Preview: Confidential Informant Series

NPR launches a special investigation into confidential informants. They're a vital crime fighting tool, but what happens if those informants go astray? The confidential informants operate in a secret, largely unregulated world.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. We're launching today a special NPR investigation into a side of law enforcement that gets more attention in the movies than in the press. We're talking about informants. They're a vital tool for fighting crime. But what happens if those informants go astray? NPR's Carrie Kahn has spent the past several months looking into this, and she joined us from NPR West with a preview of her reports on confidential informants, which begin later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Good morning.

CARRIE KAHN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, Carrie, you're investigation looks at one case in depth, and it's the story of a Mexican informant who infiltrated a top drug cartel in the border city of Juarez. What happened in this case?

KAHN: Renee, this case is about an informant who is known by his nickname, Lalo. And one day in the year 2000, he walked over the international bridge from Juarez, Mexico into El Paso, Texas, and he told U.S. agents that he had tons of information on drug cartels there and he wanted to be an informant.

And his information was great. He brought in a corrupt U.S. Customs agent taking bribes from drug gangs. He even helped crack an international cigarette smuggling ring. But the gang he worked for went on this eight-month, murderous war against drug rivals in Juarez. And they were killing, kidnapping and torturing. And Lalo was there with them the whole time.

He admitted to participating in one murder, driving others to a Juarez house where they tortured and kidnapped drug rivals. All of these activities were done while he collected more than a quarter of a million dollars on the U.S. payroll.

MONTAGNE: That's really awful stuff. But in a way, one maybe shouldn't be surprised that an informant would take part in criminal acts. I mean, wouldn't that be necessary to maintain his cover?

KAHN: Well, that's exactly what Lalo told me. He says I've infiltrated this criminal syndicate. I have to act like a criminal, or they'll know I'm a snitch. So - but there are federal guidelines - and most of them are promulgated by the FBI - on what crimes are allowable and what steps you need to take to get supervisorial permission to continue infiltrating a gang.

And the question came up throughout our investigation: Does the end always justify the means? Was it worth what he had to go through and what the U.S. government was part and parcel to to get this top drug lord, which they - in the end, they did get.

MONTAGNE: Now, I understand you spoke with officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That's the agency that was using this particular informant. What did they say about this?

KAHN: In general, they said that their guidelines for using confidential informants are sound. They have safeguards in place, and they have had no problem recruiting, retaining and supervising the vast number, and they say in the thousands, of confidential informants that they use.

And now in the case of Lalo, the top official we spoke with, his name is Kumar Kibble, he puts the blame of what went wrong in this case directly with the lead case agent, who Kibble says just withheld information from supervisors.

Mr. KUMAR KIBBLE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement): Had management been fully informed, we could've implemented strategies and taken a different tack that ultimately would've safeguarded more lives. This is not an appropriate case to comment on, because the procedures that we implemented weren't followed.

KAHN: This is the first time ICE has ever gone on the record talking about this case. And also for the first time, we spoke with the lead agent. He's never spoke out before. But he insists that he told supervisors and he told their supervisors all along what was happening in Mexico.

MONTAGNE: So, preview of what the series is going to be and more, but tell us really quickly why this case is so important.

KAHN: Well, we spoke with several experts and Congress members who are concerned about the proliferation of the use of confidential informants, which they say is done in an unregulated and secretive manner. And these snitches, as they all them, are used on all levels of crime fighting, from local police departments to federal agency.

Here's Alexandra�Natapoff, and she's a law professor, and she just wrote this book titled "Snitching." And she stresses that she's not advocating doing away with confidential informants. But she's concerned about the price the U.S. judicial system is paying when making deals with these criminal informants. Are the tradeoffs done off the books? Are they worth it?

Professor ALEXANDRA�NATAPOFF (Professor of Law; Author, "Snitching"): There's no one in the system who knows how many snitches there are. Nobody knows how many crimes they commit. Nobody knows how many crimes they solve. There are no mechanisms for keeping track of this massive public policy that, in effect, makes decisions for us every day.

KAHN: Congress has stepped in to demand for accountability in the system after some abuses have come to light in the use of confidential informants. And we spoke with a congressman who says the accountability is too lax, and it's time to revisit the issue again.

MONTAGNE: Carrie, thanks very much.

KAHN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn. One of her stories in her series Confidential Informants comes from a partnership with the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco. The series begins this afternoon on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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