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In December of 2008, DEA agents in Chicago executed a sting operation that “directly led to the seizure of hundreds of kilograms of cocaine, dozens of kilograms of heroin, and several million dollars.” These busts were carried out based on intelligence received from confidential informants who began working with the agency in April of 2008. From August to November, the DEA worked with these informants to build their case and gather evidence. Then, in December of 2008, the DEA closed the trap.

The dealers arrested as a result of the Chicago operation received sentences of up to 30 years in prison. But the victory wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. While the seizure of hundreds of kilograms of narcotics was significant, it represented just a small fraction of the drugs that had been imported during that time.

A review of thousands of federal court records, police reports, and court testimony from cases” related to Chicago the sting revealed that high level suppliers in Chicago, working with Mexican cartels, had imported “somewhere between six and eight tons of cocaine into the United States during the four-month period that they were gathering evidence.” That meant that while the DEA was preparing its case, up to two tons a month of narcotics had been flooding through Chicago streets.

Although many of the dealers involved in distributing those drugs were arrested, the high level suppliers were not. And it wasn’t because the DEA couldn’t find them or didn’t know who they were, it was because the people importing those drugs were the same people that were working with the DEA.

The suppliers were the confidential informants.

The Twins

Pedro and Margarito Flores, better known as “The Twins”, were the traffickers-turned-informants at the heart of this distribution empire. Their operation was so large, that by 2001:

…the Flores brothers had become the main connection to Chicago for several of the leading Mexican drug cartels. They were the principal link in a drug-supply chain that connected Colombian producers with Mexican smugglers and on to North American consumers. According to court documents, the drugs were delivered to the U.S. by a variety of means—on speedboats, fishing vessels, Boeing 747 cargo planes, container ships and tractor trailers, and even by submarine.

Their ability to move so much weight was a result of their connections to top Mexican cartel leaders, a relationship established by Margarito Flores Sr., their father. Margarito Sr. had trafficked drugs for Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera for years. Because of that, the Flores family was known. The brothers were trusted. They were dependable. And, they were profitable:

To get an idea of just how large the Flores operation was, one only needs to compare their $700 million estimated annual income to the total street value of all drugs seized in Chicago: $208 million worth in 2009, $139 million in 2008, $118 million in 2007, $143 million in 2006 and $235 million in 2005, according to the Chicago Police Department. In any given year, drug seizures never reached a third of the value of what the Flores crew dealt annually.

During their peak distribution years, they moved an estimated $60 million worth of drugs through Chicago every month. However, it appears that they became too successful. In May of 2008, an all out war broke out between the cartels. At the heart of that war? “A dispute over how the spoils from the lucrative Flores operation were to be divided.

Facing government indictments and afraid that spillover from the cartel war would get them killed, the Twins decided that the best way to save themselves would be to switch sides. So they called the DEA and started playing “Let’s Make a Deal.”

Government Sanctioned Drug Dealing

They got their deal, and the DEA got its busts. But the sting operation based on their information was shady, to say the least. It was bad enough that dealers were being arrested for possessing drugs supplied by the Twins. But what has raised the most questions is the fact that the Twins were allowed to continue importing drugs, all while working with the DEA.

While working with the DEA, the Twins:

  • Would import tons of drugs from Mexican cartels
  • Sell those drugs to other dealers
  • Inform the DEA who they sold it to

Then, the DEA would arrested the dealers. But why didn’t the DEA just arrest the Twins? If the DEA’s goal was to stop the flow of drugs into the country, they could have cut it off right at the source anytime they wanted to. And yet, they didn’t. Was the DEA sanctioning the mass importation of drugs?

According to Frank Rubino, a lawyer for one of the dealers busted by the DEA, the answer was, “Yes”:

The government let them run wild, let them export out of Mexico [and] import in the United States all the drugs they wanted as long as they provided them information about little street dealers.

A judge presiding over the trials of one of those street dealers had a similar take:

…what’s relevant is there’s the DEA working with drug dealers and cooperating with them and allowing them to be free, allowing them to do their illegal trade while they are working to arrest others. It shows that they are biased, for some reason…that they are arbitrarily choosing which dealers to prosecute.

