October 27, 2009
Chilling are the signs that one of the worst features of Mexico’s war on drugs is the reality of Mexican police on the take from drug lords but this is also becoming an American problem as well.
Corruption indictments and convictions of law enforcement linked to drug-trafficking organizations, known in police parlance as DTOs, are popping up in FBI press releases with disturbing frequency. Some experts disagree about how deep this rot runs. Some try to downplay the phenomenon, dismissing the law enforcement officials who have succumbed to bribes or intimidation from the drug cartels as a few bad apples.
Washington is taking no chances. In recent months, the FBI’s Criminal Division has created seven multiagency task forces and assigned 120 agents to investigate public corruption, drug-related and otherwise, in the Southwest border region.
While the FBI task forces focus mainly on corruption along the border, cartel-related activity has spread much deeper into the American heartland. Consider New Mexico’s San Juan County, some 450 miles north of the border, where the U.S. Attorney’s office has recently prosecuted a startling corruption case that may be a portent of things to come.
Back in 1994, Ken Christesen was a detective in the Four Corners, the region where the borders of Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico meet. That was the year that one Miguel Tarango was convicted of murdering a member of a rival drug gang in a territorial dispute. The conviction made Christesen realize that the Tarango family was “far more significant than we had initially thought” in the local drug trade, he tells me over coffee at Donna Kay’s, a popular café in Bloomfield, New Mexico.
Even in a county where 80 to 90 percent of all serious crimes are linked to drugs—an area where “you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a drug dealer”—the Tarangos stood out. The family was locally based but had ties to Mexico’s Sinaloa and Juárez cartels, and it had big ideas about controlling the lucrative trade in methamphetamine and other illicit drugs in San Juan County. The clan’s rising star was Daniel Tarango, Jr., a short, slim, American-born hipster with a pencil-thin mustache, a fondness for black T-shirts, and no visible means of support. After his father and uncle were convicted of heavy-duty meth trafficking, sent to federal prison, and deported, Danny, known to local cops as “the Runt,” took charge of the family business.
By 2002, Christesen had become a lieutenant in the San Juan County sheriff’s office, where he participated in Operation Farmland, an effort run by a federal, state, and local alliance called the Region II Narcotics Task Force. The operation, which targeted meth sales in the Four Corners, ended in 2003 with 250 people charged, among them Mike Marshall, a former sheriff’s deputy sentenced to five years in federal prison for distributing drugs. Christesen happened to know that Marshall and Danny Tarango had often been seen together. If Tarango had befriended Marshall, Christesen reasoned, might he also be trying to get inside information from active cops about the task force itself?
The hero of Operation Farmland was Levi Countryman, then a San Juan County sheriff’s deputy who had gotten many of the tips and intelligence that led to the massive arrests. Despite Countryman’s ostensibly heroic role in Farmland, Christesen was suspicious. Farmland hadn’t fingered a single member of the Tarango clan, despite its growing prominence in the county drug trade. And despite Farmland’s apparent success, methamphetamine still flowed freely into Farmington, Bloomfield, Shiprock, Aztec, and other forlorn, trailer-strewn desert towns in the Four Corners.
Christesen concluded that Danny Tarango and Levi Countryman were working together—that “we made the arrests, Levi became a hero, and Danny got rich by eliminating his competition,” Christesen recalls. But he had no proof. Nevertheless, when he took over the Narcotics Task Force in October 2004, he quietly put Levi Countryman at the top of his target list.
Christesen’s suspicions about Countryman had been reinforced in the spring of 2004, when officers searching one of Danny Tarango’s many houses found an all-terrain vehicle registered in Countryman’s name. What was Countryman’s ATV doing in the Runt’s garage? Under intense scrutiny, Countryman resigned as deputy sheriff and told friends that he would enter the private sector as a stock trader.
But sensitive task-force information kept leaking out to the Tarangos, much to Christesen’s frustration. Every time Christesen got close to persuading someone to talk or testify in a drug-related case, the inquiry would fall apart. A parade of witnesses who had agreed to testify would suddenly change their minds. One potential witness in a drug case against Josh Tarango, Danny’s younger brother, refused to testify in 2006 after her daughter’s car was burned on her front lawn.
“Every time we got close to tying Tarango to Countryman,” Christesen recalls, “an informant would be burned”—intimidated, that is. “I began to think that our own building was bugged. I even asked the FBI to do a sweep.” Tired of waiting for federal help, “we finally bought old equipment and did it ourselves.” The sweep turned up nothing. Meanwhile, violence in San Juan County kept escalating, much of it apparently tied to Danny Tarango.
