Pubdate: Mon, 24 Oct 2011
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2011 The New York Times Company
Author: Ginger Thompson. Charlie Savage contributed reporting.


WASHINGTON --- American law enforcement agencies have significantly
built up networks of Mexican informants that have allowed them to
secretly infiltrate some of that country's most powerful and dangerous
criminal organizations, according to security officials on both sides
of the border.

As the United States has opened new law enforcement and intelligence
outposts across Mexico in recent years, Washington's networks of
informants have grown there as well, current and former officials
said. They have helped Mexican authorities capture or kill about two
dozen high-ranking and midlevel drug traffickers, and sometimes have
given American counternarcotics agents access to the top leaders of
the cartels they are trying to dismantle.

Typically, the officials said, Mexico is kept in the dark about the
United States' contacts with its most secret informants --- including
Mexican law enforcement officers, elected officials and cartel
operatives --- partly because of concerns about corruption among the
Mexican police, and partly because of laws prohibiting American
security forces from operating on Mexican soil.

"The Mexicans sort of roll their eyes and say we know it's happening,
even though it's not supposed to be happening," said Eric L. Olson, an
expert on Mexican security matters at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

"That's what makes this so hard," he said. "The United States is using
tools in a country where officials are still uncomfortable with those

In recent years, Mexican attitudes about American involvement in
matters of national security have softened, as waves of drug-related
violence have left about 40,000 people dead. And the United States,
hoping to shore up Mexico's stability and prevent its violence from
spilling across the border, has expanded its role in ways unthinkable
five years ago, including flying drones in Mexican skies.

The efforts have been credited with breaking up several of Mexico's
largest cartels into smaller --- and presumably less dangerous ---
crime groups. But the violence continues, as does the northward flow
of illegal drugs.

While using informants remains a largely clandestine affair, several
recent cases have shed light on the kinds of investigations they have
helped crack, including a plot this month in which the United States
accused an Iranian-American car salesman of trying to hire killers
from a Mexican drug cartel, known as Los Zetas, to assassinate the
Saudi ambassador to Washington.

American officials said Drug Enforcement Administration informants
with links to the cartels helped the authorities to track down several
suspects linked to the February murder of a United States Immigration
and Customs Enforcement agent, Jaime J. Zapata, who is alleged to have
been shot to death by members of Los Zetas in central Mexico.

The D.E.A.'s dealings with informants and drug traffickers ---
sometimes, officials acknowledged, they are one and the same --- are
at the center of proceedings in a federal courthouse in Chicago, where
one of the highest-ranking leaders of the Sinaloa cartel is scheduled
to go on trial next year.

And last month, a federal judge in El Paso sentenced a midlevel leader
of the Sinaloa cartel to life in prison after he was found guilty on
drug and conspiracy charges. He was accused of working as a kind of
double agent, providing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency
with information about the movements of a rival cartel in order to
divert attention from his own trafficking activities.

As important as informants have been, complicated ethical issues tend
to arise when law enforcement officers make deals with criminals. Few
informants, law enforcement officials say, decide to start providing
information to the government out of altruism; typically, they are
caught committing a crime and want to mitigate their legal troubles,
or are essentially taking bribes to inform on their colleagues.

Morris Panner, a former assistant United States attorney who is a
senior adviser at the Center for International Criminal Justice at
Harvard Law School, said some of the recent cases involving informants
highlight those issues and demonstrate that the threats posed by
Mexican narcotics networks go far beyond the drug trade.

"Mexican organized crime groups have morphed from drug trafficking
organizations into something new and far more dangerous," Mr. Panner
said. "The Zetas now are active in extortion, human trafficking, money
laundering, and increasingly, anything a violent criminal organization
can do to make money, whether in Mexico, Guatemala or, it appears, the

Because of the clandestine nature of their communications with
informants, and the potential for diplomatic flare-ups between the
United States and Mexico, American officials were reluctant to provide
any details about the scope of their confidential sources south of the

Over the past two years, officials said, D.E.A. agents in Houston
managed to develop "several highly placed confidential sources with
direct access" to important leaders of the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas.
This paid informant network is a centerpiece of the Houston office's
efforts to infiltrate the "command and control" ranks of the two groups.

One of those paid informants was the man who authorities say was
approached last spring by a man charged in Iran's alleged plot to
assassinate the Saudi ambassador. Law enforcement documents say the
informant told his handlers that an Iranian-American, Mansour J.
Arbabsiar, had reached out to him to ask whether Los Zetas would be
willing to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States and elsewhere.

Authorities would provide only vague details about the informant and
his connections to Los Zetas, saying that he had been charged in the
United States with narcotics crimes and that those charges had been
dropped because he had "previously provided reliable and independently
corroborated information to federal law enforcement agents" that "led
to numerous seizures of narcotics."

The Justice Department has been more forthcoming about the D.E.A.'s
work with informants in a case against Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla,
known as Vicentillo. Officials describe Mr. Zambada-Niebla as a
logistics coordinator for the Sinaloa cartel, considered one of the
world's most important drug trafficking groups. His lawyers have
argued that he was an informant for the Drug Enforcement
Administration, which offered him immunity in exchange for his

The D.E.A. has denied that allegation, and the Justice Department took
the rare step of disclosing the agency's contacts with him in court
documents. The intermediary was Humberto Loya-Castro, who was both a
confidant to the cartel's kingpin, Joaquin Guzman, known as El Chapo,
and an informant to the D.E.A.

The documents do not say when the relationship between the agency and
Mr. Loya-Castro began, but they indicate that because of his
cooperation, the D.E.A. dismissed a 13-year-old conspiracy charge
against him in 2008.

In 2009, the documents said, Mr. Loya-Castro arranged a meeting
between two D.E.A. agents and Mr. Zambada-Niebla, who was floating an
offer to negotiate some kind of cooperation agreement. But on the day
of the meeting, the agents' supervisors canceled it, expressing
"concern about American agents meeting with a high-level cartel member
like Zambada-Niebla."

Mr. Zambada-Niebla and Mr. Loya-Castro showed up at the agents' hotel
anyway. The D.E.A. agents sent Mr. Zambada-Niebla away without making
any promises, the documents said. A few hours later, Mr.
Zambada-Niebla was captured by the Mexican police, and was extradited
to the United States in February 2010.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on organized crime at the Brookings
Institution, said that while some had criticized the D.E.A. for
entertaining "deals with the devil," she saw the Zambada case as an
important intelligence coup. Even in an age of high-tech surveillance,
she said, there is no substitute for human sources' feeding
authorities everything from what targeted traffickers like to eat to
where they sleep most nights.

A former senior counternarcotics official echoed that

"A D.E.A. agent's job, first and foremost, is to get inside the body
of those criminal organizations he or she is investigating," the
former official said, asking not to be identified because he
occasionally does consulting work in Mexico. "Nothing provides that
microscopic view more than a host that opens the door."
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