Catapults. "Jalapeños". Dune buggies. $1 million subs. Sophisticated drug tunnels. Firetruck-sized industrial pipeline drills. These are just a few of the ingenious ways that Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, arguably the world's largest, most powerful and technologically advanced organized crime syndicate, has tried to perfect the fine art of smuggling drugs into America. And to think, the US's premier drug enforcement arm gave the Sinaloa a pass to do so largely unhindered during the bloodiest stretch of Mexico's drug war.
That's the thrust of a landmark investigation by El Universal, which found that authorities with the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the broader Department of Justice struck a deal with the Sinaloa, in exchange for intelligence about rival cartels. Citing court documents and extensive interviews with both Mexican and US officials familiar with the matter, El Universal reports that the US-Sinaloa arrangement lasted from 2000 to 2012.
It's unclear what their relationship is today—El Universal reached no conclusion as to whether or not the arrangement still holds.
What we do know, however, based on the investigation's findings, is that DEA agents not only repeatedly met with Sinaloa heads but did so without bringing Mexican authorities to the table and without tipping off the Mexican government, in clear violation of bilateral agreements. From there:
...the agents of the DEA met with members of the cartels in Mexican territory, to obtain information about their rivals and at the same time establish a network of informants of narco-traffickers, who signed cooperation agreements, subject to results, so that they can obtain future benefits, including charges being dropped in the United States.
That's based on joint, corroborating DEA-DoJ testimony, the first of its kind to be published. The written remarks were provided to a US District Court in Chicago after the arrest of Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla, the son of Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, a Sinaloa boss who reportedly served as the outfit's "logistics coordinator." (In early 2010 when he was extradited to Chicago—a city that scores about 80 percent of its illegal drugs from the Sinaloa—Zambada-Niebla admitted that he was "immune from arrest or prosecution" by virtue of his providing federal US agents with critical intel about Sinaloa rivals.) The key passage comes by way of DEA agent Manuel Castanon:
On March 17, 2009, I met for approximately 30 minutes in a hotel room in Mexico City with Vincente Zambada-Niebla and two other individuals — DEA agent David Herrod and a cooperating source [Sinaloa lawyer Loya Castro] with whom I had worked since 2005. ... I did all of the talking on behalf of [the] DEA.
The DEA met with Sinaloa heads over 50 times since 2000, Business Insider reports. But the secret meet-ups and truces between the world's most powerful government and drug gang stretch back to at least the late 90s, when, according to what Zambada-Niebla's lawyer told the court, Castro and US agents struck a deal that had the Sinaloa giving up information about rival trafficking organizations to the US in exchange for the US dissolving its case against the Sinaloa's lawyer. The deal also stipulated that American authorities would neither get in the way of Sinaloa drug-smuggling operations nor actively hunt down the cartel's brass.
But wait, there's more: Zambada-Niebla further alleged after his extradition to the Windy City that Operation Fast and Furious was actually part of a US-Sinaloa agreement to provided funds and arms to the cartel in exchange for information that'd be used to snuff out its rivals.
Take that one with a grain of salt. Though if it is true, it would again question whether or not Attorney General Eric Holder knew about the gun-walking arrangement, whose tagged firearms have been found at a number of crime scenes on both sides of the border, including one where a body was identified as that of a US Border Patrol agent.
Still, it all goes to confirm long-held suspicions that the Sinaloa—and more notably Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the cartel's elusive kingpin—and American authorities have been playing Let's Make a Drug Deal for years. In a shadowy world of high-tech highs, smuggle craft, and charred and beheaded corpses, this whole mess marks a new and tragic low.