Here is an excerpt from Diana Washington Valdez's article in The El Paso Times:
"U.S. federal agents allegedly allowed the Sinaloa drug cartel to traffic several tons of cocaine into the United States in exchange for information about rival cartels, according to court documents filed in a U.S. federal court. The allegations are part of the defense of Vicente Zambada-Niebla, who was extradited to the United States to face drug-trafficking charges in Chicago. He is also a top lieutenant of drug kingpin Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman and the son of Ismael "Mayo" Zambada-Garcia, believed to be the brains behind the Sinaloa cartel... Zambada-Niebla claims he was permitted to smuggle drugs from 2004 until his arrest in 2009... According to the court documents, Mexican lawyer Humberto Loya-Castro, another high-level Sinaloa cartel leader, had his 1995 U.S. drug-trafficking case dismissed in 2008 after serving as an informant for 10 years for the U.S. government. Guzman and the Zambadas allegedly provided agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement with information about other Mexican drug traffickers through Loya-Castro... The court documents also allege that the U.S. government is using a 'divide and conquer' strategy, 'using one drug organization to help against others.'" Link to Full Article
Analysis: This case is both interesting and strange. One of the interesting parts is the bait-and-switch the DEA pulled on Zambada-Niebla, making him think he was being sourced and then arresting him five hours later. If their intent was to get more information from him about rival cartels, maybe the DEA felt they'd have a better chance doing so by extraditing him and threatening him with decades of solitary confinement. Or perhaps enough cocaine had been allowed across the border through the arrangement with Loya-Castro, and the DEA had to wrap things up. We'll probably never know.
The divide-and-conquer strategy actually makes a lot of sense, and I've written before that Calderón may be secretly pursuing one - go after and dismantle the smaller guys so that they're left with only one or two big fish to deal with. Now, this relationship with Zambada-Niebla and Loya-Castro goes back before Calderón's administration, so we can't say the DEA was trying to follow a parallel strategy. However, the alleged arrangement with Zambada-Niebla started at the same time the drug war truly began to heat up - in 2004, when Nuevo Laredo was on fire and Los Zetas were starting to tear things up.
Ms. Valdez says this case could be a bombshell on par with the ATF Fast & Furious scandal. I can certainly see why she believes that. The report doesn't say exactly what volume of drugs Zambada-Niebla was permitted to smuggle across the border, but considering who he was working for, and the fact he was doing it for five years, it probably wasn't just a few baggies here and there.
Here's the other problem I have with this. Just how good was the information he was providing? The biggest catches in the drug war have occurred in the last 18 months, and Zambada-Niebla was arrested in 2009. Were any of those arrests - mostly VIPs in TCOs who were rivals to the Federation - linked to information provided by Zambada-Niebla either during his time as an informant, or while in custody after his arrest? That information would be helpful, but unlikely to be publicized. Given how the drug war has worsened and drug trafficking volume has not lessened significantly since 2004, did it really take five years for the DEA to realize that their arrangement wasn't working too well?
Again, I understand the likely intention. Zambada-Niebla and Loya-Castro were high up enough in the Federation food chain to be able to provide good intelligence. It was both in their and the DEA's interests (not to mention the Mexican government's) to take down Federation rivals. Speaking of the Mexican government, I haven't seen much about their thoughts - or knowledge of - this arrangement. Regardless, how many American lives were affected by the illegal drugs that were allowed to enter as a result of this operation? Maybe it doesn't really matter. Remember this: drug users hurt themselves voluntarily, so if they didn't buy their drugs from a Zambada-Niebla shipment facilitated by the DEA, they would have gotten them elsewhere.
Bottom line, it doesn't look like the DEA got their money or time's worth in that arrangement. And now Zambada-Niebla is squealing like a pig to anyone who'll listen, probably in an attempt to either get his case thrown out, get returned to Mexico for trial, or get a reduced sentence. I've always said these guys aren't stupid - far from it - and Zambada-Niebla's tactics are a prime example of that.
UPDATE: I wanted to share this snippet of conversation I had with a colleague via email this morning. He (who shall remain nameless, but he's VERY good at what he does) has great contacts, and isn't buying Zambada-Niebla's story...or his lawyer's story, anyway. Here's what my colleague had to say:
"The folks I've spoken to say [Zambada-Niebla's story] is BS, and I tend to believe them. The claims made are pretty wild, and not really consistent with how [confidential informants] (CIs) are normally worked. I know that DEA agents can sometimes be cowboys, but I worked a number of joint investigations with them and these claims seem over the top based on my experience. I can see making the offer to make him a CI used as a ruse to interview him and arrest him, but no way they let dope flow for that long."
I find his point of view to be realistic, and I trust his assessments. Let's see in the next few weeks if this angle that Zambada-Niebla's lawyer is going for manages to pay any dividends.