Tuesday, October 25, 2011

US Infiltrates Mexico's Cartels, Amid Worries Over Sovereignty


The New York Times reports on U.S. infiltration of Mexican drug cartels, saying that Washington’s network of informants in the country has grown significantly in recent years. These agents have been involved in two dozen killings or captures of high-level cartel bosses, according to the report, but their presence remains a sensitive issue for the Mexican authorities:
Typically, the officials said, Mexico is kept in the dark about the United States’ contacts with its most secret informants — including Mexican law enforcement officers, elected officials and cartel operatives — partly because of concerns about corruption among the Mexican police, and partly because of laws prohibiting American security forces from operating on Mexican soil.
This ties in to Mexican worries about sovereignty -- in a country where many are highly wary of domination by their powerful neighbor, U.S. agents are not allowed to carry guns when they are working over the border. This policy was blamed by some for the death of Immigration and Customs agent Jaime Zapata, who was shot dead, apparently by members of the Zetas drug gang, in February, in circumstances that remain unclear. The NYT report credits informant networks for helping to track down some of those involved in Zapata’s death. 

The level of tensions over U.S. presence in Mexico were laid out by reactions after the Mexico Attorney General’s Office said in April that some 500 U.S. agents were active in the country, something El Diario de El Paso described as a “virtual invasion.” Meanwhile Mexico’s Security Minister Genaro Garcia Luna recently tried to downplayU.S. presence in the country, arguing that DEA agents are not authorized to carry out independent operations. "We only exchange information, there is no independent operation," he told a Mexican House of Representatives hearing.

New attention has been called to the role of these informants following recent revelations about the alleged plot by Iranian agents to pay members of the Mexican cartel to murder the Saudi ambassador in Washington. According to U.S. accounts of the affair, the Iranians made contact with an individual with high-level contacts with the Zetas, who happened to also be a U.S. informant.

The newspaper highlights some of the ethical issues around using these informants, who are often involved in the drug business themselves. It notes the case of Jesus Zambada Niebla, alias "Vicentillo," a Sinaloa Cartel operative, currently in a U.S. jail awaiting trial, who claims that he trafficked drugs with the knowledge of U.S. agents to whom he gave information about rival traffickers.

As the NYT points out;
Few informants, law enforcement officials say, decide to start providing information to the government out of altruism; typically, they are caught committing a crime and want to mitigate their legal troubles, or are essentially taking bribes to inform on their colleagues.

News Briefs

  • Alma Guillermoprieto has a piece on El Salvador’s gangs in the latest issue of the  New York Review of Books. She discusses the growth of the bands known as “maras,” which she links to the end of the country’s long civil war, when “what used to be a furious open conflict gave way to an ever- growing, pervasive sense of menace.”
  • The Wall Street Journal follows up on the re-election victory of Argentina President Cristina Kirchner on Sunday, warning that the winner will have little time to celebrate “before she faces pressure to start maneuvering to avoid becoming a lame duck.” She is blocked by the constitution from a third consecutive term in power, and can no longer rely on husband Nestor, who died last year, to alternate terms with her. In order to stay relevant and avoid the lame duck label, Kirchner will need to groom a successor or feed rumors that she plans to change the constitution to allow her to stay in office, the newspaper points out. One analyst consulted by the WSJ points to charismatic Vice President Amado Boudou, described by the Associated Press as a “hoodie-wearing, Harley-riding rock ‘n roll guitarist,” as a potential heir to the president.
  • Two members of Colombia’s FARC rebel group have been sentenced to 10 and 15 year prison terms by a New York court for the kidnapping of a U.S. citizen in Panama in 2008, reports the NYT. An interesting aspect of the case is the defendants’ assertion that they had themselves been kidnapped by the guerrillas as children, and forced to become part of the organization. The judge said that, while he believed their claim, the men had still taken part in the rebel group’s activities as adults. The ruling highlights a problem for the courts and for the Colombian Armed Forces in dealing with members of the FARC, and similar guerrilla groups, many of whose members are recruited as minors as young as 8 years old, and who may face execution if they try to desert.
  • Mary Anastasia O’Grady at the Wall Street Journal looks at unanswered questions around the death of Cuban dissident Laura Pollan, leader of the Ladies in White movement, who died earlier this month. O’Grady, a strong critic of the Castro regime, says that the Cuban opposition has suspicions about the event following incongruities in reports of the cause of death, and cites the fact that Pollan’s sickbed was surrounded by state agents who denied family visits for some time, and that her body was cremated only two hours after she passed away. The columnist also cites reports that the Ladies in White protesters had had their skin pricked with needles by government agents, warning that the Cuban government “learned its trade from communist Eastern Europe, where the practice of eliminating enemies while in state custody was refined.”
  • Venezuela’s government has denied persecuting Doctor Salvador Navarrete, a doctor who made claims in the media that President Hugo Chavez only has two years left to live. Navarrete left the country for Spain five days after his statements were published, and issued a public statement saying he had been forced out by government pressure. Venezuela’s health minister rather plausibly argued that the doctor’s departure had been planned for some time, saying that the whole affair was a “media performance,” and that Navarrete “wanted to go to Spain as the hero against Chavez.” The minister also claimed that Navarrete had never been Chavez’s doctor.
  • In more news from Venezuela, a group of inmates have released most of the more than 50 prison workers they had been holding hostage since October 14, leaving a group of only 12 still in captivity. The releases came after the authorities agreed to move some 30 prisoners to other prisons, as the inmate leaders had demanded, reports the Associated Press. The stand-off was sparked by the transfer of a gang boss, who is campaigning to be moved back to his old prison, and is only the latest symptom of the chaos in the country’s direly overcrowded penal system, which has become a huge embarrassment for the Chavez government.
  • Two women have been sentenced to long jail terms in Guatemala after being convicted for taking part in the 2006 kidnapping of a baby girl who was trafficked to the U.S. for adoption in 2008. Prosecutor Lorena Maldonado expressed her satisfaction at the sentencing, saying it would help the birth mother in the fight to recover her child, stating that “there is a criminal structure in Guatemala that steals children.” A Guatemalan court has ordered that the girl be returned to her birth family, though its not clear that this would be legally binding on the Kansas City-based adoptive parents. They told CBSthey had thought the adoption was legal, and were trying to decide the best way to move forward with the case. The Associated Press reports that the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala has found “grave irregularities” in 100 adoption cases of 3,000 reviewed.
  • report in the WSJ looks at the high number of arrests of undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America who are detained by agents close to the U.S.’s northern border. Experts consulted by the newspaper said that these individuals would not have crossed over from Canada, and suggested rather that border agents may be overstepping their remit, and asking for proof of immigration status even from those who are not trying to cross the U.S.-Canada border, but are merely traveling nearby.
  • Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, has a piece in the Huffington Post about today’s UN General Assembly vote in which member states are expected to condemn the U.S.’s economic embargo on Cuba. Stephens points out that the resolution, the 20th such annual move by the UN, will likely be ignored in the U.S., arguing that few voices in the government is asking questions about the effectiveness of the “indefensible” sanctions.