War on Drugs

Operation Fast and Furious Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

The U.S. can't enforce its drug laws without first violating them.


Last February the U.S. extradited the son of one of the most powerful cartel leaders in Mexico to stand trial in Chicago for cocaine trafficking. The capture of Vicente Zambada-Niebla, son of Sinaloa cartel leader Ismail "El Mayo" Zambada Garcia, is the DOJ's highest-profile catch in years and a nominal drug war victory. But in July, Zambada turned the tables on his captors by claiming that he had "public authority" to traffic cocaine into the U.S. over a span of five years in exchange for providing intelligence on his rivals. For nearly two months the Justice Department declined to comment, fueling speculation that "Operation Fast and Furious," a gun-smuggling operation conducted by the U.S. Attorney's office in Phoenix, was part of a trend of state-sanctioned law-breaking. The DOJ's eventual response, filed September 11, did little to assuage those concerns. Prosecutors admitted that Zambada's lawyer in Mexico had been a confidential informant for the DEA, supplying intel that the Sinaloa cartel had gathered on its competitors to U.S. law enforcement. Prosecutors also admitted that Zambada's lawyer had in fact arranged a meeting between his client and the DEA in 2009, but that the meeting was supposed to have been cancelled at the last minute.

"The agents who met with defendant were expressly ordered by the highest ranking DEA official in Mexico not to even meet with (Zambada-Niebla), and no official with actual authority, namely the United States Attorney General or a United States Attorney, authorized agents to promise defendant immunity," the filing read.

If that claim sounds familiar, it's because we've heard it before. Attorney General Eric Holder's second reaction to Operation Fast and Furious (after first claiming that the allegations couldn't possibly be true) was that the actions taken by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the U.S. Attorney's office in Phoenix couldn't possibly have been sanctioned by the higher-ups at the Justice Department.

Zambada is not the only person to claim that the DOJ sanctions illegal activities in order to get closer to the cartels. Days after prosecutors denied Zambada's allegations, a former law enforcement officer went to the El Paso Times with allegations that the FBI had allowed drugs to cross the border as part of a larger investigation. William Dutton, a former New Mexico livestock investigator, claimed that during his 18 months working with the FBI, he accepted several shipments of narcotics on the agency's behalf. "The drugs were concealed in horse saddles, and we started getting a lot of them," Dutton told the Times. "But the FBI kept putting me off when I asked for the money to pay the cartels for the drugs. I had to use my own funds. The FBI still owes me thousands of dollars for these out-of-pocket expenses."

According to the Times, Dutton and a retired Doña Ana County sheriff's deputy named Greg Gonzales "allege that the FBI dropped them after 'big names' on the U.S. side of the border began to surface in the drug investigations." The FBI declined to comment on Dutton's claims, telling the Times that it never reveals information about confidential informants. The Texas Department of Public Safety told the Times that Dutton "had no credibility."

"Much of the intelligence cited by Dutton and Gonzalez does not appear to be actionable or provable, just more rumors in the swirl of half-truths found along the border," wrote Insight Crime's Elyssa Pachico, an analyst who covers organized crime in Central America. Pachico also compared the charges to Zambada's. "[T]hey hint at a deeper truth in the U.S.'s handling of the Mexican drug panorama. The border zone is filled with double agents, and often U.S. officials have to take part in morally ambiguous operations. This includes relying on informants who may continue to traffic drugs and kill people, but will still expect protection in return for their information."

While the burden of providing actionable evidence is on Dutton and Zambada, the burden of justifying drug war collateral damage is on the Justice Department. Mexico's drug-related death toll for the last five years is creeping toward 50,000 people. Guns from Operation Fast and Furious have been recovered not just across northern Mexico, but also in Texas. Those same guns were used to kill not just a U.S. Border Patrol agent, but also the brother of Chihuaha State Prosecutor Patricia Gonzalez and roughly 150 other Mexicans. If that weren't bad enough, Mexico Attorney General Marisela Morales still has not been briefed on the supposedly rogue operation by her U.S. counterparts, a fact that lends weight to Zambada's claim that the Sinaloa Cartel worked with the DEA without the knowledge of officials in Mexico.

If the U.S. can't enforce its own drug laws without first violating them, perhaps it's time for a new strategy.

Mike Riggs is an associate editor at Reason magazine.