Gaps in Investigating the Exploitation of Children by “El Chapo” Guzman?: The Case for Multilateral Intelligence Sharing for Transnational Crime
Better intelligence sharing between Mexican and U.S. counter-drug officials might have prevented the rape of children. Following the revelation that Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera and his cohorts allegedly had minors delivered to them for sexual purposes—made public by Judge Brian Cogan prior to jury deliberations in Guzman’s Brooklyn trial—several former U.S. officials say better relations between Mexico and the U.S. could have prevented these alleged atrocities.
After he arrived at the Mexico City office in 1997, DEA agent Joe Bond heard rumors about Chapo Guzman’s fondness for young women—girls. But they were just rumors, not uncommon in the underworld. Spreading rumors about a rival alleging he is a pedophile is a long-established ruse in the drug world, one that has also been used by government and military officials in the propaganda war against drug kingpins, U.S. officials say. Bond did not investigate the rumors, or report them to his counterparts in the Mexican Attorney General’s Office, PGR. “They were none of my business,” he recalls.
By the time U.S. Official A—he asked to remain anonymous as he is not authorized to speak on the record—arrived in Mexico City in the late 00s, Guzman had already served time in Puente Grande prison, where stories also abounded of his sexual affinity for minors. Official A says there was no substance to the claims. “There’s always talk about girls,” he says. “It attracts attention [of the authorities].” Official A denies having heard stories about minors, however, noting that if he had heard concrete evidence of such illegal activity, he would have at least reported it to the PGR’s child exploitation division in the SIEDO, its organized crime wing.
The Human Rights Commission in Sinaloa, the state from which Guzman hails, said in an email earlier this year that it has not received any complaints/cases regarding the sexual abuse of minors by drug traffickers.
One former DEA Chief of International Operations, Mike Vigil, says he knew the rumors about Guzman and his love of women going back to the early 1990s. “Did I hear about his wives? His mistresses? Yes. But kids? They embellish…It spreads among the underworld and then it becomes a reality. A vicious bullshit lie becomes true.” Vigil is certain that he would have known and that he and his colleagues would have seen evidence if the stories had been true.
The document unsealed by Judge Cogan states that three witnesses have corroborated the claim by witness Hildebrando Alexander Cifuentes-Villa that Guzman, on several occasions, raped minors. "It’s common for witnesses to make things up in order to give the government what they think it wants," says Vigil.
DEA agent Andrew Hogan’s book, Hunting El Chapo—suggests that as early as 2014, the DEA had concrete evidence of Guzman’s illegal sexual activities. Text messages seen and collected by both Hogan and his partner, a Homeland Security Agent known as Brady Fallon, allegedly show Guzman ordering girls in Culiacan.
And yet, Guzman was never charged with rape or child exploitation. The authorities waited until they had tape-recorded evidence of him ordering drug deals.
Throughout Guzman’s trial—particularly during testimony from officials—the lack of trust between U.S. and Mexican agencies was highlighted. DEA agents have long lamented what they perceive as endemic distrust, often rightly—Mexican policemen were involved in the torture and killing of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985.
But some former DEA agents say this distrust hampers intelligence sharing and is often used as an excuse, or even a crutch, creating a blind spot for law enforcement. Derek Maltz, a former DEA special agent-in-charge, insists that the mechanisms currently in place for sharing intel hamper law enforcement efforts—at serious cost. “Say I’m an NYPD officer, I stop a guy with [drugs and] pipe bombs, I tell my supervisor in the Joint Terrorism Task Force,” Maltz says, creating a hypothetical scenario in which a lower-ranking policeman would share intel with a superior who coordinates with a specific federal agency. “If a DEA guy is doing a case, and an informant comes in, says he’s a trafficker [but] next week plans to bomb an airline,” Maltz, says, the information is shared up the ladder. But the reverse doesn’t occur, Maltz says. If the authorities believe that a detained terrorism suspect poses no real terror threat, his case is closed and he is released. “If you have reps from all agencies sitting there… Once they decide the guy won’t commit terrorism before they close this thing out, does anyone have anything on this guy? Drugs… human smuggling… etc… Let’s get him off the playing field before he commits terrorism.”
While based in Washington and working with agents focused on the Guzman case, Maltz never considered trying to nab him as a sex offender, but says such a strategy could have worked if the drug trafficking evidence against him wasn’t strong enough. Maltz did try to have Guzman labeled a terrorist back in 2013, given the levels of violence he was responsible for, but Washington bureaucrats were reluctant, he says.
Both Vigil and Official A say that the U.S. needs to ditch its attitude of superiority. Even though they don’t believe the Guzman allegations, they insist that calling Mexican counterparts untrustworthy is being intentionally vague and making excuses. "If you share with all the agencies you can create a panorama of the criminality. Agencies have to share better. They need to have more trust in Mexican counterparts," Vigil explains. While the DEA remains the world’s foremost counter-drug agency, they say, Mexico is far more adept at dealing with child exploitation than the U.S. The DEA’s relationship with ICE—currently the demon in the eyes of many Americans because of its immigration raids—has become more intertwined since 2009, when the agencies signed an agreement to “coordinate and deconflict counternarcotics investigations and requirements related to cross-designation information sharing, and deconfliction,” according to the government accountability office. ICE is not famous for its fairness, but it is on the frontlines in the war against human trafficking.
Former UN investigator, civil society leader and organized crime expert Edgardo Buscaglia says the Mexican authorities need to do a better job of gaining the trust of the DEA and other foreign agencies, not to mention the public. After research trips to Sinaloa between 2006 and 2008, Buscaglia noted the presence of bars owned by Sinaloa cartel members which openly flaunted the presence of underage prostituting. He told the PGR’s investigators, but not in a formal report. “Once you become officially a witness, immediately your life is in danger. It’s much easier to mention it informally.”