Dirty money’s dirty secret: We’ve all been deceived – there is no ‘war on drugs’

For 27 years, Robert Mazur was one of the most committed “soldiers” in the war on drugs. He risked his life as a U.S. undercover agent to infiltrate some of the world’s largest and most ruthless drug cartels, including Pablo Escobar’s Medellin and the Southern Colombian Cali Cartel.

In this article Mazur confesses that he, his fellow law enforcement agents on the front lines, the U.S. public and the world’s communities have been deceived. A small band of the politically powerful have, time and time again, undermined the integrity of “the war on drugs”. It’s not a war; it’s a lie, writes Mazur.

Last month, one of the most influential members of the H-2 Cartel, a spin-off cartel from El Chapo Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel, was arrested in Los Angeles. For years before his arrest, his identity was uncertain, other than the fact that the underworld referred to him as “El Padrino” (The Godfather). His role in the underworld was well-documented by U.S. law enforcement authorities.

The Godfather’s crimes were documented in thousands of BlackBerry messenger communications and wiretaps. He helped to arrange the transportation of drug shipments, introduced the cartel’s top leaders to corrupt Mexican government officials willing to take bribes, warned the cartel about the continuing U.S. investigations, identified informants to cartel leaders and even played a hand in the death of a suspected informant who was wrongfully accused of working with U.S. authorities.

Despite the airtight case which the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other agents built against The Godfather, only weeks after his arrest, at the direction of William Barr, the U.S. attorney general, The Godfather was released from a U.S. prison and allowed to return, a free man, to Mexico. That was because The Godfather was General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, the defence minister of Mexico between 2012 and 2018, during the entire reign of President Enrique Pena Nieto.

The Godfather was a very special man in Mexico. Not only was he the highest-ranking military official in the country, controlling all military resources, but he also reported directly to Pena Nieto.

The U.S. authorities first learned of Cienfuegos’ connection to organised crime in 2013 through their investigation and prosecution of another corrupt high-ranking Mexican official, Edgar Veytia, referred to within the underworld as “El Diablo” (The Devil). While functioning as an important resource to the cartel, Veytia was the attorney general of one of Mexico’s states. Veytia’s value to the cartel included wrongfully releasing cartel members from prison, facilitating murder, committing violent acts and covering up the murders of members of rival cartels. During wiretaps related to Veytia, law enforcement started to pick up on references to The Godfather and his powerful role within the cartel. The authorities got a major break when, during an intercept, members of the cartel said The Godfather was on television. Agents tuned in and saw Cienfuegos on the screen.

U.S.-Mexico “enforcement partnership”

Earlier this month, at Barr’s direction, and in opposition to the position taken by those who had worked so hard to put Cienfuegos behind bars, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York filed a motion to dismiss charges against Cienfuegos. According to the motion, the evidence of Cienfuegos’ critical role in international heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana conspiracies was overwhelming. Despite the solid proof, the motion asserted that the case was dismissed as a matter of foreign policy and in recognition of the strong enforcement partnership between Mexico and the United States. The motion also claimed the case was dismissed to permit the Mexican investigation and potential prosecution of Cienfuegos to proceed.

Media reports contradict claims made in the motion to dismiss. Sources claim that the Cienfuegos’ case was dismissed because Mexican officials threatened otherwise to expel all U.S. federal drug agents from Mexico. Mexican officials claimed Cienfuegos’ indictment was a violation of Mexican sovereignty.

Despite claims otherwise in the motion to dismiss, Mexico has made no promise to put Cienfuegos on trial in Mexico, and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the current president of Mexico, has expressed scepticism about the charges.

“There is no impunity for anyone, but at the same time crimes will not be allowed to be fabricated. … There must be support, evidence — no person can be the victim of an injustice. … We cannot allow, without evidence, the undermining of our fundamental institutions,” Lopez Obrador said.

Reuters recently reported that a source within the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has claimed the dismissal of U.S. charges against Cienfuegos was Barr’s idea, and that the charges were dropped in exchange for a commitment that Mexican authorities would arrest a high-level cartel leader involved in trafficking large quantities of opioid fentanyl.

In my view, Lopez Obrador and Barr have done more to undermine the credibility and effectiveness of the war on drugs than any two people on this planet. The evidence is overwhelming that the most dangerous commodity peddled by the underworld is corruption. Those in high offices who intentionally become a part of criminal organisations to reap personal fortunes through corruption deserve the most severe penalties possible under the law of the land that suffered the consequences of their treason.

