I spend a lot of time (maybe too much time) dwelling on the challenges and failings of our criminal justice system. I try to balance that out by highlighting some of the positives as well, but that only gets us so far. Our system could do a lot of things right — practically everything right, in fact — and it still wouldn’t outweigh some of the more serious violations, misconduct, and breaches of trust that occur all too frequently.
One troubling example is the misuse or abuse of informants as part of federal criminal investigations. I’ve written, for example, about the ATF’s use of dubious tactics to get guns off the streets, including the use of confidential informants who were underage, developmentally disabled, or who were otherwise considered vulnerable to manipulation. The ATF’s current director was recently grilled by congress about these practices, but who knows if that will result in any meaningful changes or not.
In their zeal to catch the bad guys, it seems, cops can sometimes lose sight of their obligation to protect those who help them. And, it can be very difficult to hold the government accountable when that happens.
This is another one of those stories.
Norma’s tale (not her real name) reveals the lengths federal agents will go to when faced with society’s demand to fight crime at nearly any cost. Norma’s story is about the impacts on real people when US law enforcement bends–or perhaps even breaks–rules or laws in order to coerce vulnerable populations (undocumented immigrants in this particular case) into acting as confidential informants.
Norma was brought to the US from Mexico illegally by her mother as a five-year-old child. She grew up here in a poor and abusive household. And, for unknown reasons, was not included in her family’s application to obtain legal status under the Immigration Reform and Control Act (the rest of her family was granted legal status). At 16, she ended up running away from home to escape the abuse, but just landed in more trouble instead.
With few other options, she got involved in a drug smuggling operation with her boyfriend at the time, who was eventually arrested at the border by federal authorities. Norma was confronted by a DEA agent at that point and given what sounded like a golden opportunity: help us and you’ll be granted citizenship.
Norma jumped at the chance, and she’s been paying for it ever since.
From 1989 until 2010, Norma worked as a confidential informant, helping the DEA investigate high-level drug trafficking in South Texas and other states around the country. She participated in some pretty dangerous operations that literally placed her life in jeopardy, all in the hopes that she would be granted permanent status one day and eventually be allowed to live in relative peace. To live some version of the American Dream, in other words.
According to this account, the dangers, temptations, and sacrifices she faced were quite real:
[Norma] was called on to assist in various operations where she was used as bait in drug deals, pretending to make a purchase and close the deal — one of the ways the DEA found and captured drug traffickers. Norma says her life repeatedly was put at risk.
She remembers vividly the first trip she made as a C.I. She was sent with seven pounds of heroin from the Texas border to California. The DEA paid her a reasonable amount, although it wasn’t the 25 percent of the recuperated money that she says she was promised.
“I felt like I was living in a fairy tale,” she says, “after not having anything to eat and then seeing all of this abundance.”
She says the biggest operation she participated in was when she and other federal agents transported a shipment of 23 pounds of heroin in two vehicles. They seized $130,000 and caught the traffickers, but she says she wasn’t given credit for the bust or the money. She says her payments for her work were between $500 and $1,500 on average.
Norma says she was denied several payments after drug busts, claiming that she was called a “wetback” and that the agents told her she was a “criminal with no rights and that the only options I had were to return to Mexico or work for them,” she says.
Instead of doing as they had promised, though, the DEA provided Norma only with a string of temporary visas that required her continued cooperation in order to be renewed. She did just what the DEA asked, until, after 20 years, she finally realized that the promise of citizenship was an empty one. She had apparently been a pawn in the DEA’s chess game against the drug cartels, and little more. If she didn’t continue to help them. she was expendable.
In fact, when she tried to extricate herself from the dangerous work of informing, she was threatened by the DEA with deportation as thanks for her years of service.
Interview with Norma (in Spanish)
She was actually deported at one point, simply because she’d been labelled a “troublemaker” for complaining to one of the DEA agents with whom she had worked. She continues to fight for what she’s earned to this day.
And, according to Norma’s attorney, this type of treatment is not an isolated event:
Federal government agencies use and abuse undocumented confidential informants for years, trample their rights with impunity, promise them permanent residency and never deliver on it…And they know they don’t have to deliver on it. But they keep pressuring them with that promise so they will keep cooperating.
I think it’s easy to see what the government is attempting to do in cases like this, and it does have its own internal logic. It seems they’re applying the consequentialist notion that using (and even abusing) confidential informants like Norma is crucial to fighting the greater evil of drug smuggling.
This is the same type of false dilemma, though, that’s used to justify a wide range of bad behavior by governments (eavesdropping by the NSA/GCHQ, intrusive security theater by the TSA, etc.) that supposedly protects us from even worse consequences.
It is perfectly reasonable to expect federal agents to a) aggressively investigate and arrest drug traffickers, and to b) also treat confidential informants fairly by, at the very least, being honest with them and following through on what’s promised. It’s not an either/or proposition. Doing both is entirely possible.
Ultimately, people are not pawns, and someone’s immigration status, mental health status, or similar vulnerability should not make them a target for this type of coercive and highly manipulative treatment, no matter how noble the ultimate goal might be.
For an even more in-depth look at this story, and to hear Norma’s first-hand account of her work with the DEA, check out Snap Judgment’s latest episode, The Undocumented Informant.
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