MEXICO CITY — In a major embarrassment for Mexican law enforcement, U.S. prosecutors said in documents made public Wednesday that the commander of a Mexican police intelligence-sharing unit was passing information on a DEA investigation to the Beltran Leyva drug cartel in exchange for millions of dollars.
Ivan Reyes Arzate, 45, was named in a U.S. district court indictment, just hours after Mexican federal police commissioner Manelich Castilla revealed that an unnamed agent had been charged with obstructing an investigation.
What Castilla did not say was that Reyes Arzate was the commander of a federal police sensitive investigative unit. The special units, known as SIUs, were formed starting in the 1990s precisely to create more secure groups that the U.S. could feel comfortable sharing intelligence with. Castilla said Reyes Arzate had been fired in November. He is in U.S. custody.
The Justice Department described Reyes Arzate as "the principal point of contact for information being shared between U.S. law enforcement and the Mexican Federal Police."
According to the U.S. indictment, Reyes Arzate was caught on a wiretap in September telling a drug trafficker to get rid of his communications equipment because he was under investigation and his phones were being tapped.
He even sent the trafficker a surveillance photo that the Mexican police unit had taken of him. That photo — sent to a mobile device that was being tapped — was what first awoke suspicions among U.S. officials that there was a mole in the investigation.
Reyes Arzate has acknowledged meeting with a drug trafficker but denied sending him information.
The U.S. indictment unsealed Wednesday in Chicago says Reyes Arzate was the top commander of an SIU unit whose officers were specially trained and vetted by the United States, including weeklong training at a DEA school in Quantico, Virginia.
A former federal police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is no longer with the agency said Reyes Arzate was probably two or three steps down in the command chain from Mexico's federal police commissioner.
"Reyes, in his role as supervisor over the SIU, routinely had contact and worked collaboratively with DEA agents in Mexico City," according to the indictment.
Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said there had always been a problem with the special units: The top commanders refused to submit to background or polygraph checks, even though low-level agents were vetted.
"The higher echelon, the higher level of the federal police, do not want to be vetted," Vigil said. "So the information that goes from the vetted units to their commanders can be easily compromised."
"We have pushed for that ... they have never wanted to and I think that a lot of them have severe integrity issues, so they don't want to go through that vetting because they're afraid of what we may find out," Vigil said. "A lot of them are corrupt so they don't want to be vetted. If we were able to vet them from top to bottom it would be a great program."
What is startling is the length and depth of Reyes Arzate's collusion with the Beltran Leyva gang. Beyond giving the drug traffickers detailed advice on how to evade the DEA investigation, he passed on fresh information given to him by the U.S. agency.
An unidentified confidential source cited in the indictment said Reyes Arzate had directly passed tips to Arturo Beltran Leyva, the cartel boss who was killed in 2009. That meant that Reyes Arzate had been a cartel mole in police agencies for at least seven years.
The cartel even killed a DEA informant based on information supplied by Reyes Arzate.
It raised questions about how Mexican authorities could possibly have missed such longstanding, outrageous corruption.
Still, it's not the first time Mexico has failed to detect such deep corruption.
The indictment comes about a week after the attorney general for the Mexican state of Nayarit was arrested at the U.S. border on drug charges.
Edgar Veytia was charged in the United States with conspiracy to smuggle cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine to the U.S. from January 2013 to last month, while he was chief law enforcement officer in the Pacific coast state of Nayarit.
The revelations about two such-high-ranking officers could fuel continuing tensions between Mexico and the United States.
Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope said "there seems to be a pattern here."
"In both cases, the arrests were made without the participation of Mexican authorities. Confidence is not at its highest level."
Added Vigil: "It detracts from the working relationship we have worked so hard to build."
Mark Stevenson, The Associated Press