How 'El Chapo' Got U.S. Agents to Help Him Become the Most Powerful Drug Lord in the World

By Roston, Aram | Newsweek, February 6, 2012 | Go to article overview

How 'El Chapo' Got U.S. Agents to Help Him Become the Most Powerful Drug Lord in the World


Roston, Aram, Newsweek


Byline: Aram Roston

There are usually just three ways for a trafficker to leave a Mexican drug cartel: go to prison, get killed, or become a government informant.

Two weeks ago, I had dinner at an expensive restaurant near the Mexican border with a man who got out by the third route. He was, until recently, an important figure in the Sinaloa cartel's drug-running operations, working indirectly for the boss, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Casually dressed, he used a small fork to scrape the marrow from the shank bone on his platter of osso buco. He joked that he wished he had a soft tortilla on which to spread the marrow, the old Mexican way, the way his family did it with a butchered animal.

The informant, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, rattled off prices for the drugs he used to transport. They are surprisingly cheap in large volumes: $6,000 per kilo of cocaine in Ciudad Juarez; $1,000 more to deliver the drugs to an El Paso stash house just across the border. Tack on another $1,000 to truck it onward--to New York, Baltimore, Chicago, or Atlanta, where it sells wholesale for around $30,000.

Most criminals who become informants do so because they've been arrested and squeezed, encouraged to betray their criminal employers in exchange for leniency. But this man had an unusual story to tell about his first encounter with U.S. federal agents. It was his boss, a top manager at the Sinaloa cartel, who encouraged him to help the Americans. Meet with the U.S. investigators, he was told. See how we can help them with information.

At the time, Guzman's huge Sinaloa organization was in the middle of a savage war, trying to crush the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes cartel, known as the VCF. And the Sinaloa cartel wanted to pass along information about its enemies to American agents.

The drug dealer told me how, acting with the full approval of his cartel, he strolled into the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office for an appointment with federal investigators. He walked through a metal detector and past the portrait of the American president on the wall, then into a room with a one-way mirror. The agents he met were very polite. He was surprised by what they had to say. "One of the ICE agents said they were here to help [the Sinaloa cartel]. And to fuck the Vicente Carrillo cartel. Sorry for the language. That's exactly what they said."

So began another small chapter in one of the most secretive aspects of the drug war: an extensive operation by Chapo Guzman's forces to manipulate American law enforcement to their own benefit.

Chapo--who acquired his nickname, which is Spanish for Shorty, because of his 5-foot-6 stature--is a 54-year-old fugitive who has made it to the Forbes billionaires' list for three years running. He's an antihero whose feats of criminality are as astonishing as they are brutal. Ten years after his escape from a Mexican prison, it's widely believed by both Mexican and American law enforcement that he lives in Sinaloa, not far from where he was born. Each year, Guzman has grown increasingly rich, and the cartel he runs has tightened its grip on the worldwide narcotics trade. A month ago the U.S. Treasury Department labeled him the "world's most powerful drug trafficker."

Guzman's broad strategy has been to knock off rivals and build his own cartel into the dominant criminal force south of the border. One of his tactics for achieving that has been to place his drug-dealing lieutenants as informants for the DEA and ICE. According to sources and court records, he has been carefully feeding intelligence to the Americans. Now, Newsweek has learned, there is a federal investigation into how ICE agents handled some Sinaloa informants near the border.

The implications are sobering: the Sinoloa cartel "is duping U.S. agencies into fighting its enemies," says Prof. Tony Payan of the University of Texas at El Paso, who studies the cartel wars in Juarez.

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