Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

U.S. Agencies Infiltrating Drug Cartels Across Mexico

Jesús Vicente Zambada-Niebla, center, known as Vicentillo, at the attorney general's office in Mexico City in 2009.


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 tools.”

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 U.S.”

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 border.

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 Jesús 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 cooperation.

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, Joaquín Guzmán, 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 thought.

“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."

Charlie Savage contributed reporting


  1. Vicente Zambada is ratting out his Family,Friends(Mayo Zambada,Chapo Guzman) imagine...

    what he is saying about his rivals??????(Beltran,Carillo,Zetas,CAF)

    Something to think about.

  2. Infiltrating? Or workn with cds. Outa fear of zetas?

  3. Good ,make these paranoid idiots even more gun shy, however if we could just start killing more of them it would be nice.

  4. Our boys and girls in the U.S. Law Enforcement have ears everywhere. We know whats up when and where. We operate & move at OUR leisure. We are in the room with every single flea infested cartel in Mexico. Our folks are trusted by these fools and who will never be able to figure out who we are. We are taken them down from within thier own circles and the fun has just began. Their friends , their familes are all in our pockets.
    They trust us more than their own people. We are thier Cancer that will destroy them one at a time.LOLOL!!!
    Americas super max prisons can stack them pretty deep. So awaits their destiny. A lonely 6x10 cold cell , locked down 24 hrs a day. Thats the way it is and will be!!

  5. I do have concerns about the involvement of us intel forces in concern is that they should have more at every level......

  6. Idiots in the DEA should shut up about informants. No public statements about whether an informant does or does not exist should ever be made. As paranoid as the cartels are they would kill everyone remotely suspected.

  7. Everyone knows, as always, the good superhero USA is only gonna make things even worse and when the Cartels start killing Americans,just how they kill Mexicans,The US is gonna get all butt hurt and take it personal,and at the end the USA wont be able to finish what it started.Anyone with BRAINS can come up to this conclusion,judging on past actions done by that Country.

  8. This article is nothing more than propaganda and a public rebuttal to the allegations Vicente filled in federal court in Chicago months ago. The feds are so fearful of his allegations because it could possibly overturn every case pending with the Sinaloa Cartel in the US. Allegedly, he was give DEA and FBI permission to operate outside the law with no perimeters with immunity to prosecution. This article smells worse than the most recent stuff with the Iranian trying to hire Zetas. Knowing the CIA, DEA, and FBI have done unconscionable things in regards to drug trafficking, I am not going to pick up my US flag and march behind this. Knowing what has been done with "Fast and Furious" gives me more reason to be suspicious. I will critically think this one and keep my eyes wide open because something smells fishy. They didn't just throw Vicente in front of the bus, they put him on the cross with a bulls-eye painted on his forehead. After this disclosure, any informant working with the DEA anywhere should realize they care nothing about them. They better run for their lives as fast as they can. This is purely irresponsible disclosure of information.

  9. @ DFL

    Don't brag. Most of your eyes and ears leave with the head.

  10. "in accordance with Mexican law, the U.S. government does not carry out law enforcement operations in Mexico. That is a job for Mexican authorities." I pulled this from an article somewhere above this one. Both articles are rife with disinformation. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for your postings.

  11. He was handed over by the Sinaloa cartel to appease the critisism that the President of Mexico protects them. Mayo and Chapo figured he is young he will be out in 10 or 15 years. He is taking one for the team. One of these days Mayo Zambada and Chapo will become envious of each other. Then will see a drug war in Mexico like we never seen. Just wait and see. Just as it happen with the Beltran Leyva brothers who where Chapos compadres.

  12. @DFL


  13. Vicente looks just like his pops!

  14. @10:45 AM...Whenever there is cocaine involved, sooner or later severe paranoia will take over. But it hasn't happened between them for 20 year or better. This leads me to believe Azul is doing his job very well.

  15. @DFL...If we are so good, then why is it so bad. We have lost this stupid war on drugs on every front. We are being made to look like idiots (Fast and Furious). The US is infiltrated with drugs. Mexican cartels are taking over the local business in the cities. They have managed to survive and adapt to all that is thrown at them. And we seem to be giving them whatever they need. I see nothing going on that would help make an intelligent man think we are even trying to stop cartel activity. Our own agents say we have lost but they are trying to minimize growth.

