Image: Mexican police officers with Colombian drug trafficker Harold Mauricio Poveda Ortega
Reuters
Mexican police officers accompany Colombian drug trafficker Harold Mauricio Poveda Ortega during a news conference in Mexico City on November 5, 2010.
By
updated 1/9/2012 3:59:12 AM ET 2012-01-09T08:59:12

American drug enforcement agents posing as money launderers secretly helped a powerful Mexican drug trafficker and his principal Colombian cocaine supplier move millions in drug proceeds around the world, as part of an effort to infiltrate and dismantle the criminal organizations wreaking havoc south of the border, according to newly obtained Mexican government documents.

The documents, part of an extradition order by the Mexican Foreign Ministry against the Colombian supplier, describe American counternarcotics agents, Mexican law enforcement officials and a Colombian informant working undercover together over several months in 2007. Together, they conducted numerous wire transfers of tens of thousands of dollars at a time, smuggled millions of dollars in bulk cash — and escorted at least one large shipment of cocaine from Ecuador to Dallas to Madrid.

The extradition order — obtained by the Mexican magazine emeequis and shared with The New York Times — includes testimony by a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent who oversaw a covert money laundering investigation against a Colombian trafficker named Harold Mauricio Poveda-Ortega, also known as “The Rabbit.” He is accused of having sent some 150 tons of cocaine to Mexico between 2000 and 2010. Much of that cocaine, the authorities said, was destined for the United States.

Last month, The Times reported that these kinds of operations had begun in Mexico as part of the drug agency’s expanding role in that country’s fight against organized crime. The newly obtained documents provide rare details of the extent of that cooperation and the ways that it blurs the lines between fighting and facilitating crime.

'Slippery slope'
Morris Panner, a former assistant United States attorney who is an adviser at the Center for International Criminal Justice at Harvard, said there were inherent risks in international law enforcement operations. “The same rules required domestically do not apply when agencies are operating overseas,” he said, “so the agencies can be forced to make up the rules as they go along.” Speaking about the Drug Enforcement Agency’s money laundering activities, he said: “It’s a slippery slope. If it’s not careful, the United States could end up helping the bad guys more than hurting them.”

Shown copies of the documents, a Justice Department spokesman did not dispute their authenticity, but declined to make an official available to speak about them. But in a written statement, the D.E.A. strongly defended its activities, saying that they had allowed the authorities in Mexico to kill or capture dozens of high-ranking and midlevel traffickers.

“Transnational organized groups can be defeated only by transnational law enforcement cooperation,” the agency wrote. “Such cooperation requires that law enforcement agencies — often from multiple countries — coordinate their activities, while at the same time always acting within their respective laws and authorities.”

The documents make clear that it can take years for these investigations to yield results. They show that in 2007 the authorities infiltrated Mr. Poveda-Ortega’s operations. Mr. Poveda-Ortega was considered the principal cocaine supplier to the Mexican drug cartel leader Arturo Beltran Leyva. Two years later, Mexican security forces caught up with and killed Mr. Beltran Leyva in a gunfight about an hour outside of Mexico City.

As for Mr. Poveda-Ortega, in 2008 he escaped a raid on his mansion outside Mexico City in which the authorities detained 15 of his associates and seized hundreds of thousands of dollars, along with two pet lions. But the authorities finally captured him in Mexico City in November 2010.

According to the newly obtained documents, Mexico agreed to extradite Mr. Poveda-Ortega to the United States last May. But the American authorities refused to say whether the extradition had occurred.

Video: Drug violence comes to Mexican resort (on this page)

“That’s how long these investigations take,” said an American official in Mexico who would speak only on the condition that he not be identified discussing secret law enforcement operations. “They are an enormously complicated undertaking when it involves money laundering, wires, everything.”

The documents, which read in some parts like a dry legal affidavit and in others like a script for a B-movie, underscore that complexity. They mix mind-numbing lists of dates and amounts of illegal wire transfers that were conducted during the course of the investigation.

