US Government Accused of Seeking to Conceal Deal Cut With Sinaloa “Cartel”
Lawyers for Alleged Narco-Boss Zambada Niebla Claim Prosecutors Suppressing Evidence By Invoking National Security
The criminal case against accused Mexican narco-trafficker Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla now appears to be threatening to unravel the U.S. government’s ugly national-security interests in the drug war.
Zambada Niebla, son of one of the leaders of the Sinaloa “Cartel,” arguably the most powerful international narco-trafficking organization on the planet, argues in his criminal case, now pending in federal court in Chicago, that he and the leadership of Mexico’s Sinaloa drug-trafficking organization, were, in effect, working for the U.S. government for years by providing US agents with intelligence about rival drug organizations.
In exchange for that cooperation, Zambada Niebla contends, the US government granted the leadership of the Sinaloa “Cartel” immunity from prosecution for their criminal activities — including the narco-trafficking charges he now faces in Chicago.
The government, in court pleadings filed last month, denies that claim but at the same time has filed a motion in the case seeking to invoke the Classified Information Procedures Act (CIPA), a measure designed to assure national security information does not become public during court proceedings.
To date, the US mainstream media has been completely silent on the US government’s effort to invoke CIPA in the Zambada Niebla case; so, kind readers, Narco News is the only authentic news publication providing you with the scoop.
In a motion filed with the court earier this week, on Sept. 29, Zambada Niebla’s attorneys argue that the government, in essence, is trying to suppress evidence critical to their client’s defense by seeking to invoke CIPA at this late point in the pre-trial proceedings.
Zambada Niebla’s lawyers claim that the prosecution has, at this point, withheld evidence it is required to provide to the defense and is now attempting to cover its tracks and assure that evidence remains cloaked by arguing that it affects US national security.
Zambada Niebla’s attorneys, as part of their recent pleadings, are now asking the court for additional time to prepare their rebuttal to the government’s contention that Zambada Niebla was not operating under US-sanctioned immunity. The attorneys are asking the judge to delay the rebuttal deadline, now set for Oct. 17, until after the CIPA procedures are in place so that their client has access to the classified evidence necessary to prepare his defense.
CIPA, enacted some 30 years ago, is designed to keep a lid on the public disclosure in criminal cases of classified materials, such as details associated with clandestine FBI or CIA operations. The rule requires that notice be given to the judge in advance of any move to introduce classified evidence in a case so that the judge can determine if it is admissible, or if another suitable substitution can be arranged that preserves the defendants right to a fair trial.
From Zambada Niebla’s court pleadings filed on Sept. 29:
The defense cannot adequately respond to the government’s oppositions and support its motions without first understanding the nature, scope, and substance of the classified information in the possession of the government. The government’s obligation to produce documents is not limited to those in the possession of the DOJ [Department of Justice] and FBI, but includes documents in the possession, custody, and control other agencies, including the CIA, DEA, ATF, ICE, IRS, NSA [National Security Agency], and the Department of Justice OCDETF [Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force].
... These agencies alone have relevant and material information to establish that they had knowledge that the leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel were allowed to engage in drug trafficking activity but did nothing to prevent the trafficking or to arrest those leaders.
The defense here will be disadvantaged if required to file replies before the CIPA process has been initiated, much less completed, because it will not have the benefit of the very information that supports its motions.
At the heart of Zambada Niebla’s defense is a Mexican attorney named Humberto Loya Castro, who, both the US government and Zambada Niebla agree, has worked as a contracted cooperating source, an informant, for the US government since at least 2005.
Loya Castro, according to Zambada Niebla’s court pleadings, served as an intermediary between US government agents (including the DEA and FBI) and the leadership of the Sinaloa organization — which includes Zambada Niebla; his father Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia; and the top capo of the Sinaloa drug organization, Joaquin Guzman Loera (Chapo).
“The central contention of all of [Zambada Niebla’s] motions is that Humberto Loya Castro, a high-ranking member of the Sinaloa Cartel, entered into an agreement on behalf of the Cartel lincluding the defendant Zambada Niebla] with several agencies of the United States Government to serve as an informant against rival Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations,” Zambada Niebla’s recently filed court pleadings allege. “In return for the information he [Zambada Niebla] and others provided, the government agreed it would not share any of the information that it had about the Sinaloa Cartel and/or the leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel with the Mexican government in order to ensure that the Cartel’s operations would not be disrupted and its leaders would not be apprehended.
“In addition, the government extended [Zambada Niebla and the leadership of the Sinaloa organization] immunity for [their] activities on behalf of the Cartel as a result of his cooperation. [As a result,] information related to the government’s use of sources, the methods implemented to combat international drug conspiracies, and inter-governmental cooperation regarding those efforts inevitably raises national security issues.”
