Zambada Niebla’s Plea Deal, Chapo Guzman’s Capture May Be Key To An Unfolding Mexican Purge

History and Court Pleadings Help To Connect The Dots Mainstream Media Is Missing

Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla, the son of a powerful co-founder of Mexico’s Sinaloa narco-trafficking organization, has agreed to tell the US government everything he knows about his alleged partners in crime, their operations and enablers, US authorities announced earlier this week.

The details of his cooperation are spelled out in a recent plea deal signed by Zambada Niebla, himself considered a key figure in the Sinaloa organization run by his father Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and the recently capture Joaquin Guzman Loera (aka Chapo Guzman).

The plea agreement, which can be read in its entirety at this link, rewards Zambada Niebla for his cooperation by reducing a potential life prison sentence to as little as 10 years (including time served he could be out in roughly five years) and by offering protection for his family members. However, the US government will only honor the deal if it deems Zambada Niebla is truthful and helpful in providing evidence that advances investigations and cases against the Sinaloa organization and its leadership.

The mainstream media has jumped all over this latest development in the Zambada Niebla criminal case — litigation that Narco News explored in-depth and exclusively as part of a 10-story package published some three years ago, long before US media credited a Mexican publication with breaking the same story this past January.

But the commercial media coverage of the Zambada Niebla plea pact, influenced by a need to generate online page clicks and revenue, with few exceptions, excludes critical context, and frankly, common-sense analysis.

So, in an effort to correct the distortions served up by the commercial media in their coverage of the case, Narco News will make an attempt here to put a few critical elements in focus.

Chapo’s Fall

The first of these elements is the need to consider the allegations raised by Zambada Niebla (and proven as factual in the court pleadings) concerning the relationship between the US government and the Sinaloa organization leadership — in particular El Mayo and Chapo Guzman — who was captured in late February without a shot being fired as part of an “arranged” arrest, according to a former drug agent who still has deep contacts in Mexico.

“Chapo [Guzman] was protected by Mexican federal agents and military, by the Mexican government,” claims retired US special agent Hector Berrellez, who previously served as DEA’s chief investigator in Mexico and played a lead role in tracking down slain DEA agent Kiki Camarena’s murderers. “He was making [Mexican President Enrique] Peña Nieto look bad, and so the government decided to withdraw his security detail. Chapo was told he could either surrender, or he would be killed.”

In terms of context, it is important to point out that among the admissions Zambada Niebla made as part of his plea deal is that he “participated … in the paying of bribes to Mexican law enforcement to promote the Sinaloa narcotics trafficking business.”

“On multiple occasions,” the plea pleadings state, “(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.”

So, it doesn’t take much more than common sense to conclude that Zambada Niebla provided the names of all those officials to US prosecutors as part of his cooperation, thereby exposing the entire Sinaloa payola infrastructure, including those within the Mexican government being paid off to provide protection to Chapo Guzman. And in the real world, the way it works, is that once those people are exposed to the light of day, they are compromised and can no longer conduct business as usual. They become pawns of higher powers, who now have leverage over them.

Berrellez’ contention, then, that Chapo Guzman’s security detail was “withdrawn,” by the Mexican government, now led by PRI Party leader President Enrique Peña Nieto, doesn’t sound so absurd in the context of this network of Sinaloa government operatives being exposed.  

If the corrupt Mexican officials outed by Zambada Niebla worked for Peña Nieto’s administration, or were part of opposition (or some combination of both, as is more likely) it is quite plausible that the US government could use that information to exert enough backroom political pressure in Mexico to shut down Chapo Guzman’s protection network. That would leave the Sinaloa’s chief capo with few options other than to go on the run, hiding out like a rat in a hole, or to cut the best deal he could with Peña Nieto’s regime and surrender — hoping for a change in the political tide down the road.

For those who might find such a fate improbable for a powerful crime boss like Chapo Guzman, take note that a similar scenario previously played out in the 1990s with another powerful mob capo, Whitey Bulger.

Bulger, who headed Boston’s Winter Hill Gang while also working as an FBI informant, had allegedly dirtied up more than a dozen FBI agents and even more local police officers at the height of his reign as a crime boss.

Bulger disappeared in 1995, eluding service of a pending arrest warrant that stemmed from an investigation by a DEA task force — which purposely excluded the FBI because the agency’s corrupt involvement with Bulger had come to light by that time.

