While US agencies often employ a combative, not-one-step-back rhetoric with regard to Mexican criminal gangs, the reality is a bit more complicated. Rather than a straightforward situation with authorities like the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in constant pursuit of criminal gangs, the two sides sometimes stumble into cooperative arrangements, which have periodically caused embarrassment for the US government.
One illustration of this is the case of Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla, son of one Mexico's most famous traffickers, who was arrested in Mexico in 2009 and extradited to the US a year later. He has alleged that officials in the DEA, the FBI, and the Department of Justice had worked out an agreement with the Sinaloa Cartel to reduce the pressure on the gang in exchange for information on other groups. ICE's relationship with informant Guillermo Eduardo Ramirez Peyro caused a scandal in 2010, when it was revealed that he had been paid some $250,000 over several years while also participating in at least 12 murders and continuing to traffic drugs across the US border. Going back decades, as (among others) books like "El cartel de los sapos" and "El narco: La guerra fallida" have detailed, Latin American drug lords have often sought to turn themselves in to US authorities as a way out of the drug trade, exchanging information about criminal associates for a lighter sentence.
Another example of this deal-making is given in a recent report by Proceso magazine on the testimony of Jesus Manuel Fierro Mendez, who has been cooperating with justice since his arrest in 2008. He says that he was the spokesman for Joaquin Guzman, alias "El Chapo," in his dealings with US authorities. Fierro Mendez depicts a symbiotic relationship in which each side made use of the other: agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would arrest Sinaloa’s adversaries, while Fierro Mendez would provide tips and confirm leads for the US authorities.
The report also gives a glimpse of why the Sinaloa Cartel led by Joaquin Guzman, alias "El Chapo," decided to make a play for Juarez, one of the most important cities lying along the US border. The fighting between Sinaloa and the gang’s erstwhile allies in the Juarez Cartel, which began in earnest in 2008 and is responsible for an enormous proportion of the roughly 8,000 murders in the city since then, is often attributed to a personal rift between Guzman and Juarez boss Vicente Carrillo. (The murder of Carrillo’s brother Rodolfo in 2005 is often attributed to Guzman.)
Finally, the piece offers an unusually direct account of why police officers work for criminal groups. Fierro Mendez, himself a former police officer in Juarez, says that the gangs target people in his position in order to gain support among officials in contested towns, and that the officers themselves respond to criminal entreaties for the simplest of reasons: money and fear.
He rejected the term “bribe” for his relationship with the criminal bosses supplementing his paycheck, referring to himself as being on "the payroll." Rather than a series of one-off favors performed by police, Fierro Mendez described an ongoing professional relationship. He also said that even those officers who did not receive money from criminal gangs were obligated to follow their dictates, because those who disobeyed them -- payroll or not -- faced death.
What follows is InSight Crime's translation of the selected extracts from the Proceso piece:
In March of 2010, Jesus Manuel Fierro Mendez, a member of the Sinaloa Cartel and ex-captain in the Ciudad Juarez police, testified in El Paso that he had been the “spokesman” of Chapo Guzman in numerous telephone conversations and some face-to-face meetings with agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“There were two of us that were, so to speak, like spokesmen”, Fierro Mendez said. “ We passed on all the information. But this information we received, obviously, from the highest levels.” He also said that Chapo Guzman had authorized him to meet with the ICE and inform them of the activities of enemy cartels.
"Did the ICE ever ask ever ask for information about El Chapo?" he was asked during his court testimony?
"It was not permitted and I was never asked."
On “the payroll”
Five years before appearing as a witness in El Paso, Fierro was a corrupt captain in the Ciudad Juarez police. According to the declarations of the DEA the day he was sentenced, “at the time he was supervising the transport and distribution of cocaine, he also worked as an official in the Puma Unit in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The Puma Unit is a force focused on anti-narcotics tasks that operates within the Juarez police”.
Fierro -- whose nickname in the Juarez drug underworld is also Puma -- admitted having received drug-trafficking money while he was a police captain. In the court he consistently referred to these bribes as “the payroll.”
- Question from attorney: "And when you say “payroll”, are you referring to bribes to the police?"
- Answer from Fierro: "It’s not a bribe. It’s a payment for a specific job. It’s an amount that is paid monthly to the police to do the job that they want."
"Very well. And what is expected of the police once they are on “the payroll”, as you say?"
"That they do or don’t do whatever the narcos want."
"And just so that the ladies and gentlemen here today understand what that means, if you are are a police officer in Mexico, and let’s say you are not on “the payroll,” what happens with a person like that inside the police department?"
"If you aren’t on 'the payroll', if someone isn’t on 'the payroll', that person [still] has to obey the orders that are given. Because if they don’t obey the orders, they’d kill that person."
The Sinaloa Cartel recruited Fierro Mendez -- who had resigned from the police -- to increase their influence with the local police and their old friends in the Mexican army. The fragile alliance between Chapo Guzman and the Juarez Cartel, known as the Federation, was breaking apart. Foreseeing the final break, El Chapo sent high-level emissaries to assure the local support from men like Fierro Mendez, with the goal of launching surprise military offensive against their old partner.
Fierro Mendez testified that the principal objective of the Sinaloa Cartel in the short term was to eliminate La Linea, the faction of the Juarez Cartel that sought to control the entire state of Chihuahua. Nevertheless, he said that El Chapo always made clear that whenever possible he wanted to avoid violent confrontation.
The strategy was to exhaust every opportunity to harm La Linea. As Fierro Mendez explained to the Court, “the objective was to eliminate La Linea however possible, whether legally or not. That is, whether it was through the army or providing information to the ICE, that was the legal way; or stopping them with information that came from the highest levels of La Linea.”
The prosecutor asked if the Sinaloa Cartel tried to utilize ICE to eliminate their rivals from La Linea. “That’s correct,” was the answer.
After the Federation broke apart, members of La Linea that had been loyal to the Juarez Cartel began to pass information on to the Sinaloa Cartel, Fierro Mendez said. He said that much of the information targeting La Linea came from old members of that gang that changed their loyalty when the violence began. Fierro mentioned that these individuals had a name: they were known as the Gente Nueva.
Fierro Mendez contacted the ICE in April of 2008, offering his service as an informant for sensitive intelligence about the enemies of the Sinaloa Cartel, principally the Juarez Cartel. “Originally I was willing to work with any United States agency; any federal agency, whether the FBI, the DEA, or ICE,” he explained.
Fierro Mendez and his contacts in the ICE were willing to cooperate via words alone; there was no written agreement among them, he said. “I would provide them with information that they needed, and I would corroborate the information that they had.”
"Aside from those mentioned, were there other services you carried out for ICE?" the prosecutor asked him.
"I contacted some people that are in the arms trafficking business," he answered.
Fierro Mendez would notify the ICE when a high-ranking member of La Linea was arrested in Mexico, with the hope that the US would impede his swift return to the battlefield in Juarez. According to him, the US authorities had the power to delay the release of members of an enemy cartel. He also stated that the Sinaloa Cartel provided ICE with information so as to arrest people on American soil. He did no say, however, if ICE carried out those arrests.