In mid-April I received a call out of El Paso, Texas, from a doctor who urgently wished to speak with me as a journalist. “I am the person who handed over El Chapo Guzmán,” the voice on the line said.
After hearing the man’s hook, he had my full attention. To protect the doctor’s identity, I will refer to him as Scalpel. He contacted me to explain that even though he had been welcomed by federal US authorities as a confidential informant — for having revealed information that lead to the capture of drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias El Chapo, and his lieutenant — his wife was now about to be deported to Mexico.
Since the Mexican authorities arrested El Chapo on February 22, I have received calls, messages, and emails from people who have helped me understand some of the motives and processes that led to the end of El Chapo’s empire. But Scalpel offered me a surreal story.
“I have never belonged to or collaborated with the cartels,” he explained, “but my sister has been married to M-10 (Mario Núñez Meza, lieutenant of the Sinaloa Cartel in Tijuana) for the past 13 years. This is how I started to meet them, many of the members of the Sinaloa Cartel. They would look for me to heal their bullet wounds and I would tend to them at the hospital. Thank God none of them ever died on me, and I think that this is what led to me meeting El Chapo.”
'A few months ago, Emma Coronel, El Chapo’s wife, contacted me on Facebook — they are very cautious of telephones.'
His willingness to tell his whole story in detail — to reveal his real name, documents, visas, phone numbers, and the testimony of the lawyer in charge of his case — convinced me to meet him in an El Paso office.
Scalpel began by revealing his profession: he’sa surgeon. Prior to last August — when he signed an agreement with the DEA as an informant — the man in front of me worked at Guernika hospital, in Ciudad Juárez, and was known as one of best surgeons in northern Mexico.
“The Sinaloa Cartel began to recommend me as a good doctor,” he told me. “A few months ago, Emma Coronel, El Chapo’s wife, contacted me on Facebook — they are very cautious of telephones and all of that. She wanted me to go to Hermosillo [in Sonora state] to work with the cartel full-time, offering me a monthly payment of 25,000 pesos [$2,000]. I make that in one week, so I said no — thank you, but no.”
But Scalpel did not let it die there. A few days later he asked for a cellphone number so that he could contact them in case he decided to accept the offer.
“This phone number belonged to Emma Coronel, and I knew that she was always with El Chapo,” he said. “I handed the number over to the DEA here in El Paso on January 15, first via text message, then I later met with them to fill out a formal report for the exchange of information.”
Even though Scalpel did not retain copies of the information he reported to the DEA, special agent Daniel Muñoz confirmed to me that he had been in charge of Scalpel’s case while he was working as an informant.
Additionally, the text messages that the doctor showed me — as well as the documents that Carlos Spector, his lawyer, provided — confirmed his relationship with the DEA.
“On January 15, (Scalpel) delivered the first piece of information toward the capture of El Chapo. On January 22 he met with the special agents in charge… and the DEA supervisor in El Paso at the DOJ headquarters,” I read in an archived report at Spector’s office.
Exactly a month after Scalpel handed over Coronel’s phone number, Mexican marines captured El Chapo, who was considered by both US and Mexican authorities to be the world’s most powerful drug lord.
'El Chapo told me that he wanted to get back the territory that the Juárez Cartel had taken from him. That’s when I told him, "I don’t want this city to become a mess again." '
According to high-level functionaries within the US government, as quoted by the Associated Press, Mexican authorities traced a cellphone from February 16 onward until successfully tracking down El Chapo at an apartment complex in Mazatlán in Sinaloa on February 22.
Although the AP reported that this cellphone belonged to one of his employees, the proof that Scalpel has provided — along with declarations made by the Minister of Interior, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, regarding the presence of Emma Coronel during the capture — suggest an entirely different conclusion. Scalpel’s information led the authorities to El Chapo.
By the time Coronel’s phone number was handed over, Scalpel had already been collaborating with the DEA for five months.
“My sister asked me to pick up Mayito (Núnez Meza) in Chihuahua at the end of last July and asked me to bring him to Ciudad Juárez,” he explained. “As we were returning to Juarez, Mayito confessed to me that he was coming to Juarez to get the whole mess going again. He told me that he wanted to get back the territory that JL (a lieutenant of the Juárez Cartel, who according to Mexican authorities had been in charge of Ciudad Juárez) had taken from him. That’s when I told him, ‘I don’t want this city to become a mess again.’ ”
According to Scalpel, this confession, as well as Núñez Meza running him out of his own home in December 2007 so the cartel could use it as a safe house, were his reasons for turning El Chapo over to the US authorities.
In early August 2013, Scalpel called an anonymous DEA hotline in El Paso to offer information that could lead to the capture of Meza Núnez. According to his version of events, which he confirmed by showing me his stamped migration permit, the first meeting with DEA agents took place around midnight on August 18 at the Puente Libre facilities.
Scalpel told me that agents from Interpol, the FBI, and the DEA attended this meeting. “I told them that Mayito was staying at the Casa Grande Hotel,” he said. “I gave them the phone that I was carrying, and that’s how they found them — their license plate numbers and everything.”
Ten days later, on August 28, Núñez Meza was arrested by Chihuahua police agents at the Casa Grande Hotel, “thanks to information provided by a civilian and the work of intelligence agencies,” according to a press release that was published at the time.
'The money they have given me has been for survival, but in no way is it the reward that they had offered for information leading to the capture of El Chapo.'
That same day, at around 4 PM, Scalpel and four family members crossed into the US using migration form I-94 SPBP, which is given to people who are collaborating with US authorities on investigations.
According to the informant, the DEA had given them permission to cross over into Mexico once a month, and Scalpel’s wife went to Ciudad Juárez on February 20 this year to visit family members. But as she tried to re-enter El Paso six days later, border protection agents detained her for attempting to enter the country without a visa.
According to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Scalpel’s wife has been detained since then at a migrant retention center, awaiting a resolution in her case. She is currently requesting political asylum, according to the same migration center.
A DEA agent, who requested anonymity because he’s not authorized to discuss this case on record, assured me that his agency has paid Scalpel more than $50,000 over the past seven months as payment for the information he shared. Still, Scalpel is unimpressed with the treatment he has received.
“They have turned me from a protected witness into an unpaid informer,” he said. “The money they have given me has been for survival, but in no way is it the reward that they had offered for information leading to the capture of El Chapo.”
The difference between a protected witness and a confidential informant is the temporal interval involved with the information that is turned over. According to Scalpel’s lawyer, the former only reveals information once, and is eventually called into court to testify against an assumed criminal. This is why protected witnesses receive government protection, a single cash payment, and migration documents.
In the case of the latter, the informant must offer periodic information and receives payment for each bit of information revealed. These informants are typically members of the drug cartels and once they stop revealing information they are withdrawn from the program.
Scalpel said that he has learned a very valuable lesson: federal authorities like the DEA only want to squeeze you for information and then give you a big kick in the ass — right back into Mexico. They care very little about you; what they do care about is catching big fish so that they can receive their own benefits as agents.
Scalpel’s opinion might not be too far from reality. A former DEA agent, on hearing Scalpel’s story, labeled the informants as essentially “disposable.”
“If they’re revealing information to you and the DEA, they’re most likely also exchanging information with the drug traffickers,” he told me. “We cannot trust them completely, even if they’re valuable.”
'They’re just trying to shut me up, and that’s not going to happen.'
The number of informers and protected witnesses operating on both sides of the border is currently unknown. Rusty Payne, a spokesperson for the DEA in Washington, told me that he could not share this information because it is a delicate issue.
“It’s not possible to divulge, with any level of precision, just how many confidential informants the DEA uses in its routine operations and I am unaware of whether there are undocumented participants,” he said. But he added that informants “must follow very strict rules” when they choose to cooperate with the DEA.
The agency also recognized in a practical budgeting guide that is would be beneficial for foreign informants to remain inside the US for the duration of the investigation, to further assist or to act as witnesses.
Scalpel is still in El Paso with his children, awaiting approval of his wife’s status of political asylum. The last time I spoke with him he sounded enthusiastic about the prospect of this happening and told us that he had applied for a work visa.
He also told us that the DEA supervisor had somehow found out about our conversation and requested that he no longer speak with us. But Scalpel stated, “They’re just trying to shut me up, and that’s not going to happen.”
“I hope this serves as a lesson for people looking to reveal information to the DEA,” the surgeon concluded. “It’s not quite as rosy-colored as they paint it from the beginning.”
Editor's note: The personal information given by "Scalpel" is confirmed to be factual; the informant has given express permission for the publication of the events which he narrated, with the exclusion of his real name — due to privacy concerns. "Scalpel" assures us that the members of the Sinaloa Cartel, who he has reported to the DEA, are aware of his status as a government informant, and that the publication of said information does not represent an assumed foreseeable risk to his person.