But the government had a different take. At the trial of one Ron Collins, one of the dealers busted in the sting, Special agent Matthew McCarthy was asked  “if the twins were important enough to the DEA that the agency would permit them to continue importing drugs to the U.S. during the initial phase of their cooperation, from April to November 2008.”  His answer was cryptic. He said, “They weren’t in our control. We couldn’t stop them.”

Bigger Fake Fish 

The reason that the DEA couldn’t stop the twins was because, in addition to the information they were providing about Chicago street dealers, they were also working with the DEA to target senior leaders in the Sinaloa cartel. In particular, they were helping to build a case against Vicente Zambada Niebla, son of  Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, second in command of the Sinaloa cartel.

And the strategy seemed to work.

In 2009, Vicente Zambada Niebla was arrested in Mexico on drug charges. Based on the strength of the evidence that the twins accumulated against him, he was quickly extradited to Chicago to stand trial. But when Vicente showed up in court to mount his defense, he dropped a bombshell. Instead of pleading guilty:

Zambada’s lawyers declared that he could not be prosecuted by the United States, because, they claimed, he had been secretly working as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration… [and] …had been assured by his contacts at the D.E.A. that, in exchange for providing them with intelligence about the drug trade in Mexico, he would be guaranteed immunity against prosecution for his own role in the business.

Like the twins, Vicente Zambada Niebla was an informant. But who was he informing on? And what did he get in exchange? According to Vicente:

…the Sinaloa Cartel under the leadership of defendant’s father, Ismael Zambada-Niebla and ‘Chapo’ Guzman, were given carte blanche to continue to smuggle tons of illicit drugs into Chicago and the rest of the United States and were also protected by the United States government from arrest and prosecution in return for providing information against rival cartels which helped Mexican and United States authorities capture or kill thousands of rival cartel members. [emphasis added]

If true, it was a sweet deal for the Sinaloa cartel. While the US and Mexican governments took out their competition, the cartel could run their operations undisturbed. And while some people looked at the arrangement as a criminal conspiracy, others defended the move as “a tactic employed by the DEA and other US agencies to allow them to focus efforts on priority targets, and allow them to build solid cases.

But according to Vicente, that was only part of the deal. What followed was possibly worse.

Operation Fast and Furious

In addition to allowing the Sinaloa cartel to bring massive amounts of drugs into the US, Vicente alleged that the US provided semi-automatic weapons to the Sinaloa cartel in a bid to arm them against their rivals:

Zambada-Niebla claims that under a “divide and conquer” strategy, the U.S. helped finance and arm the Sinaloa Cartel through Operation Fast and Furious in exchange for information that allowed the DEA, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other federal agencies to take down rival drug cartels.

This was completely contrary to the story the public was given about Fast and Furious:

Operation Fast and Furious was launched in 2009 by top DOJ officials, in collaboration with the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) as part of a strategy to identify and eliminate arms trafficking networks. Instead of prosecuting the individual “straw purchasers” who buy guns for the cartels, ATF agents would track the guns to the top bosses of Mexico’s powerful drug cartels.

Far from being just a program to track guns to higher level targets, Zambada Niebla was stating point blank that the US government was arming the Sinaloa cartel for war.

But why would the Sinaloa cartel be singled out for such favorable treatment? Luis Astorga, a research professor in Mexico who studied the cartels, explained it like this:

The nature of the drug war is such that it is impossible to focus on combating all of the cartels at the same time, so those of us who have been researching this issue have long known that the Sinaloa cartel was not one of the highest priorities of the [Mexican] government.  [emphasis added]

But court documents would later reveal that the low prioritization of the Sinaloa cartel by the Mexican government may have been no an accident:

On multiple occasions… [Zambada Niebla] arranged for the payment of bribes to local, state, and federal law enforcement officials in the Mexican government, for the purpose of facilitating the Sinaloa Cartel’s narcotics trafficking business.

The Case of the Disappearing Trial

The legal bombshells Zambada Niebla’s lawyers threatened to drop were felt throughout the US and Mexico, and the potential for blowback on both sides of the border was high.

