Undercover American narcotics agents have laundered or smuggled millions of dollars in drug proceeds as part of Washington’s expanding role in Mexico’s fight against drug cartels, according to current and former federal law enforcement officials.
The agents, primarily with the Drug Enforcement Administration, have handled shipments of hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal cash across borders, those officials said, to identify how criminal organizations move their money, where they keep their assets and, most important, who their leaders are.
They said agents had deposited the drug proceeds in accounts designated by traffickers, or in shell accounts set up by agents.
The officials said that while the D.E.A. conducted such operations in other countries, it began doing so in Mexico only in the past few years. The high-risk activities raise delicate questions about the agency’s effectiveness in bringing down drug kingpins, underscore diplomatic concerns about Mexican sovereignty, and blur the line between surveillance and facilitating crime. As it launders drug money, the agency often allows cartels to continue their operations over months or even years before making seizures or arrests.
Agency officials declined to publicly discuss details of their work, citing concerns about compromising their investigations. But Michael S. Vigil, a former senior agency official who is currently working for a private contracting company called Mission Essential Personnel, said, “We tried to make sure there was always close supervision of these operations so that we were accomplishing our objectives, and agents weren’t laundering money for the sake of laundering money.”
Former counternarcotics officials, who also would speak only on the condition of anonymity about clandestine operations, offered a clearer glimpse of their scale and how they worked. In some cases, the officials said, Mexican agents, posing as smugglers and accompanied by American authorities, pick up traffickers’ cash in Mexico. American agents transport the cash on government flights to the United States, where it is deposited into traffickers’ accounts, and then wired to companies that provide goods and services to the cartel.
In other cases, D.E.A. agents, posing as launderers, pick up drug proceeds in the United States, deposit them in banks in this country and then wire them to the traffickers in Mexico.
The former officials said that the drug agency tried to seize as much money as it laundered — partly in the fees the operatives charged traffickers for their services and another part in carefully choreographed arrests at pickup points identified by their undercover operatives.
And the former officials said that federal law enforcement agencies had to seek Justice Department approval to launder amounts greater than $10 million in any single operation. But they said that the cap was treated more as a guideline than a rule, and that it had been waived on many occasions to attract the interest of high-value targets.
“They tell you they’re bringing you $250,000, and they bring you a million,” one former agent said of the traffickers. “What’s the agent supposed to do then, tell them no, he can’t do it? They’ll kill him.”