Is the DEA Protecting One of Mexico’s Most Notorious Drug Cartels?

Jan 15, 2014 at 5:43 PM ET

Is the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in bed with the Sinaloa cartel? An article published in Mexico’s leading daily paper, El Universal, suggests it is. Between 2000 and 2012, DEA agents met with high-level Sinaloa narcos more than 50 times, offering plea deals to some of those who cooperated, according to court documents the newspaper collected.

The story has made waves this week, and it seems to bolster a major claim of drug-war opponents: that the U.S. and Mexico are spending billions to slap the cartels with one hand while massaging them with the other.

The truth is more complex. El Universal’s report details meetings in March 2009 between the DEA and two alleged narcos: Vicente Zambada-Niebla, a purported cartel boss, and Humberto Loya Castro, a lawyer allegedly working for the Sinaloa cartel.

Yet the paper relies heavily on the testimony of Zambada-Niebla’s defense. (He is currently on trial in Chicago for conspiring to import heroin and cocaine.) And it interprets the DEA’s work in Mexico as collusion with the cartels, rather than seeing it for what is really is: using informants to gather information to be used in court or out in the field. This is a strategy that the DEA has employed—with mixed success—for years in Mexico, Colombia and Afghanistan, among other nations.

The U.S. can’t go after every single drug trafficker. So when an especially violent group like the cartel La Familia emerges and takes action, the authorities have to prioritize. In 2006, members of La Familia rolled five heads across a popular dance floor in Uruapan, a town in the central state of Michoacan. Two years later, thugs believed to be affiliated with either La Familia or another cartel, Los Zetas, threw two grenades into an Independence Day crowd in the city of Morelia. The DEA and their Mexican counterparts calculated that going after La Familia and Los Zetas—perhaps the most ruthless groups in Mexico—was their first priority; they could go after the Sinaloa cartel at a later date. U.S. and Mexican officials have only so many trustworthy partners in Mexico. So they tend to pick and choose their battles, rather than going after all the cartels at once.

Yet over the past few years, critics in Mexico have lambasted the DEA, saying Sinaloa has a free pass. (These accusations continued in 2009 and 2010, even when a large number of Sinaloa higher-ups were arrested or killed.) Even the new revelations by El Universal appear designed to spin sentiment against the DEA, which has increased its presence in Mexico and continued to advise and share intelligence with its Mexican counterparts.

Consider the case of Loya Castro, the lawyer who was named alongside several Sinaloa cartel higher-ups in a 1995 indictment in California. According to Zambada-Niebla’s defense team, the attorney developed a good relationship with the DEA in Mexico. One agent said in an affidavit that the lawyer had become a confidential source as far back as 2005. According to court documents filed in Chicago in late 2011, Zambada-Niebla’s lawyers claimed that Loya Castro, with permission from his bosses, eventually went on to feed the DEA information on rival cartels. In exchange for intel, the charges stemming from the 1995 indictment were dismissed.

But does this mean the Sinaloa cartel had carte blanche to do whatever it wanted? Not quite. When I reported some of these revelations in my book Hasta El Ultimo Dia (Ediciones B, 2012), I found the testimony of the DEA agents more credible than that of Zambada-Niebla, the alleged trafficker. And if you look at the government’s testimony, a much more complicated picture emerges.

Having spoken to Loya Castro, the DEA learned that Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the alleged head of the cartel, wanted U.S. authorities to meet with Zambada-Niebla to get his charges expunged. In testimony in Chicago, one DEA agent said he contacted his higher-ups to set up a meeting. They couldn’t make any promises to Chapo, as Guzmán Loera is known, but they were interested in what Zambada-Niebla had to say.

The agents met with Zambada-Niebla at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Mexico City on March 17, 2009. Much of the conversation hasn’t been revealed. But court documents suggest there was talk of setting up further meetings, perhaps outside of Mexico, and the DEA agents once again declined to make any promises about a deal. Early the next day, however, the Mexican military arrested Zambada-Niebla outside of his house in the swanky Mexico city neighborhood of Jardines de Pedregal. It’s unclear whether the DEA informed Mexican authorities of the meeting, or whether the military had been aware and was waiting to make its move. Once in prison in Mexico City, Zambada-Niebla again said he wanted to cooperate with the feds. They declined, and he was soon extradited to Chicago.

Zambada-Niebla’s defense team, meanwhile, has invoked the Classified Information Procedures Act, which was designed to deter defendants from revealing classified information in court. In some circles, this move has been interpreted as a sign that the U.S. government is hiding something and is perhaps guilty of helping the Sinaloa cartel in some way

But in all likelihood, the truth of what happened between members of the cartel and the DEA agents who met with them in Mexico is far more complicated and revealing.

Malcolm Beith is a freelance journalist and author based in New York City. A former 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 (Grove, 2010) and Hasta El Ultimo Dia (Ediciones B, Mexico, 2012). He has a master’s degree in war studies from the University of Glasgow.