On the US side was the disastrous prospect of having to listen to Zambada Niebla detail how the US government armed the Sinaloa cartel and gave it permission to bring tons of drugs into the US. On the Mexican side, corrupt officials at every level of government were about to be exposed.

But the trial never took place.

To start with, the trial was repeatedly delayed. The delays were “so significant that at one point in 2011 officials expressed concern that Zambada would be assassinated before he could stand trial.

Then, something very interesting happened.

Although the government had staunchly denied Zambada’s allegations, US prosecutors filed a motion to invoke CIPA, the Classified Information Procedures Act:

CIPA, enacted some 30 years ago, is designed to keep a lid on the public disclosure in criminal cases of classified materials, such as those associated with CIA or other US covert operations.

And they succeeded. In the interest of national security and protecting classified materials, the judge granted the motion.

Having successfully shut down the possibility of damaging information coming to light in open court, the case appeared to stall out. But, that was only on the surface. Behind the scenes, Zambada Niebla was busy negotiating the points of his plea deal. And on “April 3, 2013, before U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo,” Vicente Zambada Niebla pleaded guilty “to one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute multiple kilograms of cocaine and heroin.”

The United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, Zachary T. Fardon, hailed the deal as a huge success:

This guilty plea is a testament to the tireless determination of the leadership and special agents of DEA’s Chicago office to hold accountable those individuals at the highest levels of the drug trafficking cartels who are responsible for flooding Chicago with cocaine and heroin and reaping the profits.

But what did that accountability look like?

As part of the deal, Zambada recieved “a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, and a maximum fine of $4 million” which means he could be out before many of the dealers caught by the DEA’s December 2008 sting. How did he manage that? In addition to his continued cooperation, Zambada Niebla also agreed not to contest a forfeiture judgement for $1,373,415,000.

One Billion Three Hundred Seventy Three Million Four Hundred Fifteen Dollars.

Web of Lies

When the DEA made its deal with the Twins, they kept many aspects of it secret so as not to tip off targets like Vicente Zambada Niebla. Likewise, when they made a deal with Zambada Niebla, they kept the entire deal secret for over a year. But who were they trying to avoid tipping off?

The only two people higher up on the chain than Vicente were father, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia, and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera. From the looks of things, El Chapo was their target. Unfortunately, their tactics in getting to him may have prevented them from ever getting at him.

On February 22, 2014, El Chapo was arrested by Mexican authorities. A month later, the DEA went public with details of the Zambada Niebla deal. But unlike Zambada Niebla, it is doubtful that he will be extradited.

Why?

Mexican authorities are afraid we will make a deal with him. When asked about the possibility of extraditing El Chapo to the US to stand trial, Mexico’s Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said:

… Mexico has “no intention” of extraditing drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to the U.S., where he faces multiple criminal charges in several states… [because] …he disapproves of U.S. prosecutors “reaching deals with criminals,” as they secretly did last year with Jesús Vicente “El Vicentillo” Zambada Niebla.

Justice Served?

If the testimony of the government’s own informants is to be believed, the US allowed tons of drugs to flood into the country. They armed Mexican drug cartels with semi automatic weapons. And they made deals with criminals and criminal organizations. For what?

So that the Flores twins could live in witness protection for the past 5 years, all at taxpayer expense?

So that Vicente Zambada Niebla could make a plea deal that could see him back on the streets (or in witness protection) in just a few years?

So that El Chapo could avoid extradition and continue to run his drug empire from inside of a Mexican prison?

At the end of the day, it doesn’t look like the government’s operations changed anything.  And why should they? If all you do is make deals to keep climbing up the ladder, when you get to the top, only one person is left to hold accountable.

You can’t destroy a cartel by taking out one guy. These are sophisticated criminal enterprises. That’s like trying to destroy a company by getting rid of it’s CEO. No matter how important that guy is, there will always be someone ready to fill the leadership vacuum.

The only winner here might be the US government. After all, they got to walk away with over a billion dollars of the cartel’s hard earned profits.

Maybe that’s what they were going for all along.

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