Reports of FBI agents allowing drugs to be smuggled over the Mexican border, and working for years with a top Sinaloa Cartel operative, hint at the fundamental ambiguities of the drug war, and the challenges that the authorities face when trying to sort fact from fiction.
On Monday, the El Paso Times reported on how two ex-FBI informants provided the newspaper with a long and detailed account of how U.S. law enforcement allegedly turned a blind eye to drug trafficking along the Mexican border. The two men, retired sheriff’s deputy Greg Gonzalez and former livestock investigator Wesley Dutton, allege that the FBI failed to act on the intelligence they provided. This reportedly included information about corrupt U.S. officials who helped traffickers move drugs across the border, and fed them information about the movements of Border Patrol agents. The “whistle-blowers” say they even have intelligence about U.S. politicians who have received large donations from “the drug cartels.”
At first glance, the story has some obvious parallels to the “Fast and the Furious” scandal. At one point, Dutton states that the FBI encouraged him to accept drug shipments from Mexico, smuggled over the border in horse saddles, as part of its investigations. Dutton’s allegation implies that U.S. officials knowingly allowed drugs to enter from Mexico, just like they allowed gun traffickers to move assault weapons south. For those looking to make a comparison to the ATF’s “Fast and the Furious” Operation, it would be all too easy to cry “foul.”
That being said, the credibility of the claims made in the El Paso piece are undermined by the sources’ obvious political agenda. Dutton makes it clear he has a serious axe to grind with the FBI, stating the agency owes him “thousands of dollars” in funds he used to pay the cartels in the allegedly FBI-sanctioned drug deals. Nor is their case helped by the fact they are now working with Judicial Watch, a conservative non-profit that promotes “transparency and accountability” in politics. Last year, the organization named Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Jesse Jackson as among the 10 most corrupt politicians in the country.
Much of the intelligence cited by Dutton and Gonzalez does not appear to be actionable or provable, just more rumors in the swirl of half-truths found along the border.
In some ways, their account is interesting for the same reasons why one court case currently unfolding in Chicago has drawn so much attention. The trial involves one of Mexico’s most notorious drug lords, Jesus Zambada Niebla, alias “Vicentillo,” son of a top leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. In a motion filed last July, his defense team argued that during a five-year period, he trafficked drugs with the permission of U.S. law enforcement in exchange for information about his rivals, the Juarez Cartel.
While it is also worth questioning the credibility of these claims, they hint at a deeper truth in the U.S.’s handling of the Mexican drug panorama. The border zone is filled with double agents, and often U.S. officials have to take part in morally ambiguous operations. This includes relying on informants who may continue to traffic drugs and kill people, but will still expect protection in return for their information.
Vicentillo’s trial is an unusual case involving a high-level drug trafficker alleging that the U.S. government promised him immunity in exchange for intelligence on rival cartels. The outcome of the case is worth tracking, but, in some ways, Vicentillo is not the one on trial. Rather, what is at stake is some of the basic assumptions regarding how U.S. law enforcement should tackle the “drug war.” Should the FBI allow cocaine to be smuggled across the border in horse saddles, if that helps the U.S. better understand the routes and tactics favored by drug gangs? Should the ATF have allowed gun traffickers to sell arms to Mexican cartels, weapons later responsible for the death of both Mexican and U.S. citizens, if this allowed them to better trace the overall patterns of the arms trade?
The cases of Vicentillo, Gonzalez and Dutton — whether or not their claims prove true — are an implicit reminder of the moral ambiguity often encountered in anti-narcotics work. The uncomfortable truth is that when government agencies carry out significant investigations, this may entail allowing controlled deliveries of guns and drugs across the border. It may also entail cutting deals with informants who have a great deal of blood of their hands. In no occasion does covert law enforcement work justify extrajudicial killings or other human rights abuses. But it bears pointing out that there are necessary evils when it comes to covert operations in the drug world. And two of these necessary evils are the orchestrated shipment of guns and drugs, as well as the reliance on witnesses who remain involved in criminal activity.
Especially considering the political witchhunt that has followed the “Fast and the Furious” affair, it’s worth remembering that, especially if Congress ties the hands of law enforcement agencies, it’s no good to raise an outcry when those same agencies resort to morally ambiguous acts.