyva was also tracked down – apparently with the aid of information from the United States – and killed by Mexican Navy Special Forces in a shootout in Morelos in December 2009.

Ultimately, whether the end justifies the means depends largely on whether sting operations are deemed a success. The ATF’s murky Fast and Furious operation was demonstrably a failure, but the DEA can claim vindication in its actions against Poveda and Beltran Leyva.

If there is truth in Zambada’s claims that the U.S. government aided or offered immunity to Guzman (who is ranked by Forbes Magazine as the 55th most powerful man on earth, higher than President Calderon) then this would be considerably harder to justify. Such a revelation would leave the United States open to accusations of employing counter-productive methods in its war on drugs and indulging in hypocrisy of the highest level.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. jrod permalink
    January 5, 2013 07:38

    O jo jo here comes santa clause open up your doors hes got something stored. Dain aint that about a “B…” i knew there was something funny about that border when a crossed with block of white cheese and green herbs for the elders. Keep up the good work journalist theres money fo every1.

Trackbacks

  1. Leaked emails reveal US soldiers are operating in Mexico « The Tequila Files
  2. Serafin, son of ‘El Mayo’ Zambada, arrested in Nogales | The Tequila Files

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