I am outraged that the United States’ sovereignty was violated by Cienfuegos through his acts to conspire to import tens of tons of illegal drugs into the United States, and that those drugs were spilled onto the streets of U.S. cities, causing the destruction of millions of lives. How dare you, Cienfuegos.

Questionable judgement

Assuming Reuters’ source within the DOJ is correct, and Barr orchestrated the release of Cienfuegos in exchange for access to a cartel leader, then Barr is either naïve or lacks good judgement. Cartel leaders are a dime a dozen. Before the fumes of the jet that transports a cartel leader from Mexico to the United States dissipate into the atmosphere, that cartel leader is replaced by another thug standing in the endless line of gangsters seeking power.

An effective war on drugs should prioritise the vigorous prosecution of anyone who sells their official position to facilitate crime. Barr should have paid more attention to the testimony of witnesses in major drug-related trials such as the prosecution of El Chapo Guzman, because within that testimony it might be possible to find another potential motive for the highest-ranking Mexican officials demanding Cienfuegos’ release.

Alex Cifuentes, a Colombian trafficker and personal aide to El Chapo Guzman, testified in U.S. District Court that a $100 million bribe was paid to Pena Nieto at El Chapo Guzman’s direction. He testified that the bribe was solicited from El Chapo Guzman by Pena Nieto in return for protection. In other words, the Pena Nieto referenced by Cifuentes as the recipient of this massive bribe is the same Pena Nieto with whom Cienfuegos worked closely, directing the activities of Mexico’s army.

Bribery allegations

Cifuentes also testified that the Beltran Leyva Cartel paid bribes to Felipe Calderon, president of Mexico between 2006 and 2012, and that El Chapo Guzman authorised more than $10 million in payments to Mexican military units to kill cartel rivals and provide safe escort for drug shipments.

Even a motion filed by the U.S. government in the El Chapo Guzman trial spoke to the extent of corruption at the highest levels of Mexican leadership. In that motion, the U.S. government mentioned bribes allegedly paid to a senior adviser to Lopez Obrador. The same Lopez Obrador who is outraged that the U.S. government brought charges against Cienfuegos.

Less than a year ago, U.S. authorities arrested Genaro Garcia Luna, the former Mexican secretary of public safety. Garcia Luna is the architect of Mexico’s war on drugs and oversaw Mexico’s federal police. The government’s evidence in the case brought against Garcia Luna will outline bribes allegedly paid to him by the Sinaloa Cartel for protection. There was detailed testimony in the El Chapo Guzman trial about cartel bagmen twice delivering briefcases containing millions of dollars to Garcia Luna. Jesus Zambada, a former high-level member of the Sinaloa Cartel, testified that he personally made at least $6 million in cash payments to Garcia Luna, and that the cartel maintained a $50 million bribe fund for Garcia Luna.

High-level corruption is rife

The ugliness of high-level corruption in many countries, not only Mexico, is a sad saga of mankind. I saw corruption at first hand when working undercover within the Medellin Cartel. Decades ago, when I was thought to be a trusted money launderer for drug kingpins, I was told by them about the boxes of cash they delivered to Mexican generals that enabled them to land large commercial planes filled with cocaine on military bases, and to get a safe military escort of drug shipments to farms along the U.S. border.

In the late 1990s I was contacted by U.S. officials to be their expert witness in a criminal trial brought against Mario Ruiz Massieu, the former deputy attorney general of Mexico. Ruiz Massieu accepted millions of dollars in cash from traffickers for protection and made the mistake of having an account in a Texas bank that received $9 million in cash deposits. He escaped prosecution by committing suicide. That happened several years after his brother was murdered at the hands of Raul Salinas, the brother of Carlos Salinas, who was president of Mexico from 1988-1994. Raul Salinas was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Testimony abounds about Raul Salinas’ involvement in drug trafficking. Swiss authorities, often considered to be conservative in their accusations, claimed that Raul was a kingpin in the cocaine trade and that he had pocketed at least $500 million in illicit profits. Carlos Salinas now lives in Ireland. He is a wealthy man.

Failure to address corruption has consequences

Failure to address corruption has consequences. That lesson is best told through the story of a U.S. hero, Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, a man who made the supreme sacrifice. Enrique was born in Guadalajara, Mexico. He migrated to the United States, worked his way through college, served in the Marines, was a fireman, a local police officer, and then became a DEA special agent.