However, even the exclusion of the FBI wasn’t enough, since Bulger was still tipped off by a crooked FBI agent that he was about to be arrested. Bulger chose to flee, but was finally captured in 2011, after being on the lam for some 16 years — a fate Chapo Guzman appears to have avoided.

Peeling Back the Onion

But there is yet another layer to the intrigue to Zambada Niebla’s story that the US commercial media has ignored, and that revolves around Zambada Niebla's allegations, made in court pleadings, concerning a Mexican attorney named Humberto Loya Castro —who is described in US legal documents as “a close confidante of Joaquin Guzman Loera (Chapo)."

Loya Castro’s name surfaces in legal pleadings filed in US federal court in Chicago by Zambada Niebla — whose journey through the wasteland of US justice began when he was arrested by Mexican soldiers in Mexico City in March 2009 immediately after meeting with DEA agents at a hotel. He was later extradited, in February 2010, to the United States to stand trial on narco-trafficking-related charges.

Zambada Niebla claims in his legal pleadings that “sometime prior to 2004 [actually beginning in 1998], and continuing through the time period covered in the [current] indictment [against him], the United States government entered into an agreement with Loya [Castro] and the leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel, including [El] Mayo and Chapo [Guzman].”

“Under that agreement, the Sinaloa Cartel, through Loya [Castro], was to provide information accumulated by Mayo, Chapo, and others, against rival Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations to the United States government,” Zambada Niebla alleges in his court pleadings. “In return, the United States government agreed to dismiss the prosecution of the pending case against Loya [Castro], not to interfere with his drug trafficking activities and those of the Sinaloa Cartel, to not actively prosecute him, Chapo, Mayo, and the leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel, and to not apprehend them.”

The stunning allegations, published first by Narco News, prompted the US government to play the national-security card in Zambada Niebla’s case. US government prosecutors succeeded in getting the judge in the case to invoke the Classified Information Procedures Act (CIPA).

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. 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 defendant's right to a fair trial.

“That is a very reasonable conclusion [that the CIA is likely involved in this case in some way],” a former federal agent familiar with national security procedures told Narco News. “Seeking CIPA protection, yup, there is hot stuff to hide.”

US government pleadings filed in Zambada Niebla’s case confirm that Loya Castro was a DEA cooperating source for some 10 years while also working for the Sinaloa organization. It is clear from the US government’s court filings that Loya Castro’s dealing with the US government also were known to the leadership of the Sinaloa organization, including Chapo Guzman and Ismael Zambada, given that Loya Castro actually met with Zambada Niebla’s attorneys in Mexico City, with the knowledge of his father, Ismael, sometime in 2010.

The purpose of that meeting, in part, was to discuss the nature of Loya Castro’s cooperation with the US government as part of an effort to develop a legal strategy for Zambada Niebla’s US criminal case.

Narco News’ law enforcement sources contend that given his importance as a foreign intelligence source, Loya Castro likely was also employed in a dual role as a CIA asset.

As a result of Zambada Niebla’s plea deal — signed in April 2013 but only made public earlier this week — any chance of the full extent of the US government’s complicity with the Sinaloa organization’s leadership ever becoming public via a trial is now deep sixed.

And for those who doubt that there is any chance that individuals like Loya Castro, or even Chapo Guzman, might have been employed as CIA assets, while at the same time getting favorable treatment from the DEA for being informants, then a little history lesson is in order, because that is precisely the role Manuel Noriega, former military leader of Panama, played for the CIA and DEA in the 1980s, prior to falling from grace and being arrested in the wake of the US military invasion of Panama in 1989.

The Noriega Connection

In 1987, then-DEA administrator Jack Lawn penned a letter to Noriega that stated, in part: “The DEA has long welcomed our close association and we stand ready to proceed jointly against international drug traffickers whenever the opportunity arises.” In early 1988, after Noriega’s indictment in the US, Congress and Justice Department officials accused DEA of giving the Panamanian dictator a free pass on his narco-trafficking activities while using him to help make cases against other narco-traffickers, charges reported in the New York Times at the time.