    @1:54 PM...You are correct, Americans have always been easy to buy. They are expensive though.

  16. The New York Times as a long history of printing sensitive information. All this tells me is ether the N Y Times needs to shut there mouth or we don't have any informants but we want them to think we do.

  17. DFL eres puro pinche pendejo,
    eat a doughnut boy!

  18. @10:45, 2:50 Actually, for all of you guys that dont know El Mayo and El chapos friendship is no more.Haha wait for the goverment to catch up on it and make it publicly,haha but until then dont say I didnt tell you.

  19. 7:25 PM...If you have something to say, say it. You act like a 6 year old that was told a secret and is jumping up and down saying "I know a secret." How immature, what is the haha and I told you so silly crap. How old are you? You sure don't have first second third forth fifth six or seventh hand knowledge of the information. I heard that rumor through the media twice in the last six months but nothing materialized. Grow up.

  20. if they are so smart how come they aren't arresting the big time "racers" in this country??we all know who is buying the big money $&%#$# and living here, where there isn't hardly any heat. how many big timers have ranches in texas and oklahoma??

  21. 9:30 PM...You are right. They bust a kid in south Texas with 2 houses, 4 cars and an uncle that was head CDG and act like the finished a cartel off. No, money, no drugs, and no guns. They play it like he was El Capo himself. If you are family, you would have to have a different identity and certainly live somewhere else than Mexico. The big guys own ranches in Colo, NM, TX, Okla, Montana and you never know who they are. And Chapo isn't running around the jungle in Mexico. I bet Viceroy hasn't been to Juarez in 8 years.

  22. @DFL
    For all f you asswipes what DFL said was correct.
    "We operate & move at OUR leisure correct"

  23. Speaking from the P.O.V.of an Ex Intelligence Agent, we have been infiltrating the Mexican Cartels as well as a host of other South and Central American groups for at least 12 years
    that I know of. Do you really think the DEA and
    the CIA does not have thier finger on the pulse?
    The problem is and allways has been "Corruption"
    and not just on the side of our southern cousins! As much as I hate to admit it and know it to be Fact; American Agencies as well as our
    cohorts south of the border allow this trade to flourish for a number of reasons. The first being GREED, the 2nd reason is way to much dinero is coming up the pipeline without too much interference from the "Powers That Be" and
    3rd reason is; it's a way of life. This is a
    form of prohibition that humans will not abide by. It's human nature to want what one is not supposed to have. One of the main problems is that it is no longer Under Control. In other words when one or two or even three cartels ran
    the show, there were unwritten laws that people abided by. Horrific Murders bring unwanted "Heat" on the trafficers which nobody
    especialy the Big Cartels wants. So now these
    rather large organizations Sinaloa, Gulf,AFS
    Juarez, Cartels are fragmented into little
    mostly Unorganized Outfits with temporary leaders with really no control of the sicarios
    so it's "anything gos" as long as were makin a buck here and there and now you have people who are literally "Off The Chain" and no one to rein
    them in. So now even the corrupt Federals and Municipals as well as politicians cannot be counted on. "Your Only As Safe as Your Last Payment" and if by chance you messed up and did not take care of your commitments then "Game Over" my friend! Remember with out the cooperation of the Americans Involved in this
    horrendous Cartel Scene "It Couldn't Happen"!

  24. @1:54


    You have no idea!! LOL!

  25. @10:59...LOL, DFL, You writing supporting blogs for yourself now?

  26. Reading many of the comments posted by various individuals, I am amazed at how ignorant people are about drug trafficking and other international issues. It is better to remain silent than say something that removes all doubt on your ignorance.

  27. No....Pendejo....Americans are not easy to 'Buy" thats what makes this country great. Ask the Colombians or the Cubans!

  28. I agree w/ the ex-intelligence agent.U.S policy vis-a-vis Drug problems in mexico is real and effective.The committment is not so great since its usually narco killing narco.Why mess things up and fix something thats not broken.The time will come when drug cartels will step on american toes a little too hard.At that point,U.S. will unleash devastation never seen or experience my Mexican Drug cartel member.


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