One scene described in the documents depicts the informant making deals to launder money during meetings with traffickers at a Mexico City shopping mall. Another describes undercover D.E.A. agents in Texas posing as pilots, offering to transport cocaine around the world for $1,000 per kilo.

Those accounts come from the testimony by a D.E.A. special agent who described himself as a 12-year veteran and a resident of Texas. There is also testimony by a Colombian informant who posed as a money launderer and began collaborating with the D.E.A. after he was arrested on drug charges in 2003. The Times is withholding the agent’s and the informant’s names for security reasons.

In January 2007, the informant reached out to associates of Mr. Poveda-Ortega and began talking his way into a series of money-laundering jobs — each one bigger than the last — that helped him win the confidence of low-level traffickers and ultimately gain access to the kingpins.

A handful of undercover D.E.A. agents, according to the documents, posed as associates to the informant, including the two who offered their services as pilots and another who told the traffickers that he had several businesses that gave him access to bank accounts that the traffickers could use to deposit and disperse their drug money.

In June 2007, the traffickers bit, asking the informant to give them an account number for their deposits. And over a four-day period in July, they transferred tens of thousands of dollars at a time from money exchange houses in Mexico into an account the D.E.A. had established at a Bank of America branch in Dallas.

According to the testimony, the traffickers’ deposits totaled $1 million. And on the traffickers’ instructions, the informant withdrew the money and the D.E.A. arranged for it to be delivered to someone in Panama.

Testimony by the informant suggests that the traffickers were pleased with the service.

“At the beginning of August 2007, Harry asked my help receiving $3 million to $4 million in American money to be laundered,” the informant testified, referring to one of the Colombian traffickers involved in the investigation. “During subsequent recorded telephone calls I told Harry I couldn’t handle that much money.” Still, the informant and the D.E.A. tried to keep up. On one occasion, they enlisted a Mexican undercover law enforcement agent to pick up $499,250 from their trafficking targets in Mexico City. And a month later, that same agent picked up another load valued at more than $1 million.

Video: Inside the drug tunnels (on this page)

The more the money flowed, the stronger the relationship became between the informants and the traffickers. In one candid conversation, the traffickers boasted about who was able to move the biggest loads of money, the way fishermen brag about their catches. One said he could easily move $4 million to $5 million a month. Then the others spoke about the tricks of the trade, including how they had used various methods, including prepaid debit cards and an Herbalife account, to move the money.

The next day, the informant was summoned to his first meeting in Mexico City with Mr. Poveda-Ortega and Mr. Beltran Leyva, who asked him to help them ship a 330-kilogram load to Spain from Ecuador. The documents say the shipment was transported over two weeks in October, with undercover Ecuadorean agents retrieving the cocaine from a tour bus in Quito and American agents testing its purity in Dallas before sending it on to Madrid.

The testimony describes the informant reassuring the traffickers in code, using words like “girlfriend” or “chick” to refer to the cocaine, and saying that she had arrived just fine. But in reality, the testimony indicates, the Spanish authorities, tipped off in advance by the D.E.A., seized the load shortly after its arrival, rather than risk losing it.

Randal C. Archibold contributed reporting from Mexico City.

This story, "U.S. Agents Aided Mexican Drug Trafficker to Infiltrate His Criminal Ring," originally appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

Video: Inside the drug tunnels

  1. Transcript of: Inside the drug tunnels

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: Now to a remarkable discovery and a record pot bust along the nation's border with Mexico . Federal agents have found a massive secret passage, an elaborate tunnel equipped with a rail system and an elevator used to smuggle drugs into the US. Tonight NBC 's Mark Potter takes us inside.

    MARK POTTER reporting: Federal agents say it's the most elaborate smuggling tunnel they've seen in years, more than 600 yards long with wooden walls and floors.

    Unidentified Man #1: The tunnel has lighting, and it does have good air flow, indicating that there's some type of ventilation system forcing air in from Mexico .

    POTTER: The tunnel begins on the Mexican side of the border in a warehouse at the Tijuana airport . To lower drugs into the tunnel , there is a hydraulic elevator which leads to a rail system where an electric cart waits to carry marijuana to the US side. On steps leading upward, the tunnel emerges inside another warehouse in Otay Mesa , California .

    Unidentified Man #2: Looks like the tunnel goes down about 30 feet here.

    POTTER: This enhanced aerial photograph shows the tunnel going beneath a runway, roads, a big parking lot, and the border fence .

    Mr. DEREK BENNER (United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement): All considered, a highly efficient mechanism to move narcotics in an underground environment.

    POTTER: Police say they seized 32 tons of marijuana, a record for a single tunnel . Much of it was hidden in pumpkin boxes. Federal agents suspect it's the work of Mexico 's powerful Sinaloa drug cartel , currently harvesting its ever-increasing fall marijuana crop. Authorities say especially this time of year, traffickers need tunnels to smuggle huge drug loads to the US.

    Ms. LAURA DUFFY (United States Attorney): If they can't cross the border above ground, they attempt to tunnel underneath it.

    POTTER: The Sinaloa cartel is headed by Joaquin Guzman , known as " El Chapo " or "Shorty." Since his daring escape from prison 10 years ago, Mexican authorities have been unable to touch him.

    Mr. GEORGE GRAYSON (College of William and Mary): He has the police under his thumb. He controls much of the judicial system in his state and neighboring states, and he's virtually an untouchable.

    POTTER: In the last four years, American agents have found more than 75 illegal tunnels crossing from Mexico to the US, but say this one is the most sophisticated. Mark Potter , NBC News, Miami.

Photos: Narco culture permeates Mexico, leaks across border

loading photos...
  1. Tijuana, June 2009: Mexico's drug culture is defined by guns and money, to be sure, but it includes sex, movies, music and even a heavy dose of religion. It also extends across the border into the U.S.

    Since 2008, photojournalist Shaul Schwarz has been documenting that culture. Presented here are snapshots of that coverage, starting with what makes it all happen: cash. This stash was confiscated and the alleged courier, seen at center, was detained by Mexican soldiers.

    "Since the beginning of President Felipe Calderon's drug war in 2006, Mexican officials have held press conferences to show detained suspects," Schwarz notes. "At the same time the violence persists" -- with nearly 35,000 people killed through 2010. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

    Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Three young men died in this shootout in the parking lot of a shopping mall. In the first half of that year, more than 1,000 drug war deaths were counted in Juarez alone. The city of 1.3 million has been the center of a drug turf war between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Residents of a neighborhood survey the site where a body was found, presumably another victim of drug turf clashes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Mexico City, July 2009: Mexico's drug and gang culture has a strong religious streak. Thousands of devotees seen here attend a mass for Santa Muerte -- Saint Death -- a mythical figure condemned by the Catholic Church but embraced by many poor and criminal elements. This gathering is outside a shrine in Tepito, a gritty neighborhood famous for its street markets brimming with pirated and stolen merchandise.

    "Its violent and dangerous streets serve as a sort of mecca for Santa Muerte followers," Schwarz says. "Tepito is also home to the most popular Santa Muerte shrine, which sits outside a modest home. On the first day of every month, the shrine fills with followers who come bearing statuettes of the saint. Some pilgrims make their way from the subway on their knees; many smoke weed or cigars with their saints." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus inhale glue out of plastic bags to get high as they gather outside San Hipolito church during the annual pilgrimage honoring the saint.

