The DEA Academy: The Double Agent Factory

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It must have felt like a real kick in the gut for those at the DEA when they found out that Commander Iván Reyes Arzate, who had been an agency lackey for eight years, was leading a double life. 

Arzate was an accomplice of the Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) while also a leading member of the Mexican Federal Police’s Sensitive Investigation Unit (SIU), an elite espionage and operations unit created, approved and financed by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Reyes Arzate, nicknamed “The Queen,” appeared to be the star witness that could put Genaro García Luna (a former Mexican public security minister indicted on drug trafficking charges in December 2019) in jail for life.

Reyes Arzate would do what the DEA ordered. That was part of the agreement. He passed all of the exams and polygraphs he was given, and took two courses at the DEA Academy in Quántico, Virginia: Methodology for Intelligence Gathering and Corroborating Confidential Information. The DEA was so impressed that, in 2008, the agency hand-picked him to direct the SIU during the six-year presidential term of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012.

*This article first appeared in Sin Embargo and was translated, edited and published with permission. See the original here. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime.

Reyes Arzate voluntarily turned himself in to US authorities in 2017, after being confronted by DEA agents in Mexico. He was preparing to return to Mexico after serving a sentence in Chicago for leaking information to the Beltrán Leyva. But in January 2020, a New York court accused Reyes Arzate of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars while working for the SIU. He reportedly had access to “sensitive” information from both Mexican and American governments that he later sold to criminal groups, including the BLO. 

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Reyes Arzate and García Luna were silent accomplices. They had known about each other’s shady deals with the cartels ever since working together when García Luna ran Mexico’s Federal Investigation Agency (Agencia Federal de Investigación – AFI) under the administration of then-president Vicente Fox (2000-2006). 

Reyes Arzate and four high-ranking commanders at the time–whose names we are going to omit as two of them remain in public service (in Mexico City and in Guanajuato) and whom it has not been possible to contact – dressed accordingly. They had Montblanc pens, watches, ties and shoes from Hermes and Salvatore Ferragamo: expenditures which were inconsistent with their salaries. They owned numerous properties and luxury cars, although they did not used these to go to work. They traveled in armoured Suburbans with federal police serving as bodyguards. 

Reyes Arzate was the link between the BLO and Mexico’s Federal Police. Senior officials would send staff they trusted for face-to-face meetings with cartel kingpins in which they exchanged information or security for money. This way, the high-ranking commanders did not appear to be directly involved. For Reyes Arzate, the role of SIU chief meant taking on these criminal activities on behalf of those who appointed him to the job. 

Drug traffickers left large sacks of money used to pay the police chiefs inside vehicles, handing over the keys to emissaries in public places. If the commanders had to meet the drug lords face-to-face, they did so in restaurants that were forced to close so there would be no witnesses. 

The District Attorney’s Office in New York has compromising recordings against García Luna in its possession. But are they Conversations between Reyes Arzate and the Beltrán Leyva, involving García Luna, perhaps even Calderón? Only the Americans know. High-ranking members of the Mexican government had their communications wiretapped and phone conversations, messages, photos, videos and emails were all received. The cases against García Luna and Reyes Arzate should be airtight.

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The conditions for the US agencies operating in Mexico surpassed those of their Mexican underlings. They had free reign and access to unlimited information in Mexican databases. The so-called Mérida Initiative expanded and strengthened their capacity to operate in Mexico. 

The “güeros” or the “primos,” as DEA agents are known in Mexico, have always given the orders. The SIU carried out arrests, raids or property searches ordered by the DEA. Three  consecutive presidents – Fox, Calderón and Peña Nieto – gave orders to allow DEA, FBI, CIA and ICE agents to operate in Mexico with free reign. 

To put it frankly: the Mexican police within the SIU were the minions of the DEA. When the DEA didn’t have them wiretapping phones, they had them in the field corroborating tips from informants that often turned out to be false. It was not a relationship between equals, but rather one of subordination and mistrust. Many police officers resented the submission to DEA agents and the wide-ranging assignments that García Luna gave them under the orders of Calderón. But they stayed quiet. They followed orders. They were foot soldiers. 

Mexican police officers waited their turn in the lobby before going up to hotel rooms rented by the DEA at the Holiday Inn on Reforma Avenue and the Sheraton María Isabel, next to the US Embassy in Mexico City. They were escorted up to a room where an official, a translator and a technician from the DEA gave them each a polygraph test: a requirement to attend the five-week courses in Quántico.

The DEA has trained more than two thousand Mexicans over the course of more than two decades. Photo: Special

It is possible that senior commanders also resented the DEA’s violation of Mexico’s sovereignty. Did García Luna and Reyes Arzate find solace in betraying the trust their masters had placed in them by colluding with the kingpins? Or were they solely motivated by corruption?

During Fox’s six years in office, the DEA set up so-called “security houses” in Tijuana, Hermosillo, Culiacán, Mazatlán, Guadalajara, Monterrey and Mexico City. There they housed SIU police who were deployed to corroborate tips as dictated by the DEA. The DEA paid the rent, electricity, water, and phone bills and provided those in charge of the houses with money to fill the pantries. The DEA refunded police if they presented verified receipts. The only thing that the DEA did not pay were their salaries. The “bases” were eventually closed by Calderón under suspicion of misappropriation of funds.

Almost all, if not all, of those in leadership positions at Mexican anti-drug agencies and at the SIU under the administrations of Fox, Calderón and Peña Nieto passed through the DEA’s double-agent factory. Many of them have been linked to or are suspected of having been bought by the cartels. Yet they continue to work high up in security institutions, both within state authorities and the private sector. 

Note: This column is based on first-hand information from a confidential source involved and witnessed the turn of events narrated here and whom I interviewed for more than two hours. He asked to remain anonymous. 

*This article first appeared in Sin Embargo and was translated, edited and published with permission. See the original here. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime.

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