A top-ranking Mexican police commander who was the point person for intelligence sharing between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement has pleaded “no contest” to charges he leaked sensitive information, including the identity of an informant, to drug cartel members who were targets of a U.S.-led investigation.
Ivan Reyes Arzate, 46, is accused of funneling sensitive information about surveillance operations from U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents to the cartel members, who were the objects of those very same operations in Mexico, over a Blackberry Messenger app.
The unusual pleading of “nolo contendere,” which required a judge’s approval, means Reyes Arzate is acknowledging that the particular facts, if presented at trial, would result in a verdict of guilty, but stops short of admitting guilt.
Reyes Arzate flew to Chicago and self-surrendered to law enforcement in April 2017, according to Chris Hotaling, assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago.
The complaint says that on Sept. 8, 2016, a DEA agent in Mexico City texted Reyes to request his assistance in conducting surveillance of a target involved in a drug trafficking network that was importing cocaine by the ton from Colombia to Mexico. The agent provided Reyes with a photo of the person they were targeting for surveillance and the name of a restaurant and the time when the target was expected to be there.
A day later, on Sept. 9, the DEA intercepted a Blackberry message from a user with the screen-name "Ayala" warning the same cartel member that he was the target of a drug investigation. Ayala, who DEA investigators believe is Reyes, also sent the cartel member a photo identical to the one the DEA agent had provided to Reyes the day before. The sender added a message to the photo that said: “It’s you.”
According to the criminal complaint, Reyes also met in secret with the main target of the DEA’s investigation in November 2016. Reyes admitted to the meeting when DEA agents and officials with the U.S. Attorney's office confronted him about it at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City in February 2017. But he has denied being the source of the leak of the U.S. investigation. He claims the cartel boss asked for the meeting to relay information to aid in the arrest of members from an enemy group in the northern border state of Tamaulipas.
Law enforcement agents "meet with cartel members in Mexico all the time,” said his lawyer, Joseph Lopez. “And you have cartels giving money to federal police to bust their friends and enemies and get them out of the business. Was Here [in the United States] the FBI agents go and talk to the wiseguys. How is that any different?”
Before he surrendered to U.S. law enforcement in April 2017, Reyes Arzate was the highest ranking member of Mexico's Sensitive Investigative Unit, a department of the Mexican Federal Police that has worked closely with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Mexico for 20 years on high-level anti-drug arrests and extraditions.
Reyes Azarte was involved in high-priority investigations of notorious cartel figures including Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, head of the Sinaloa Cartel, and American drug lord Edgar Valdez Villarreal, aka La Barbie, formerly of the Beltran-Leyva Cartel.
Reyes Arzate joined the elite law enforcement unit around 2008. According to court records, he was vetted and received training from the DEA in the United States, serving as the unit’s commander for the past several years under the codename La Reina, or The Queen.
The Sensitive Investigative Unit Program was approved by Congress 20 years ago to give the DEA a way to contend with the corruption endemic in foreign partners like Mexico. Under the program, the DEA handpicks its team members from the host country’s police forces, vets them and sends them away to training, usually in the United States.
Reyes Arzate was hardly the first instance of corruption in the program. Current and former DEA agents who worked in Mexico told ProPublica’s Ginger Thompson that at least two Mexican supervisors with the program have been assassinated after their identities and locations were leaked to drug traffickers by SIU members.
Several of the agents told Thompson that part of “the game” of working in Mexico involves understanding that even the vetted Sensitive Investigative Unit might leak to a specific cartel and that the trick was “figuring out which cartel the vetted unit was helping, and then using the unit to pursue that cartel’s rivals.”
According to a federal criminal complaint unsealed in Illinois in April, Reyes Azarte was a dirty cop of long standing in Mexico — a claim his lawyer made no effort to deny. The complaint refers to an unnamed informant and cartel member who in 2016 told the DEA that Reyes Arzate had received millions of dollars in payments after putting his powers as a federal police commander at the disposal of a breakaway faction of El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel.
The same DEA informant, identified in the document as a former Mexican law enforcement official and member of what is known as the Beltran-Leyva Cartel, claimed to have been present when Reyes Arzate revealed the identity of a DEA confidential informant in the cartel who was later kidnapped and murdered as a result of the tip.
His lawyer, Joseph Lopez, asserted the DEA knew about Reyes Azarte for years and that the agency kept him in a position of command within the vetted unit and continued employing him in sensitive investigations. Lopez said he was fighting for a judge to order the release of details from his client’s personnel file.
“I can’t talk about it because it’s under protective order but there’s a lot of stuff out there,” Lopez told The Daily Beast. “Stuff in Mexico. What they knew about him, How it was all put together. Why he was chosen for certain positions. Different things that I don’t think they want to disclose, and I don’t blame them. If I was a prosecutor I wouldn’t disclose it either. I’d just wrap it up and let it go.”
“DEA’s running a straight operation down there,” he added. “But I think they turn their backs on a lot of this stuff.”
A DEA spokesperson referred questions on the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago. A U.S. Attorney’s spokesperson declined to comment on Lopez’s claims.
The Chicago Tribune reported that although conspiracy and obstruction of justice convictions carry up to 25 years in prison, the preliminary sentencing guidelines discussed in court Friday suggest Reyes Arzate will likely face as little as 2 years behind bars.
“What he pled guilty to is not that bad to warrant anything more than that,” Lopez said.
Hotaling of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago declined to comment on sentencing guidelines his office was considering in the case. “Because of the nature of the plea, we have not publicly put on the record what those sentencing guidelines are,” Hotaling said.
U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve will hand down a sentence on Aug. 29.