In this case, Zambada Niebla seems to have some history on his side that shows there is precedent for US law enforcement and intelligence agencies making use of an intermediary (the role allegedly played by Loya Castro) to negotiate quid-pro-quo deals with foreign narco-traffickers.
Baruch Vega is a colorful Colombian who has worked as an asset for the FBI, DEA and CIA, among other agencies, over the years.
Vega was very involved with a series of U.S. law enforcement operations carried out by the DEA and FBI between 1997 and 2000. Those operations, Vega claims, involved serving as an intermediary in brokering deals with Colombian narco-traffickers by offering them the bait of U.S.-government sanctioned sweetheart plea deals in return for their surrender or cooperation.
The following is from a lawsuit Vega filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in which he alleges the government failed to pay him for his high-risk services, to the tune of some $28.5 million:
Once Mr. Vega introduced … American lawyers to the Colombian targets [the narco-traffickers], the lawyers would then get retained and then take over as legal representatives for the Colombian targets and further deal with a group of United States law enforcement agents and prosecutors, hand-picked to work out deals for the Colombian targets. A particular United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida became the coordinator of this “recruiting effort.”
According to Vega, who has spoken with Narco News numerous times over the past several years, between late 1997 and 2000, he traveled between South Florida and South America via a private jet for a total of some 25 to 30 confidential-source “recruiting” trips — some with FBI agents on board, some with DEA agents on board, and some transporting Colombian narco-traffickers who were being brought back to the United States to negotiate deals.
Vega adds that the FBI and DEA were each running their own separate operations at the time, so the FBI also was involved in some of the confidential source recruiting trips to South America as well, and he says the Bureau “even paid for the [leased] plane a few times.”
Narco News obtained an internal DEA PowerPoint presentation outlining one variation of Vega’s narco-trafficker recruiting scheme, which played out in the late 1980s but, according to law enforcement sources, was likely still in use as late as 2000. The DEA PowerPoint described the operation, called Gambit, as follows:
In an effort to gather intelligence in 1987, a FBI Special Agent was introduced as a corrupt FBI agent to Colombian Cartel traffickers by FBI confidential source Baruch Vega. The intent was to convince Cartel leadership that the “corrupt” agent could effect the early release of key Cartel members [light sentences] who would be incarcerated in the U.S.
Vega was allowed by FBI agents to keep “corruption scheme” fees that were collected from the traffickers. An important feature of this operation was that Vega’s expenses were funded by the traffickers, which defrayed the FBI’s investigative expenses. According to Vega, the element of substantial bribes enhanced the credibility of the “corruption scheme.”
A judge’s ruling in another legal case that is related to Vega’s lawsuit also confirms his role as a foreign counterintelligence source involved in high-level deal-making with narco-traffickers on behalf of multiple US agencies. It describes the CIA’s involvement in one flight in 1999 that departed from Panama for Florida that involved Vega, federal agents and an indicted, fugitive Colombian narco-trafficker:
Indeed, the appellant [a DEA supervisor] used the CIA to bring [Colombian narco-trafficker] Mr. Cristancho to the chartered aircraft surreptitiously, without going through Panamanian airport security or customs. … And, an Assistant U.S. Attorney and various DEA agents … were at the Fort Lauderdale airport to greet the plane.
… Both the DEA and FBI used Vega as a confidential source. The FBI specified that Vega would be a "non-testifier.” That is, he would never be used to testify in criminal trials. This status was necessary because Vega was called a “FCI-CI” or Foreign Counterintelligence Service Confidential Informant, who had been brought in by the CIA. As the appellant [a DEA supervisor] put it, “I'm having my agents cut him out every chance they can. I don't want him documented. I don't want him in our Case File any more than we have to."
The trips to Panama at issue here were confidential source recruiting trips. The plan was for Mr. Vega to “introduce” [a DEA agent working under the DEA supervisor] to drug traffickers and then to get out of there, so he would be in no position to have to testify regarding what conversations, if any, took place.
Vega’s lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims was ultimately dismissed on a technicality, with the judge ruling that the statute he invoked in his case “does not authorize compensation for information provided to the DEA or FBI concerning the drug or narcotics investigation alleged in the complaint.”
Still, it seems clear that Vega’s participation in the Colombian operations, essentially a government-sanction extortion scheme, is evidence that the US agencies have cut deals with narco-traffickers in the past similar to the pact Zambada Niebla now alleges exists between the US government and Sinaloa “Cartel” leadership.
Fast and Furious
But Vega’s extortion scheme is not the only point of nexus between Zambada Niebla’s claims and other government operations.
