Recent revelations of alleged collusion between agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and high-ranking members of the Sinaloa cartel have set Mexico abuzz. According to the nation’s leading newspaper El Universal, DEA agents met in Mexico with top members of the Sinaloa cartel as many as fifty times between 2000 and 2012; the meetings, the newspaper claims, were organized in order to gather intelligence on rival cartels and deliver crushing blows to those organizations.
How accurate these reports are, however, remains to be seen. As early as 2005, DEA agents began coordinating with an alleged Sinaloa cartel lawyer by the name of Humberto Loya Castro, and gathering intelligence from him. (In 2008, charges against Loya Castro were dropped in exchange for his cooperation.) DEA agents then met with Loya Castro in early 2009, to arrange a meeting with Vicente Zambada-Niebla, the son of Sinaloa cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, to discuss the possibility of the wanted fugitive cooperating with the U.S. government.
On March 17 and 18, 2009, three DEA agents met with Zambada-Niebla, who at the time was considered to be a top lieutenant in the Sinaloa cartel, and the organization’s logistics coordinator at the Hotel Sheraton in Mexico City. As I reported in my book, “Hasta El Ultimo Dia” (Ediciones B, 2012), Zambada-Niebla and Loya Castro proposed the idea of cooperation with U.S. authorities, but the DEA agents did not have clearance from Washington to go through with such a procedure, so let Zambada-Niebla leave the hotel. (DEA agents do not have the authority to arrest suspects in Mexico.) The next morning, Zambada-Niebla was arrested by the Mexican military; soon after, he was extradited to the United States to face trial in Chicago.
U.S. officials regularly meet with cartel operatives and drug traffickers abroad – this is no secret. What makes the Zambada-Niebla case perhaps unique is that his lawyers have invoked CIPA, or the Classified Information Procedures Act, which suggests U.S. authorities have something to hide. The Mexican press, unsurprisingly, has jumped on this, relying on Zambada-Niebla’s own testimony, as well as Loya Castro’s, as the truth, and in some instances, quite blatantly ignoring DEA testimony.
This fits well into the general perception of the drug war in Mexico: since 2006, more than 80,000 people have died. The public, by and large, is fed up with what it sees as a failed effort to combat organized crime: the army has repeatedly tried to secure the most lawless areas of the country only to see them return to chaos once it leaves; the country’s police force has not managed to reform as promised. The U.S. government’s assistance – which ranges from $1.4 billion in financial aid to the use of drones to gather intelligence on drug trafficking organizations – is seen in many circles (particularly on the left of the political spectrum) as meddling.
The news from El Universal plays into this sentiment: is the United States actually fighting the drug war, or is it simply playing one cartel off another? The truth, of course, is far more complex. U.S. and Mexican authorities do indeed, on occasion, play one cartel off another. They also make priorities: going after La Familia in Michoacan in 2006 and 2008, for instance was certainly more important than going after the Sinaloa cartel, given the former organization’s ruthless penchant for bloodshed. (The Sinaloa cartel has a reputation for simply going about business as usual, eschewing unnecessary violence because it attracts unwanted law enforcement attention.) U.S. authorities also do meet with high-level cartel operatives in the field – this has happened in both Colombia and Afghanistan, among other countries with drug production and trafficking problems – usually to gather intelligence. This is nothing all that new.
But it comes as a war in Afghanistan is winding down, with no noticeable progress having been made against drug production in the region (to be fair to the DEA, some significant arrests have been made in the country, however); it comes as Mexico’s bloodshed continues to hog the media spotlight; it comes on the heels of news of the Sinaloa cartel spreading throughout the world and becoming the world’s most powerful drug trafficking organization; it comes as the DEA is under continual fire in the United States for its failure to combat the drug scourge.
The news of Zambada-Niebla’s talks with U.S. officials is not necessarily new, but it does re-open the debate concerning U.S. involvement in the drug war south of our border. And it’s a debate worth having, given both the loss of lives and our role in consuming the products that are causing the violence.
Malcolm Beith is a freelance journalist and author. Formerly a general editor at Newsweek International, he covered the drug war in Mexico between 2007 and 2010, and wrote two books on the subject: “The Last Narco” (Penguin, 2010) and “Hasta El Ultimo Dia” (Ediciones B, 2012). He holds a Master’s Degree in War Studies from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org