A July 1999 appeals-court ruling in the Noriega criminal case also reveals that the CIA had an intimate relationship with the Panamanian dictator. However, the appeals-court ruling let stand the trial court’s decision to conceal the nature of that relationship. CIPA also was invoked in Noriega’s trial by the way — seemingly a national-security cloak that has long been used successfully to conceal reality from the American people, with little regard to accountability on the part of those invoking it.

From the appellate court ruling:

The government objected to any disclosure of the purposes for which the United States had paid Noriega. In pre-trial proceedings, the government offered to stipulate that Noriega had received approximately $320,000 from the United States Army and the Central Intelligence Agency. Noriega insisted that the actual figure approached $10,000,000, and that he should be allowed to disclose the tasks he had performed for the United States.

The district court held that information about the content of the discrete operations in which Noriega had engaged in exchange for the alleged payments was irrelevant to his defense.

But one Narco News source who is a former CIA asset, identified as such in public court records, is quite familiar with the nature of the relationship between Noriega and US intelligence agencies.

Baruch Vega, a Colombian who has worked as an asset for the FBI, DEA and CIA, among other agencies, over the years, 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.

Vega, in the early 1980s, says he met personally with Noriega at a police station in Panama City — a gathering that also included an American CIA officer — to help arrange a drug deal on behalf of two Colombian narco-traffickers who wanted to take advantage of Noriega’s unique role as a US-government sanctioned drug trafficker. At the time, Vega says he was attempting to gather intelligence for a DEA operation, which was later shut down because, as Vega explains, it began to rub up against CIA’s then-clandestine relationship with Noriega.

Vega contends that the CIA needed to work through a credible intermediary in Latin America in order to run drugs and weapons in support of the US-backed Contras' war against the Nicaraguan government at that time — a covert drugs-for-weapons operation later exposed by Gary Webb's Dark Alliance series and others as part of the Iran/Contra scandal.

Noriega was that middleman, Vega says, and he had contacts with all the major narco-traffickers in the region. Vega says narco-traffickers flocked to Noriega to take advantage of his special status with the US government.

“The US government (covertly through the CIA) had authorized Noriega to coordinate narco-trafficking operations to benefit the war effort [the Contra assault on the Nicaraguan Sandinista government], but Noriega was reporting only a small portion of the business he was doing with narco-traffickers to his US handlers,” Vega says, stressing that Noriega eventually ran afoul of the CIA and US government for that reason and others — including his propensity for murder.

“I went to Colombia during that period [1983] to provide $500,000 to Noriega on behalf of some Colombian narco-traffickers [who wanted to run a load of cocaine through Central America and into the US]. All the narco-traffickers wanted to deal with Noriega [because he could guarantee the drug loads would be delivered without interference from US authorities, or even with their assistance], and he required a $500,000 advance to put a deal in motion.”

Eventually, Noriega, due to his greed and treachery, bit the hand of his master, the CIA, one too many times, and he was deemed a liability to US operations in the region. However, by that point, it required a small war to remove him from power, a scenario US intelligence agencies likely want to assure never plays out again.

The Purge

So there is a lesson to be learned from history, and Noriega, that applies to the Sinaloa organization’s leadership and their alleged quid-pro-quo pact with the US government — a lesson seemingly overlooked even by mainstream media organizations that most readers assume take a critical stance toward the US government’s drug war.

Recently, a story in The Nation put forth the following claim:

His [Chapo Guzman’s] uncanny ability to slip out of the noose, along with other indications, led to a commonly held belief in Mexico that the US and Mexican governments were favoring the giant Sinaloa cartel as they killed and arrested high-level members of rival cartels. El Chapo’s arrest knocks a hole in the theory…. [Emphasis added.]

If the conclusion drawn by The Nation writer is correct — that Chapo’s arrest helps to prove he was not favored by or an asset of the US government — then how do we explain what happened to Noriega, a longtime CIA asset accused of assisting the US government in perpetuating the drug trade to advance covert intelligence-agency objectives but who was eventually arrested and imprisoned by that same US government?

In fact, Noriega’s relationship with the US government, as described by Vega, appears to be quite similar to the arrangement that allegedly existed between US agents and the leadership of the Sinaloa organization — as outlined in Zambada Niebla’s court pleadings.

So, if we accept that reality, then Guzman’s arrest disproves nothing with respect to the complicity of US covert operatives with the Sinaloa narco-trafficking organization.