Zamada Niebla’s case also intersects with the recently imploded ATF operation dubbed Fast and Furious — in which the federal agency is accused of allowing gun-traffickers, primarily associated with the Sinaloa criminal organization, to smuggle some 2,000 high-power weapons into Mexico unimpeded. Multiple law enforcers who spoke with Narco News says there is no sane, what’s more justifiable, law-enforcement purpose for allowing thousands of deadly illegally-purchased weapons to freely move across the border into Mexico where they can no longer be tracked by US agents.
Zambada Niebla, who has been incarcerated in Chicago’s Metropolitan Correctional Center since being extradited from Mexico in February 2010, raises the Fast and Furious debacle in his court pleadings, arguing, essentially, that the operation is proof of the US government’s cooperation deal with the Sinaloa “Cartel” leadership.
As a result of Operation Fast and Furious, Zambada Niebla's pleadings assert, about “three thousand people” in Mexico were killed, “including law enforcement officers in the sate of Sinaloa, Mexico, headquarters of the Sinaloa Cartel.”
Among those receiving weapons through the botched ATF operation, the pleadings continue, were DEA and FBI informants working for drug organizations, including the leadership of those groups.
“The evidence seems to indicate that the Justice Department not only allowed criminals to smuggle weapons, but that tax payers’ dollars in the form of informant payments, may have financed those engaging in such activities,” the pleadings allege. “… It is clear that some of the weapons were deliberately allowed by the FBI and other government representatives to end up in the hands of the Sinaloa Cartel and that among the people killed by those weapons were law enforcement officers.
“… Mr. Zambada Niebla believes that the documentation that he requests [from the US government] will confirm that the weapons received by Sinaloa Cartel members and its leaders in Operation ‘Fast & Furious’ were provided under the agreement entered into between the United States government and [Sinaloa organization lawyer] Mr. Loya Castro on behalf of the Sinaloa Cartel….”
Earlier this week, information surfaced as part of an ongoing Congressional probe into Fast and Furious that indicates agents with the FBI’s Las Cruces, NM, office and with DEA’s office in Juarez, Mexico, were aware that an individual, now an FBI informant, was actually financing the purchase of many of the Fast and Furious weapons allowed to “walk,” or move freely, into Mexico by the ATF. However, those FBI and DEA agents, and their supervisors, allegedly failed to inform ATF of the informant’s role in the gun purchases – many of which involved the Sinaloa “Cartel.”
From a Sept. 27 letter drafted by U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa and U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley and directed to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.:
The main target of Operation Fast and Furious from its inception … was Manuel Celis-Acosta.
… FBI personnel in its Las Cruces, New Mexico, office apparently knew that the subject of a separate DEA investigation was ordering weapons from Acosta in January 2010. Yet around the same time, the subject of that [DEA] investigation received more than $3,500 in official law enforcement funds as payment for illegal narcotics. That subject – apparently the financier for Acosta’s firearms trafficking ring – later began cooperating with the FBI and may have received additional payments as a confidential informant (CI#1).
… According to confidential sources, over a two-year period CI#1 had contacted several DEA agents, including Juarez, Mexico Resident Agent in Charge Jim Roberts, and passed information to these agents about Mexican drug cartels. If the information we have obtained is accurate, DEA had knowledge of CI#1’s activities going back to at least early 2009 [some six months before the launch of Fast and Furious]. … [Due to] the apparent failure to share information about the source (CI#1), ATF was allegedly unaware that DEA and FBI knew CI#1 was ordering weapons from Acosta, the target of Operation Fast and Furious.
This failure to share vital information may have extended the use of gun walking [allowing weapons to flow into Mexico, resulting in as yet not tallied bloodshed] during Operation Fast and Furious, which sought to identify the higher-ups, like CI#1, who were paying for the weapons.…”
It is important to note again that most of the weapons allowed to cross from the US unimpeded into Mexico by ATF’s Fast and Furious were going to the Sinaloa "Cartel," according to a report issued in July by Issa and Grassley.
So, given Zambada Niebla's claim ithat “some of the [Fast and Furious] weapons were deliberately allowed by the FBI and other government representatives to end up in the hands of the Sinaloa "Cartel,” it seems his attorneys may want to pose some serious questions to witnesses suspected of having knowledge of that alleged act, including DEA’s Roberts, as well as the special agent in charge of the FBI’s New Mexico operations, Carol K.O. Lee and the U.S. Attorney for New Mexico, Kenneth J. Gonzales.
Such a prospect can’t be very uplifting for the prosecution in Zambada Niebla’s case and might explain, in part, why there is an effort afoot by the US law-enforcement and intelligence officials to cloak the revelations, the evidence, that might surface in the case under the seal of national security.
The future of the for-profit prohibition industry and the drug-war pretense that props it up could well depend on assuring that the public remains in the dark.
Narco News past coverage of the Zambada Niebla case can be found at these links: