Image credit: Al Punto / Univision Network News
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Norma knows what it’s like to live through hell. She says she’s experienced it ever since she was a child, growing up in an abusive family in extreme poverty in South Texas, as a teenager when she was forced by her stepfather to enter the world of drug trafficking, later as an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and throughout 39 years of living as an undocumented immigrant.
Norma, who asked that her real name not be used, agreed to start working for the DEA in 1989. She was 19 years old and undocumented at the time. She says she agreed to it mainly because they promised to legalize her immigration status. But that promise was never fulfilled. Now, she says, she feels trapped and deceived by the same system she served for more than two decades, which is now keeping her in a state of limbo.
According to immigration attorney Jodi Goodwin, her story is not unique.
“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,” said Goodwin. “And they know they don’t have to deliver on it. But they keep pressuring them with that promise so they will keep cooperating.”
For Norma, that reality has become a nightmare that still isn’t over.
“No work, no papers,” Norma says she was told repeatedly by DEA and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents so that she would keep cooperating with their operations to seize drugs and capture drug traffickers between 1989 and 2010.
“They promised me papers on each mission and I got excited, but they never gave me a visa. That’s how they trapped me and guaranteed that I would keep helping them in their investigations. And when I refused to cooperate, they just threatened to deport me,” she says.
Norma is now struggling to remain legally in the United States, where she has lived for almost all of her life, and where her children and grandchildren were born. “This is my home,” she says.
The secret world of informants
An estimated 4,000 active confidential informants work for the DEA, according to an official 2005 report by the Department of Justice. The report tracked payments made to informants for an Office of the Inspector General (OIG) audit.
According to the 126-page document, the DEA does not have a very transparent or efficient payment system for its thousands of confidential informants, called C.I.s or simply knows as “snitches.” In the report, DEA officials stated, "Without confidential sources, the DEA could not effectively enforce the controlled substances laws of the United States."
“It’s hard for DEA agents to enter a drug distribution site without the help of informants,” says Norma, who says she was used as “bait” in various operations where she had to go in search of criminals.
Confidential informants operate in a secret, underground world where there aren’t clear rules and anything could happen -- even an unexpected outcome such as death.
“You don’t know whether you will get out of an operation alive. There’s nothing fun about it, and the fear is constant,” says Norma, who confesses that she got used to staying alert and aware of her surroundings, making sure everything was locked in her house and always carrying a suitcase of clothes in the trunk of her car.
Even though it’s been three years since she stopped working as an informant, she says she still experiences constant fear, which sometimes turns into panic attacks or depression, and the nagging feeling that she could be a potential target -- of retaliation, arrest or deportation.
Meanwhile, Norma is still trying to find a way to stay in the United States legally. She has met with immigration lawyers and sought help at an immigrant rights center. “I just want papers, freedom and peace,” she says.
Her struggle for the right to have a normal life seems to be moving forward. In June 2012, she was questioned as a witness by FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) officials as part of an investigation into alleged corruption by personnel working for government security agencies along the Texas border.
Norma had worked with several agents who supervised her in the DHS and DEA offices in McAllen, Texas. In fact, a federal grand jury in Washington subpoenaed employees of both agencies in McAllen to testify in the investigation into falsified evidence, misconduct and corruption.
The Office of Inspector General in South Texas is now carrying out more than 150 investigations into the operations of Homeland Security employees.
The investigation, launched in 2004, has resulted in dozens of cases of administrative sanction and dismissal of border agents for corruption, according to a statement released by the Department of Justice. As a result of Norma’s case, which was put on the FBI’s radar through the intervention of a local immigrant advocacy center, Norma says the investigations were expanded to the Dallas office.
Norma says FBI agents questioned her about what she claims was an illegal raid on her home in 2010. She says armed DHS officials entered her home by force at 5:00 a.m., handcuffed her and threatened to deport her. She says the agents threatened to take custody of her teenage daughter, who was there at the time, if Norma refused to keep working as a DEA informant. She says they released her from handcuffs so that she could sign a document agreeing to work with the DEA for another year.
The two officers that Norma says entered her home could not be reached for comment for this report.
Amy Owen, supervisor of the OIG in Dallas, declined to comment on the status of Norma’s case, saying that it was still under investigation.
Calls made to the FBI office in Dallas were not returned.
A year after the incident, Norma went to McAllen to renew her Border Crossing Card (a document that allows limited entry into the United States by Mexican nationals) in 2011, but was confronted by one of the same agents who called her a “troublemaker” for talking to the FBI about it.
Norma says the agent searched her purse and destroyed all of the documents that could prove her presence in the United States, including her social security card and temporary work visa. She says he ordered her expedited removal and she was immediately escorted to Mexico.
After that, Norma spent a few days in the Mexican border city of Reynosa, not knowing what to do. “I have nothing and no one in Mexico, since my family is in Dallas,” she says. She decided to sneak across the border into the United States.
How it all began
When Norma was five years old, her mother brought her to South Texas from a small town in the Mexican border state of Coahuila. She grew up in poverty in an unincoporated community, or colonia, outside of the city of Edinburg, Texas, with an abusive stepfather. She says she still carries the pain of those early memories with her, even though she is constantly trying to overcome them.
“We lived in one of the six blue houses on a dirt road. It was practically a shack, with tin walls, and just one room where my parents, four kids and a baby slept. We spent two years there without electricity, just living by candlelight. We ate vegetables that we stole from nearby fields and sometimes from neighbors,” she recalls.
Despite this, Norma says it was the people who raised her that made a deeper impression on her life. “It’s who you grow up with, not where you grow up that counts,” she says.
She says she felt like she was “nobody's daughter” because she never met her biological father and her relationship with her mother was strained.
When U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986, which granted legal status to some three million undocumented immigrants, Norma’s mother and sisters legalized their own status, but did not include Norma in their application -- whether for lack of funds or simply because the family didn’t want to, she still doesn’t know.
As a teenager, Norma ran away from home to escape her stepfather’s harassment. She went to live on the streets, sleeping under bridges, in the backseat of taxi cabs and anywhere she could find. After being homeless for a few months, her stepfather told her that he had made a deal for her to help support the family by going to work for a group of Mexican criminals. She was 16 years old.
“I was immature, and I went along with the commitment my stepfather made, thinking nothing could be worse than my current situation,” she says.
Working as a ‘mule’
The “job” that her stepfather had found for her was a deal he had made with the Michoacan Cartel in the mid-‘80s, for her to work as a “mule” – carrying illegal drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border.
For three years, Norma traveled back and forth between the border city of Reynosa and the city of Apatzingan, in southern Mexico, where she was put under the command of the Michoacan Cartel to smuggle packages of “black tar” heroin into the United States.
She describes how they taught her to place the drugs around her waist, hidden under her clothes. Three times a month, she would smuggle three pounds of heroin from Mexico to the United States by plane, and sometimes by ground.
After each trip Norma made from Michoacan to the United States, her stepfather in Edinberg, Texas would receive a direct payment from the Mexican drug traffickers.
In those years in the late ‘80s, stationed in the Michoacan Cartel’s camp in the mountains, Norma says she was subjected to severe physical and psychological abuse.
She also got to know the drug traffickers’ lifestyle and learned details about their rivals in the business.
Welcome to the DEA
Norma stopped working for the drug traffickers in 1989, after her boyfriend at the time was arrested. Norma, then 19, visited a Corpus Christi police station to check on her boyfriend and try to get him released. She spoke with Charles Bartels, a police officer assigned to the DEA task force, who quickly realized that the young woman’s experience in the world of drug trafficking and the information she had access to made her an ideal candidate to become a DEA informant.
Norma says she agreed to become a confidential informant (C.I.) without a clear idea of what that meant, but that she was convinced by the promise of legalization of her immigration status. She says she was also offered temporary work permits, Border Crossing Cards and a percentage of the money collected in operations where her participation was crucial.
Bartels, now retired, declined to comment for this report, saying that he had already written a letter about Norma’s case.
In his letter, which was addressed to the attorney handling Norma’s case at the local immigrant rights center, Bartels wrote that Norma “assisted the government in an investigation” and “the assistance was very substantial.”
He wrote that Norma’s help with the federal investigation put her “in a compromising position in that if she is returned to Mexico I feel she would easily have been a target for retaliation by members of the organization who are still outstanding fugitives.”
The former DEA agent confirmed in his letter that, “During the time she worked with the government a failed attempt was started to try and seek legalized status for her. I believe the time constraints for documenting her schooling and residency in Texas was a factor.”
During her years as a DEA informant, Norma got her high school equivalency (GED) credits transferred so that she could go back to school. She was trained and registered as a nursing assistant by the state of Texas in 2009 and got her legal state registration card from the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services.
Retired officer Bartels wrote in his letter that Norma “has been a good example of a caring citizen” who “has offered information to other law enforcement agencies since my contact.”
In the nearly 20 years that she worked on and off with the DEA, Norma was issued about six employment authorization permits in the United States and a valid social security card in order to work as a federal confidential informant.
In fact, one of Norma’s official permits to enter the United States, the I-94 form issued by Dallas immigration authorities on April 11, 2008, was stamped with the letters SPBP, meaning “Significant Public Benefit Parole,” a USCIS authorization for foreigners who take part in legal proceedings.
But she was never granted the kind of immigration legalization that is specially designed for witnesses and informants, the “S” visa.
The “S” visa, or so-called “snitch” visa, allows federal law enforcement agencies, such as the DEA, to submit an application for foreign-born informants and witnesses to get a green card. There is a cap of up to 200 “S” visas that can be granted to these informants each year.
But the visa has been granted sparingly. Between 1995 and 2004, a total of only 511 informants’ visas were approved. In 2012 only one visa was issued, according to a Jan. 19, 2005 Congressional report.
Fear and danger
It didn’t take Norma long to realize the risks of being a confidential informant. She 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.
Informants are ‘used and abused’
Jodi Goodwin, an immigration attorney who has represented more than 50 cases of confidential informants, says U.S. federal government agencies permanently “use and abuse undocumented informants and trample their human rights for years with impunity.”
An expert in the legal defense of informants in Harlingen, Texas, Goodwin confirms that federal agents often “promise them permanent residency and help for their families, but they never fulfill it because they don’t feel obligated to fulfill that promise.”
Few of those represented by Goodwin have succeeded in getting work permits and protection in immigration courts to stay in the United States. But those who do, she says, must maintain a low-profile, almost secret life.
A few years ago, the attorney garnered national attention when she defended the confidential informant Guillermo Ramirez Peyro Eduardo, known as “Lalo,” who infiltrated the Juarez Cartel to operate as an informant for ICE in the Mexican border city of Juarez.
“Lalo” won a legal victory last year, preventing his extradition to Mexico, which would have put him in imminent danger of torture and death, she says.
In a telephone interview, Goodwin said that federal agencies are “cheating and exploiting informants,” who are used as bait and then disposed of when they are no longer of use.
In Norma’s case, the attorney noted, “It seems that they also wanted her to disappear into the shadows, after she served the government for so many years.”
Immigration attorney Javier Maldonado of San Antonio adds that federal agencies rarely try to help their informants get legal status through resources like the “S” visa.
“It's not ethical or moral to refuse to protect the informants who risk their lives in most investigations, and this happens because there is no consciousness or will in the federal agencies to enforce and apply the law, to provide protection and an immigration solution for the informants,” says Maldonado.
Undisclosed number of undocumented informants
Rusty Payne, spokesperson for the DEA in Washington, D.C., said he could not disclose the number of confidential informants used by the DEA or how many may be undocumented immigrants. But, he said, the majority of informants are U.S. citizens.
Due to the secrecy that characterizes confidential informants, it is difficult to find data on their collaboration in federal investigations. The only reports available include estimates provided by the Department of Justice: In a 2005 report, the DEA estimated that it operates with 4,000 active informants. In 2007, the FBI said in a budget statement that the number of CIs working for them reached 15,000. Another report by ICE stated that its spending on informants amounted to $9.5 million in 2009.
In Mexico, her life would be at risk
Norma, who has lived in Texas since she was five and attended American schools all her life, has always felt that she was American.
Now, she says, all she wants is to live a normal life as a mother and grandmother. “I will keep defending and fighting for myself, for my life,” she says.
Norma says she still receives threatening phone calls. “In all those years as a confidential informant,” she says, “I heard death threats and other kinds of threats.”
When asked about whether she would ever live in Mexico, she says that is “unthinkable and practically impossible.”
“If I go to Mexico,” she says, “I am going to be killed, I'm sure of it.”
This article was produced as part of New America Media’s Women Immigrants Fellowship Program.
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