    Judas Thaddaeus is the Catholic Church's patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes, but in Mexico he is also known as "the saint of both cops and robbers (and prostitutes), as well as one of the biggest spiritual figures for young people in Mexico City," Schwarz says. "He has become the generic patron saint of disreputable activities. His biggest – and most important shrine – is at Hipolito, one of the best preserved colonial churches." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexico City, October 2009: This shrine in the Colonia Doctores neighborhood pays homage to both Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde, reputedly a bandit killed by officials in 1909.

    Jesus Malverde is revered by many as a Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Several dozen such shrines exist in this neighborhood and in Tepito, where the cults thrive. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Tijuana, June 2009: A shrine to Santa Muerte sits above a home in the notorious Colonia Libertad neighborhood. The shrine is walled in by the old border fence separating Tijuana from San Diego. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Tijuana, March 2009: A man peeks through a fence toward the U.S., studying Border Patrol movements before crossing. New fences are constantly being built to deter illegal immigrants and drug traffickers.

    In 2010, President Barack Obama ordered some 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border and also signed a $600 million bill to fund 1,500 new Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors and law enforcement officials. But the U.S. has also had to pull the plug on a troubled $1 billion "virtual fence" project meant to better guard stretches of the border. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tijuana, June 2009: Federal police pat down a stripper during the raid of a large dance club. Several nightclubs in the notorious downtown red-light district were raided that night. Other parts of the strip continued as normal, with foreigners approaching young prostitutes as families with small children walked by with little notice and mariachis played on. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

    Ciudad Juarez, December 2008: A woman's body lies on the autopsy table where it was discovered that she was raped and then murdered in what was made to look like a suicide.

    "Violence against women has also surged in correlation to the daily multiple uninvestigated and unpunished homicides," Schwarz says. "The coroner's office is open 24/7 and employs more than 100 doctors, technicians and investigative specialists, who cover Ciudad Juarez and northern Chihuahua state." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tijuana, June 2009: The drug culture is often portrayed by Mexican cinema. Here director Antonio Herrera films a scene for "Vida Mafiosa" -- Mafia Life -- a low budget film glorifying the culture. "This is the only thing selling at the moment for me," Herrera said at the time as he worked to complete his seventh narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tijuana, November 2010: A scene from "El Baleado" -- The Shooting Victim -- shows young men being executed shortly after smuggling drugs in from a beach. The film was produced by Baja Films Productions, a family-owned company that almost went out of business until family member Oscar Lopez, a San Diego resident, convinced his father to make a narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tijuana, April 2010: Los Angeles gangsters hang out at the production of a narco film. One of the gang members (not pictured) was an extra in the film. "That was a good excuse for them to come down to TJ and party where the drugs and women are cheap," Schwarz says. "It's common for gangsters/narcos to want to appear in these films." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus gather outside San Hipolito church. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tijuana, June 2009: Young Mexicans in the Colonia Libertad neighborhood smoke pot and hang out at a spot overlooking the border with the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Burbank, Calif., April 2010: Alfredo Rios, better known by his stage name "El Komander", walks down a street just outside the studio of his agent and music producer. From Sinaloa, El Komander is one of the hottest singers/composers of "Narcocorrido" songs, which glorify the drug culture.

    "He regularly performs at private parties for Sinaloa's cartel members as well as composes songs for/about them, at times even commissioned by the drug lords," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Tijuana, April 2010: Narcocorrido performer "The Scorpion" (whose real name is Amador Granados) shows off his belt while on the set of a Baja Films Productions movie that translated into English means: Seagulls Don't Fly Alone. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Culiacan, March 2009: A man and his two sons visit Culiacan's main Jesus Malverde shrine, located across from a McDonald's and near the state legislature.

    "The narco culture is becoming more and more mainstream and the shrine draws people of all walks of life," Schwarz says. "Many visitors leave Polaroid photos with pithy notes giving thanks to Malverde."

