The DEA May Have Botched a Mexican Cartel Case Over Slang for ‘Balls’

A misunderstanding of the slang for ‘testicles’ was just one of the errors translators made in a key case against Mexico's former defense chief.
January 21, 2021, 4:35pm
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Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Mexico's secretary of national defense, speaks during an event marking the 105th Anniversary of President Francisco Madero's March of Loyalty in Mexico City on Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. Photo: Lujan Agusti, Bloomberg via Getty Images

MEXICO CITY — Sometimes a melon is more than a melon. A ticket isn’t a ticket. And balls aren’t the ones you kick. At least in Mexican slang. 

U.S. investigators may have missed the memo. Its literal translations of intercepted messages that federal prosecutors say help prove that Mexico’s former top defense minister was on the payroll of a drug cartel are being ridiculed for being laughably off base. Other translations are nonsensical and miss key words in Spanish.

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“The translations are horrible. It makes it seem like an amateur job in every sense,” said Viveka Duncan, who worked as a court translator in Los Angeles for five years. “I would say the translators were probably second-generation Latinos or an American who had a good grasp of Spanish but as a second language. So, they wouldn't really understand these subtleties and Mexican slang.”

The translations came to light last week after Mexico cleared former Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos of the stunning allegations made by U.S. officials after the general was arrested and charged in Los Angeles in October, following an investigation led by the DEA. Not only did Mexico’s president accuse the U.S. of fabricating evidence, Mexico’s attorney general took the extraordinary step of releasing more than 700 pages of supposedly incriminating evidence handed over by U.S. prosecutors. 

The evidence-dump included dozens of pages of text messages between “Thor,” “Superman,” “Spartacus” and “Iron Man” about drug deals, rival cartel leaders, and their relationship with the “Godfather,” whom U.S. officials allege is Cienfuegos. The U.S. Justice Department lambasted Mexico for releasing the documents and said it calls into question whether it can share sensitive information going forward.

The exchanges have become Twitter fodder in Mexico, with users posting their favorite translations — or mistranslations. Some reveal a seemingly comical understanding of Spanish expressions, which are a case study in double entendres and a never-ending litany of references to sexual organs. 

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But they also raise more serious concerns: Did U.S. officials understand the Mexican slang that helped lead them to indict Cienfuegos? Did they take into account the basic grammatical errors and misspellings in the texts allegedly sent by Cienfuegos? Were the very messages that the U.S. considered damning evidence what Mexico’s U.S. attorney general saw as exonerating?

On January 8 2016, a cartel member identified as “Samantha” wrote to “Spartacus” to say “the 3 balled ones are here,” in reference to agents from the federal prosecutor’s office. “Balled ones” is a translation of “boludos,” the etymology of which has to do with a man’s testicles, and would better be interpreted as “pricks,” according to translators consulted by VICE World News. 

A few months later, Samantha wrote to Spartacus to say “I never finish paying someone who had done me a favor.” In other words, she is indebted to those who do her favors. But the translators missed the word “never.” They translated it as: “I finish paying a favor that one has done for me.” 

“If they are not well translated then of course you don’t understand the context properly,” said Duncan, who grew up in Mexico with British grandparents. “You would think they would have hired a good translator for this. It’s like ‘you can’t fuck up on this one’.”

The fallout over Cienfuegos’ arrest has led to a low-point in U.S.-Mexico relations. The Mexican government allegedly threatened to kick out the DEA if the U.S. attorney’s office insisted on pursuing charges against Cienfuegos. After successfully demanding the general be returned home, Mexico’s foreign minister said it would be “almost suicidal” not to bring the full weight of the justice system to bear in his case.

Less than two months later, Mexican officials fully exonerated Cienfuegos of charges that allege he directed military operations away from the little known H-2 cartel in exchange for cash. The decision didn’t come as a shock in Mexico — the country has a notoriously weak justice system. Still, many were surprised that officials didn’t make more of a show of investigating him.

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Some attributed the decision to the close relationship between the military and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has turned to his generals for everything from combating violence to helping distribute the coronavirus vaccine and even building a new airport.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Alejandro Gertz defended the exoneration of Cienfuegos, saying the evidence was inconsistent and questionable. Privately, top Mexican officials derided the bad translations and say the messages allegedly sent by Cienfuegos himself don’t pass the smell test: they are filled with grammatical mistakes commonly seen among uneducated Mexicans, and lack punctuation. 

“At least in the translations there aren’t grammatical errors like there are in the original,” said one high-ranking official with the foreign ministry, adding: “It appears Mexican slang is difficult to translate.” 

The DEA didn’t respond to a request for comment. The Department of Justice pointed VICE World News to its earlier statement standing by its investigation into Cienfuegos, and criticizing Mexico for releasing the evidence it had collected. “A U.S. federal grand jury analyzed that material and other evidence and concluded that criminal charges against Cienfuegos were supported by the evidence.”

Alba Males, who has been interpreting and translating for U.S. government agencies and courts since 1980, said when it comes to text messages where the context is not clear, word-for-word or literal translations work best.

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For example, “Le dí dos melones” was literally translated to “I gave him two melons.”

But in Mexico, melons, at least in this context, generally refers to millions, according to translators and everyday Mexicans consulted by VICE World News.  

“There is a difference between translation and interpretation,” Males said. “The translator works with the written word. You have to put down what it says.

“Then you get an expert to explain how ‘melons’ is used in Mexico. But a translator could not put down ‘I gave him $2 million.’”

Still, some of the translations defied meaning. "Es otro boleto el padrino," was translated to “he is another ticket that Godfather.” A more accurate interpretation would arguably be: “The Godfather is on another level.” 

But the details, it seems, of the identity of the Godfather and his relationship with the cartel, could have been lost in translation.