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Report that DEA protects Sinaloa cartel contrasts sharply with official claims

An investigation by the Mexican newspaper El Universal has confirmed that the US Drug Enforcement Administration and Department of Justice negotiated an arrangement with one of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels, enabling the Sinaloa gang to smuggle billions of dollars of drugs into US cities without fear of high-level prosecutions. According to the DEA, the Sinaloa cartel supplies 80% of the drugs in the city of Chicago, serving as a gateway for heroin distribution to cities nationwide.

El Universal reports that between the years 2000 and 2012, DEA agents met with top Sinaloa drug cartel members more than fifty times. The newspaper's account is based off of court documents as well as interviews with over one hundred sources knowledgeable of the arrangements, including current and retired law enforcement officials and prisoners.

Business Insider, which broke the story in the United States, provides further details:

The written statements were made to the U.S. District Court in Chicago in relation to the arrest of Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla, the son of Sinaloa leader Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada and allegedly the Sinaloa cartel’s "logistics coordinator.”

Zambada-Niebla's lawyer told the court that in the late 1990s, [Sinaloa lawyer Loya] Castro struck a deal with U.S. agents in which Sinaloa would provide information about rival drug trafficking organizations while the U.S. would dismiss its case against the Sinaloa lawyer and refrain from interfering with Sinaloa drug trafficking activities or actively prosecuting Sinaloa leadership.

"The agents stated that this arrangement had been approved by high-ranking officials and federal prosecutors," Zambada-Niebla lawyer wrote.

After being extradited to Chicago in February 2010, Zambada-Niebla argued that he was also "immune from arrest or prosecution" because he actively provided information to U.S. federal agents.

Zambada-Niebla also alleged that Operation Fast and Furious was part of an agreement to finance and arm the cartel in exchange for information used to take down its rivals. (If true, that re-raises the issue regarding what Attorney General Eric Holder knew about the gun-running arrangements.)

A Mexican foreign service officer told Stratfor in April 2010 that the U.S. seemed to have sided with the Sinaloa cartel in an attempt to limit the violence in Mexico.

El Universal said that the coordination between the U.S. and Sinaloa peaked between 2006 and 2012, which is when drug cartels consolidated their grip on Mexico. The report ends by saying that it is unclear whether the arrangements continue.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the period during which the ‘coordination’ between the US government and the Sinaloa drug cartel reportedly peaked—between 2006 and 2012—coincides almost perfectly with a spike in heroin availability in Chicago. US drug authorities directly connect the Sinaloa gang and its leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to the heroin epidemic in the city.

Disinformation, or confusion within the ranks?

While the El Universal report and the court documents backing it up demonstrate that the DEA has worked to protect the Sinaloa cartel and to enable its smuggling operations, the drug agency's top official in Chicago has been bragging to the press about his efforts to combat Sinaloa's drug activity there. A website that reports on drug violence in the Americas only weeks ago published an account of DEA efforts to combat the Sinaloa cartel’s influence in Chicago, based primarily off of quotes from Jack Riley, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA’s Chicago field office.

Insight Crime reports:

According to the DEA, the Sinaloa Cartel controls up to 80 percent of the drug flow into the city, and Chicago has become the fulcrum of a distribution network stretching throughout the Midwest and beyond, which they claim is fueling the growth in heroin use.

"It's important to Sinaloa and the other cartels for the same reason Fortune 500 companies are here: logistics," says Riley, who highlights how the Sinaloa Cartel has established its footing in Chicago by securing the west Texas transport corridor, after a winning a bloody war for control of Ciudad Juarez in 2012.

To carry out the strategy in Chicago, Riley has assembled a multi-agency strike force — a job he says was so important it prevented him taking early retirement in 2012. It has been so effective, the model is being trialed in Los Angeles and Boston.

"It basically takes our limited resources, intelligence driven, and works our investigation from the middle out, so we can do something on the street but we can also continue to work it up [towards the cartel]," he said.

"I feel good about what we're doing," [Riley] said. "I know we're targeting right, we're having long lasting effects when we do take stuff down, and from our cases we're sending leads all over the country, and that's what I want to see."

But while the strategy Riley designed is spreading, the flood gates remain open. This year Dupage County saw 45 heroin overdose deaths up to December 2013 and 43 such deaths in 2012, figures unheard of three or four years ago.

How to explain Mr. Riley's comments to this journalist about his office's efforts to fight the Sinaloa cartel in Chicago, given the evidence that high-level DEA officials are actually protecting the cartel's operations? It appears as if Mr. Riley either isn’t aware of the fact that his superiors are working with the very cartel he says he is fighting, or that he is radically misrepresenting the facts to the journalist.

Either way, the bombshell revelation about the DEA and DOJ working hand in hand with a drug cartel that is causing violence in both the United States and Mexico is yet another unmistakable sign that the time to end the war on drugs has long passed.

In 1930 under prohibition, the Chicago Crime Commission named alcohol profiteer and gangster Al Capone the city’s “Public Enemy Number One.” That title was in February 2013 bestowed upon Sinaloa cartel leader 'El Chapo' Guzman. It’s long been clear to anyone paying attention that the war on drugs, like prohibition before it, threatens the stability of communities, creates violence, and fosters corruption in our public institutions. Let’s hope that these revelations, showing that Chicago’s new Public Enemy Number One has ties to the very law enforcement agencies that are supposed to be stopping him, add another nail into the coffin of drug prohibition in the US.

For our safety, for our children’s health, and for our democracy, we must end the war on drugs.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.