How Chapo Used US Agencies to Fight Rival Cartels

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A report from Newsweek paints a picture of how Joaquin Guzman, alias ‘El Chapo,’ used counterintelligence operations to exploit US security agencies for the benefit of his Sinaloa Cartel.

The article is largely based on the testimony of three men who used to work for Guzman, the leader of one of Mexico’s most notorious criminal groups, but have since turned into witnesses for the US government: former corrupt Juarez police officer Jose Manuel Fierro Mendez, Guzman’s old lawyer Humberto Loya Castro, and an anonymous source with whom the author spoke.

All of these men, and indeed other anonymous Sinaloa operatives who are mentioned by the author, worked with American officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), feeding the agencies intelligence about rival groups. Much of the covert information centered around Juarez, where Guzman has been fighting for the control of the city for the past several years, which in turn has converted the border town into the most dangerous city in the hemisphere. According to this and other reports, the information helped the ICE target the Sinaloans’ main rival, the Juarez Cartel, and its enforcer arm, La Linea, both of which have declined precipitously in recent years.

But the piece also suggests that the information filtered to US agencies went far beyond the battle for Juarez. That US intelligence contributed to the Mexican marines’ successful manhunt for Arturo Beltran Leyva is well known, but Newsweek cites a source who said that it was Guzman’s men who provided the US agents with the tip. While this version has not been confirmed, it does suggest a more established relationship between US intelligence and Sinaloa operatives than had previously been described.

The article details Loya Castro’s role in informing US officials that the Tijuana Cartel was planning on hiring snipers to target DEA officials in that border city in 1999, while Guzman was still in prison and was far less well known than he is today. This, along with other broadly similar anecdotes, suggests that the working relationship between the US government and Mexican traffickers is not merely a product of Guzman’s ingenuity.

Working with the lower level agents theoretically should help US officials close in on the higher-ranking gangsters. In other words, the relationship with Fierro Mendez and other Sinaloa operatives should have resulted in the arrest of Chapo and other heavyweights. However, nothing like that happened in the case of ICE’s work with Guzman’s clique. And, as Fierro Mendez explained in a recent court appearance, it was always understood that information about Chapo was off the table.

Not only that, but in addition to the inability to close in on Chapo, the Sinaloa Cartel exploited the relationships to further protect itself against future operations by US security agencies. “Now the Sinaloa Cartel understands how you work, who your agents are, and what you want,” University of Texas Professor Tony Payan comments in the Newsweek piece. “They are using you, and in the end that particular cartel is going to come out of it strong.”

As a result of this, the ICE in particular has been subjected to a great deal of criticism, and a federal investigation has been opened into their practices with Mexican informants.

Despite its significant insights into Guzman’s operations, the Newsweek article also has two glaring interpretative errors: the first is its implication that the Tijuana was a “small”, second-rate gang in 1999.

In fact, at the turn of the century, with Guzman in jail, Amado Carrillo dead, and the Zetas barely formed, the Tijuana Cartel was the most notorious in the country, if not the world. It was well connected in Colombia and controlled arguably the most important border city in the country, giving it easy access to the US’s vast West Coast drug market, even if the group didn’t exercise the same scope of territorial control that has today become common in Mexico.

That’s why President Vicente Fox declared war on the Tijuana Cartel just weeks after his inauguration in 2000, and that’s why the Tijuana Cartel served as the model network for the 2000 movie “Traffic.” It was not until the arrest of Benjamin Arellano Felix and the death of his brother Ramon, the gang’s longtime leaders, in 2002 that the Tijuana Cartel began to fade from prominence.

Furthermore, the Newsweek piece paints Juarez as a calm city today, having been eclipsed by other cities’ blooshed: “Though unfathomable violence still flares up in much of Mexico, Ciudad Juárez is somewhat calm.”

While Juarez has indeed grown much safer following the depths of the 2010 violence, it is still an extremely violent city. From January through September of last year (the most recent period for which there is any official data), more than 1,200 people were killed in violence linked to organized crime, hundreds more than anywhere else in the nation. While the violence seems to have slowed even further in 2012, killings in Juarez remain commonplace: barely three weeks into the year, 72 people had already been murdered, putting the city on pace for more than a 1,000 murders this year as well.

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