Among many other things, Kiki carried out undercover work in Mexico and gathered information that led to authorities locating and destroying a 220-acre marijuana plantation. Burning that plantation cost the leaders of the Guadalajara Cartel $160 million. One of the leaders of the cartel, Rafael Caro Quintero, a drug lord who had accumulated a net worth of $1 billion in the early 1980s, orchestrated the kidnapping of Kiki on a day when he walked out of the Guadalajara Consulate on his way to have lunch with his wife. Among the men who hurried Kiki away was a Mexican police officer who had flashed his badge at Kiki.

High among the reasons for kidnapping Kiki was the interest Caro Quintero and the rest of the cartel had in how much the DEA knew about their corruption of Mexican officials. While a doctor injected Kiki with drugs to keep him awake, he was mercilessly tortured for two days. Then, he was killed by a blow to the head with a blunt instrument. He was buried in a steel-barred chamber behind one of Caro Quintero’s homes, from where his remains were later recovered.

While trying to find Kiki, DEA agents and Mexican police spotted Caro Quintero surrounded by five machine gun-toting bodyguards, strutting toward a private jet on the tarmac at Guadalajara airport. When he saw the agents, Caro Quintero beckoned the Mexican police commander minding the Americans, whispered a promise of $270,000 in the commander’s ear, hugged him, and turned to the DEA agents. After taking a swig from a bottle of Champagne, he raised his machine gun and said, “My children, next time bring better weapons, not little toys.” Then he laughed, got on the plan and flew to Costa Rica.

I know one of the Costa Rican officers who helped track Caro Quintero down and take him into custody. The officer was surprised that the order came to send Caro Quintero back to Mexico, rather than to send him to the United States, or simply kill him. The Mexican authorities proclaimed they wanted him back badly so they could charge, convict and imprison him. They did not want to allow the United States to extradite him. At the time, their view was that it would be “a violation of their sovereignty”.

Luxury “prison” for Caro Quintero

Caro Quintero was “convicted” in Mexico and sent to a prison designed for 250 inmates, but the prison was converted into a palace for the comfort of Caro Quintero and another kingpin. In that prison they installed kitchens, a living room, a dining room, offices, marble bathrooms and a carpeted master bedroom with satin sheets. Caro Quintero had closets full of silk shirts, cowboy boots and cowboy hats. Women and children visited him freely. He had radios, telephones, guns and anything he wanted. He ran his cartel from the prison.

While Caro Quintero was in prison, U.S. authorities indicted him, other kingpins, and seven current or former Mexican law enforcement officials, along with the doctor who had kept Kiki awake during his two days of torture.

Despite the history of Kiki’s murder and Caro Quintero’s luxurious life in a Mexican “prison”, in August 2013, only eight months after Pena Nieto took office as Mexico’s president, a Mexican court in Guadalajara abruptly dismissed the Mexican charges against Caro Quintero and released him on a “technicality”. No doubt the release of the most infamous drug kingpin in Mexico was known in advance by everyone at the top of the Mexican government. Mexican officials gave no word to U.S. authorities that this infamous killer of a DEA agent was about to walk free. He left the prison, never to be seen again. The DEA has offered a $20 million reward for information leading to Caro Quintero’s capture.

It does not seem a coincidence that the two most senior people in Mexico at the time of Caro Quintero’s “release” were Pena Nieto, the man accused by cartel hierarchy of having received a $100 million bribe, and Cienfuegos, The Godfather indicted in the United States for receiving a fortune for protecting Mexican drug kingpins. Maybe someday the United States’ sovereignty and suffering will get some consideration in the eyes of Mexico’s leadership. It seems unlikely.

Click here to view a Thomson Reuters webinar with Bob Mazur, Mike Messier and Nathan Lynch from Regulatory Intelligence

Robert Mazur was a highly decorated U.S. federal agent for 27 years. He is a court-certified expert in money laundering-related matters in both the United States and Canada. He is the NY Times bestselling author of The Infiltrator, a memoir of his life undercover as a money launderer within the underworld, and was an executive producer of the internationally released film by the same name based on his book. He is now the President of KYC Solutions, a company that provides speaking, training, consulting and expert witness services globally.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to Business Insight

Discover best practice and keep up-to-date with insights on the latest industry trends.