US government has paid US$108 million to ‘snitches’ since 1985 in lucrative bounty scheme to bring down drug kingpins
- Critics of the government’s rewards programmes warn that huge cash bounties increase cartel violence and encourage corruption
- Government defends programme saying 70 ‘major violators’ have been caught, but critics say there’s ‘no accountability’
Wheeling gold-coloured Samsonite suitcases stuffed with US$100 bills, two undercover agents for the US Drug Enforcement Administration walked into a Mexico City hotel room.
Minutes later, a low-level drug trafficker knocked. The agents watched as he removed US$10,000 bundles from the cases, placing them one by one on the bed – US$2 million eventually spread across the mattress. The man then signed a receipt, gathered his cash and left.
The year was 1994. The deal, recounted by former DEA agent Mike Vigil, may sound like it was lifted from an episode of Narcos. But in the world of ultra-high-value drug informants, it’s the grim calculus governing America’s long, failed effort to stem the flow of narcotics into the country.
Recently, however, the rate at which traffickers have been double-crossing their bosses in exchange for riches has risen. One reason may be renewed emphasis on the three-decade-old State Department programme to pay millions to snitches.
Exploiting the temptation to become an overnight multimillionaire is what the Narcotics Rewards Programme (NRP) is about. In the past five years, it has distributed almost US$32 million to 33 people, with some receiving as much as US$5 million, according to the department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
The programme, the US government said, has resulted in the arrest of almost 70 “foreign major violators” since it was created. The total price tag: US$108 million.
Last month, the Trump administration put the NRP back in the spotlight when US attorney general at the time Jeff Sessions announced the bounty on Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes had doubled to US$10 million. Cervantes, 52, is the reputed leader of the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion which allegedly trafficked “many tons” of drugs into the US, the State Department claims.
Critics of the government’s rewards programmes warn that huge cash bounties increase cartel violence and encourage corruption among US law enforcers. But the programme’s success is hard to dismiss, its proponents contend.
Targets of the NRP are advertised on a US government website that looks like a cheap version of Tinder – with profile photos, short biographies, height, weight and even eye colour. Also listed are their alleged crimes and how much money you get if you turn them in.
At the top of the NRP pyramid is Rafael Caro Quintero, whose bounty was raised to US$20 million in April, the highest in the programme’s history. Quintero, who was also placed on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” list, is the alleged leader of one of the most powerful drug trafficking rings in Mexico, according to the DEA, which claims he ordered the kidnapping, torture, and murder of US undercover agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena Salazar in 1985. A conviction in that case was set aside by a Mexican court in 2013 on a technicality. Quintero, who has vanished, repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
The NRP was established a year after Camarena was killed, at the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic in America. Over the years, the bounties offered under the programme’s auspices have helped arrest drug bosses and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) commanders, Venezuelan traffickers, and even an Afghan heroin warlord, according to the US government and the International Justice Resource Centre.
“If you’re giving out cash to people ratting out drug dealers, it is quite possible that all you are doing is funding the next drug dealer,” said William Cowden, a former federal prosecutor.
While declining to provide specifics, the DEA says it manages informants the same regardless of which programme they’re associated with.
“DEA’s policy regarding confidential sources as a whole is constantly evolving based on leadership, inspections, [Office of Inspector General] recommendations, technology, and many other factors,” a spokesman said.
Vigil, who went on to become the DEA’s chief of international operations before retiring in 2004, defends the NRP’s secrecy, the amount of money it pays out – and its beneficiaries. The informants are usually criminals and know full well betraying a cartel could cost them their lives, he said. The government “can’t use choir boys”, he said. “Unfortunately, you have to deal with unsavoury characters.”
Vigil describes multiple NRP payouts to informants during his 15 years as an undercover agent. In Mexico, one of his sources was a cartel executioner who also transported drugs and bribed local officials. The informant helped capture a drug kingpin in exchange for US$2 million, Vigil said. Some informants choose to take the money and run. Others demand a one-way ticket to the US, a new identity and a fresh start.
But in 2016, the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General slammed the US government’s use of confidential sources. Following an audit, the office issued a blistering report assailing the informant programmes as riddled with deficiencies and vulnerable to fraud.
The report caught the attention of US Representative Stephen Lynch, a Democrat from Massachusetts. Lynch is calling on federal agencies to disclose the types of crimes their confidential informants have been committing and how much money they have been given.
“There is no accountability, because it’s a cash business,” he said.
In some cases, the NRP has corrupted law enforcement, the congressman said, though he declined to provide examples. Lynch said only that “you’ve got some DEA and FBI agents making US$120,000 a year and dealing with drug cartels that bring that much in a day.”