In January 2007, the FBI finally responded to Christesen’s repeated appeals and quietly opened an investigation into whether the task force’s operations were being compromised from within. Because everyone on the task force was potentially a suspect, the FBI agents told no one in local law enforcement—not even Christesen—precisely what they were doing and whom they were targeting. But after wiretapping Danny Tarango’s cell-phone calls, they discovered that information about the task force was still being provided by Countryman. Christesen’s suspicions were all too true: Countryman was getting his information from a state police officer named Keith Salazar, one of the unit’s most trusted, experienced members. Countryman and Tarango even referred to Salazar by the code name “Candy” because the information he provided was so “sweet.”
In court, Salazar later argued that he had been forced to betray his fellow officers—that Countryman had threatened, if Salazar refused to cooperate, not only to expose the fact that he had skimmed funds from the task force’s kitty, but also to harm him and his family. But the cell-phone conversations that prosecutor Reeve Swainston played in court made a mockery of that claim. Calling each other several times a day, referring to each other as “bro,” joking and swearing like fraternity brothers staging college pranks, Salazar and Countryman were obviously close friends who enjoyed their dirty work. Salazar eagerly provided Countryman with the names of his fellow officers, even those serving undercover. He gave Countryman pictures he had taken of them, their home addresses, their birth dates and Social Security numbers, and detailed descriptions of their cars and license-plate numbers. He also disclosed the identity of confidential informants; the dates, times, and locations of impending search warrants; the nature of ongoing antidrug investigations in New Mexico and Colorado; and other material that Countryman requested. And he did all this for just $1,000 a month from Tarango.
For his part, Countryman was the perfect middleman. As soon as he got sensitive information from “Candy,” he would call Tarango and pass it along. As a result, Salazar never had to talk to Tarango or meet with him, insulating him from scrutiny. All three men used cell phones specifically dedicated to their double-dealing, creating what Swainston called in his indictment a “compartmentalized line of communication.” But Countryman was more than a go-between; he also distributed some of the methamphetamine he received from Tarango, street profits from which supplemented the $8,000 a month that Tarango routinely paid him.
Christesen suspected that Tarango had turned other law enforcement officers and local and state officials, and he hoped that the FBI’s investigation would uncover them. But the FBI had to cut short its investigation and move against the three men in December 2007, after agents overheard Tarango and Countryman discussing ways to intimidate and possibly harm a deputy sheriff. Among the tactics they discussed were following the deputy’s wife around town, taking photos of her and her children, leaving a photo of her on her car, throwing hypodermic needles on her lawn, delivering a box filled with dying rats to the family’s home, and leaving a pig’s head on the front porch. They agreed that this might send her a message that “her husband needs to back off,” a court document states, quoting part of an intercepted conversation between Tarango and Countryman. Further, the FBI overheard Tarango telling Countryman that he had watched the family’s home at various hours, and Countryman telling Tarango that this deputy’s “ass needed to be whacked.”
Tarango vetoed the proposal, but the FBI had heard enough. Arrest warrants for all three men were promptly issued. But before Tarango could be served, he escaped to Mexico. When the police arrested Countryman at a Denny’s restaurant in Farmington, the county seat, they found a handgun in his truck. In a safe at his home were 13 more firearms, $18,000 in cash, and almost eight pounds of marijuana.
In a sentencing memorandum, Countryman said that his heavy drinking had “clouded” his judgment and asked to be enrolled in a substance-abuse program. Countryman and Salazar pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute drugs and were each sentenced to six years in prison. Their attorneys argued successfully in court for lighter sentences because of their post-arrest cooperation with law enforcement. And this past June, for reasons that remain murky, Danny Tarango returned from Mexico. His trial is expected to begin soon.
Christesen, who is now running for sheriff in San Juan County, still fears that Danny Tarango’s web of corruption may have been far broader than the public has been told. In the wake of the Countryman and Salazar arrests, the New Mexico state police’s narcotics division was quietly disbanded and reorganized. The fact that the state said so little about its actions leads Christesen and others to believe that the conspiracy may have involved other, still-unnamed, corrupt cops, border patrol agents, and public officials.
But “law enforcement and the communities they serve have been irreversibly damaged” merely by the information that Salazar and Countryman gave Tarango and his Mexican associates, Christesen wrote in a statement that he gave to prosecutor Swainston. In his own statement, Swainston asserted that nine separate law enforcement agencies in New Mexico and six in Colorado had been damaged by Salazar’s betrayal. “It is hard to imagine anything more frightening for a law enforcement officer than to find out after the fact that those upon whom you just executed a . . . search warrant knew you were coming because one of your own told them so,” Swainston wrote in an impassioned 47-page sentencing memorandum.
“Cops hate these cases, hate to investigate and prosecute them, because it shows we’re not perfect, that we’re vulnerable to corruption like other human beings,” Christesen says. “A Salazar looks bad for all of us. But how many other counties like ours are there in the Southwest? How can we be sure that our law enforcement system isn’t being Mexicanized? I’m worried that they’ll start with bribes, and end as they have in Mexico, with intimidation and murder.”