- Despite the fragmentation of the Mexican cartels, U.S. corruption cases will continue and organized criminal groups will retain advanced intelligence capabilities.
- The Mexican and U.S. governments must begin to view cartel corruption cases through a counterintelligence lens.
- Fighting such corruption will require a large commitment of investigative, prosecutorial and defensive resources.
In the wake of the escape of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera from the high security Altiplano prison, near Toluca, Mexico, many have focused on the escape's remarkable engineering aspects. The tunnel was indeed impressive: It reportedly stretched about a mile from its start at a construction site outside the prison to its end precisely inside the shower area of Guzman's cell.
Most people miss, however, that such an ambitious and precise engineering accomplishment would be impossible without detailed intelligence. The escape team needed to know exactly where Guzman's cell was located, the precise layout of the cell, and where the blind spot was for the closed circuit television camera. Once the blind spot was found, they needed to pinpoint it to within a fraction of an inch.
The Altiplano prison, formally known as the Centro Federal de Readaptacion Social Numero 1 "Altiplano," is the Mexican equivalent of the U.S. "Supermax" prison in Florence, Colorado. Information about the facility's layout, construction and the location of particular inmates in the prison are supposed to be carefully protected. Obtaining this type of protected information presents a delicate intelligence challenge. One must identify persons with access to the required information and then approach them and convince them to cooperate without revealing that an escape plan is in the works. As seen in Guzman's escape, Mexican organized crime groups have both the financial resources and personnel to conduct sophisticated human intelligence operations.
Cartel corruption is not merely a cartel gunman offering bribes to a soldier or police officer after being stopped or arrested, or a capo running around randomly handing out wads of cash. While some of that does occur, the type of operation that identifies and targets specific people with access to needed information is far more focused and sophisticated. Recognizing this difference is critical in combatting cartel corruption, because one can then adopt the proper approach to counter such efforts on both sides of the border.
Larger Mexican organized crime groups like Guzman's Sinaloa cartel have a long history of successfully corrupting public officials on both sides of the border. Groups like the Sinaloa cartel have recruited scores of intelligence assets and agents of influence at the local, state and even federal levels of the Mexican and U.S. governments. In Mexico, they have recruited agents in elite units such as the anti-organized crime unit of the Office of the Mexican Attorney General, the military, the federal police and Mexican employees working for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. In the United States, they have recruited the FBI special agent in charge of the El Paso Office; inspectors and special agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection (CBP); and sheriffs, deputies, state troopers and local police officers.
Some Mexican organized crime groups are known to conduct extensive surveillance and background checks on potential targets to determine how to best pitch to them. Like the spotting methods used by intelligence agencies, the surveillance conducted by cartels on potential targets is designed to glean as many details about the target as possible, including their residences, vehicles, family members, financial needs and vices.
Historically, many foreign intelligence services are known to use ethnicity in their favor, heavily targeting persons sharing an ethnic background found in the foreign country. Foreign services are also known to use relatives of the target living in the foreign country to their advantage. Mexican cartels use these same tools: They tend to target Hispanic officers and often use family members living in Mexico as recruiting levers. For example, Luis Francisco Alarid, who had been a CBP officer at the Otay Mesa, California, port of entry, was sentenced to 84 months in federal prison in 2009 for participating in a conspiracy to smuggle people and marijuana into the United States. One of the people Alarid admitted to conspiring with was his uncle, who drove a van loaded with marijuana and migrants through a border checkpoint manned by Alarid.
Like family spy rings (such as the Cold War spy ring run by John Walker), there have also been several family border corruption rings. Raul Villarreal and his brother, Fidel, both former CBP agents in San Diego, fled the United States in 2006 after learning they were being investigated for corruption. The pair was captured in Mexico in October 2008 and extradited back to the United States.
While ideology is seldom used in these targeted recruitment operations, money, compromise (sex) and ego figure prominently. In addition to cash, it is not uncommon for officials to be offered sex in return for ignoring the flow of illegal aliens or drugs, or for drug-trafficking organizations to use attractive agents to seduce and then recruit officers like classic espionage "swallow" operations. Several officials have been convicted in such cases. For example, in March 2007, CBP inspection officer Richard Elizalda, who had worked at the San Ysidro, California, port of entry, was sentenced to 57 months in prison for conspiring with his lover, alien smuggler Raquel Arin, to let the organization she worked for bring illegal aliens through his inspection lane. Elizalda also accepted cash for his efforts — much of which he allegedly spent on gifts for Arin — so his was a case of money and compromise rather than an either-or deal. Mexican cartel organized crime corruption often involves "plata or plomo," literally "silver or lead" — meaning take the bribe or we'll kill you — but sex is also a significant recruitment tool that must not be ignored.
Countering Cartel Recruitment
As noted above, the first step is to recognize that Mexican organized crime groups operate in similar fashion to hostile intelligence agencies. This enables agencies to begin to deploy counterintelligence programs similar to those used to defend against more traditional intelligence threats.
In addition to the obvious steps such as thorough background investigations with periodic reinvestigations that look for signs of recruitment such as unexplained affluence, less obvious steps such as education programs, reporting processes and requirements should also be employed.
From an investigative perspective, corruption cases tend to be handled more as one-off cases, and they do not normally receive the same extensive investigation into the suspect's friends and associates that would be conducted in a foreign counterintelligence case. In other words, when a Mexican or U.S. government employee is recruited by the Chinese or Russian intelligence service, the investigation receives far more energy — and the suspect's circle of friends, relatives and associates receives far more scrutiny — than if he is recruited by a Mexican cartel.
In espionage cases, there is also an extensive damage assessment investigation conducted to ensure that all the information the suspect could have divulged is identified, along with the identities of any other people the suspect could have helped his handler recruit. After-action reviews are conducted to determine how the suspect was recruited, how he was handled and how he could have been uncovered earlier. The results of these reviews are then used to help shape future counterintelligence investigative efforts. They are also used in the preparation of defensive counterintelligence briefings to educate other employees and help protect them from being recruited.
The difference in urgency and scope between the two types of investigations is driven by the perception that the damage to national security is greater if an official is recruited by a foreign intelligence agency than if he is recruited by a criminal organization. That assessment must be re-examined because Mexican cartels are sophisticated criminal organizations capable of recruiting Mexican and U.S. officials at all levels.
Indeed, the problem of public corruption connected to Mexican organized crime groups is widespread. To approach corruption cases in a manner similar to foreign counterintelligence cases would require a large commitment of investigative, prosecutorial and defensive resources. Simply put, the threat posed by Mexican organized crime groups is different from that posed by traditional criminal organizations. Countering it will require a nontraditional approach.