If anything, US prosecutors’ success in getting Zambada Niebla to disclose the identities of the high-level Mexican officials who have helped to prop up the Sinaloa “Cartel” not only compromised the mafia organization, including Chapo Guzman, but also US intelligence operations as well — yet another reason for invoking national security in Zambada Niebla’s case, to help contain the damage.

The case of a deep undercover FBI agent tells us why.

Starting in the mid-1980s, FBI agent Lok Lau went undercover for some six years, during which he managed to penetrate China’s intelligence service by working through the back door of the criminal economy. Lau was so successful in gaining the confidence of his targets that he eventually traveled to China, posing as a “businessman,” to carry out counterintelligence in that country.

Lau’s mission appears to have been sanctioned by Executive Order 12333, which was signed by President Reagan in the early 1980s. The executive order authorizes the FBI to “conduct counterintelligence activities outside the United States in coordination with the CIA.” That means, in the case of Lau, the FBI was likely conducting an overseas covert counterintelligence operation with CIA’s help.

Journalism bigfoot Gary Webb, in an investigative article he wrote for the Asia Times in 2003, about a year before his untimely death, provides the following insight into Lau’s covert mission:

Asked why he thinks the FBI wants to keep his highly lauded achievements secret after so many years, Lau replied that in the world of counterintelligence, there is often no such thing as “too“ long ago. "Counterintelligence work takes time to produce results. It is like wine sometimes. The longer it ages,” he said, “the more valuable it becomes.” Sometimes, Lau suggested, double agents recruited at a young age eventually end up as influential policymakers or military officials.

Lau told Narco News, which covered Lau’s story in-depth as well, that if the U.S. Government were really serious about eradicating the drug trade, “they would have done it. But they do not really want to.”

“Let’s say the DEA was successful in eradicating all drug trafficking,” Lau adds. “What would be left to prop up pro-U.S. regimes that rely on the drug trade? … The CIA can use the proceeds of the drug trade to pay for armies to support a friendly government.”

Lau also says a lot of careers in the intelligence community have been built around human assets who have been planted within the ranks of the narco-trafficking organizations. If you take down the drug trade, you take down the very assets that are helping to make careers — and at times, corrupt fortunes — within the intelligence community, Lau points out.

In the case of Zambada Niebla’s plea deal, again, if the infrastructure within the Mexican government (and business community) that corruptly props up and enables the narco-trafficking organization’s business to be carried out day in and day out is suddenly compromised by being exposed, as likely is the case due to Zambada Niebla’s revelations to US prosecutors, then the individuals that comprise that corrupt network are rendered useless and subject to extreme pressure from their enemies — including threats of imprisonment or death, personally and for family members.

Given, as Lau explains, that it is that very criminal infrastructure that is targeted by the CIA and other US intelligence agencies for penetration, in order to cultivate intelligence assets, then any existing network of CIA assets embedded within the Sinaloa organization’s infrastructure would be compromised, rendered useless, once exposed or compromised — as Zambada Niebla’s cooperation with US prosecutors appears to have accomplished.

In fact, all evidence of the existence of such a network of covert assets, especially if it was operating illegally, skirting US and Mexican law, would likely have to be destroyed or otherwise covered up — particularly if it was discovered by competing agencies or honest law enforcers and prosecutors — to assure the sponsoring US government agencies and officials are not exposed themselves.

If such a purge were being carried out by the US intelligence officials, along with the Mexican government (albeit for differing reasons), it would leave the Sinaloa organization’s existing leadership in a very vulnerable position. In that scenario, not only would they lose control of their collapsing network of corrupt public- and private-sector officials within Mexico, but also any external support and protection from US intelligence agencies as well.

And this scenario should not be dismissed out of hand as being improbable, given it is premised on revelations in Zambada Niebla’s court pleadings as well as on the facts of history — unfortunately both of which have been ignored, for the most part, by the mainstream media, with the effect of assuring the public lacks the context to render its own judgment.

But, with this bigger picture now painted for you, kind readers, and if you accept that this is how things really work behind the curtain of the drug war, or will at least consider the possibility that these forces play an important role, then a lot of pieces start to fall into place with respect to what is now playing out in Mexico — and what is to come.

Stay tuned…. 

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