    "The image of his mustachioed face, bedecked with a neckerchief, a gold chain with a pistol charm around his neck, and a large belt-buckle with a pistol around his waist can now be found all over the U.S.," Schwarz adds. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. El Monte, Calif., April 2010: The Bukanas De Culiacan band gets ready to perform during the launch event of "Movimiento Alterado," a new form of Narcocorrido gaining popularity. "Narco music clubs are mushrooming all over L.A., and up and down the West Coast," Schwarz says.
    "It's a social movement of people who came from nothing and dream of a chance out," said Joel Vazquez, the band's manager. "It's a lot like hip hop or gangsta rap, except it's Mexican culture, not black." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pico Rivera, Calif., April 2010: Partyers use the bathroom at El Rodeo Night Club, one of the many big Narcocorrido clubs in the Los Angeles area. "The cross-over music scene and culture is generating hybrid fashion trends and lifestyle ties between the Sinaloa mainstream, in Mexico and the Mexican-American mainstream culture in L.A.," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Police protect a crime scene where two bodies were found in the desert near the border with the U.S. Much of Mexico's drug violence is due to turf wars for control of the border routes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Culiacan, July 2009: The Jardines del Humaya Cemetery hosts many grave sites dedicated to drug traffickers. Some are two- and three-stories tall; many have bulletproof glass, Italian marble and spiral iron staircases.

    "Inside the mausoleums are pictures of the deceased, often men in their 20s and 30s, and signs of Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde," says Schwarz. "And, as in many of the cemeteries found in the drug-war inflicted Mexico, rows of freshly dug graves await their new tenants." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Apatzingan, April 2010: This home hadn't been touched in the two years after it was shot at and burned down by soldiers in a deadly attack on members of the La Familia drug cartel. Many of its leaders were born in this town, and in December 2010 one of its founders was killed by soldiers there. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. The religion

    Culiacan, July 2009: A young man makes his way to the shrine of Jesus Malverde. Culiacan is the capital of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, long a hot bed of drug cultivation. For decades traffickers have worshipped at the shrine, helping to spread Malverde's fame. "Followers call Malverde the Robin Hood of Mexico," Schwarz says. "Critics say he has become a symbol of crime. Drug traffickers claim him as their own." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tultitlan, November 2009: Santa Muerte devotees attend a service in the courtyard of a church with a 65-foot-tall statue of the mythical figure. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Angeles National Forest, Calif., August 2009: Santa Muerte worshipers gather in a creek just outside Los Angeles. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: This bridge to El Paso, Texas, is one of the legal border crossings into the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tijuana, March 2009: Mexico's military shows off the results of a raid on a party: assault weapons and the arrests of 58 people. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Culiacan, July 2009: A new inmate kisses his wife goodbye as their daughter cries.

    The Culiacan prison is notorious for violence and riots. "Security forces most often stay outside just along the perimeter of the prison and do not go in to the living quarters themselves," Schwarz says. "Weed, other drugs and cell phones along with statues of saints are common inside this typical Mexican jail." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Tijuana, March 2009: A drug addict sits in a tent where he lives along the border canal with the U.S. "The border canal has become a regular spot for junkies to use heroin," Schwarz says. "While the Mexican police do nothing, the U.S Border Patrol are just out of jurisdiction." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Mexico City, October 2009: Jose Garcia Pichardo prays and smokes a cigar at the Santa Muerte altar in his bedroom. Pichardo said he once was a drug dealer and that two years earlier the Santa saved him from the police. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Women spread flour to soak up blood where a young man was murdered. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the border city that year, and another 3,000 in 2010.

    "As a photojournalist I have covered conflicts and wars since 1996, but Mexico’s present situation haunts me like no other," Schwarz says. "While death statistics have been documented ad nauseum, far less has been said about the broader social reality created by the drug trade. As I continue to cover this story that seems to have no end in sight, I plan to focus not only on the harsh existence in border towns, but on the culture created for millions of Mexicans and Americans inevitably involved in or affected by the drug trade and a desire for “narco luxury.” (Shaul Schwarz/ Reportage By Gett / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments