SCOTT SIMON, host:

This week, NPR News has been examining the shady world of confidential informants. Today, we shift gears and focus on one of the good guys. He played by the rules. He gathered evidence on Mexico's drug gangs. So, why did the federal government turn on him? It's the final story in our series in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting, and it's reported by Andrew Becker.

ANDREW BECKER: Last July in Seattle, federal agents announced one of the biggest drug busts in the city's history. They took down a cocaine and methamphetamine network that extended from Washington state to central Mexico. For local media, the press conference was one of those made-for-TV moments, when the cops lay out seized guns and drugs like trophies.

Unidentified Man: The feds say this is an arsenal of a Mexican drug gang. One of the guns, a .50-caliber pistol.

BECKER: Federal agents penetrated the group with the help of a longtime confidential informant. His name is Ernesto Gamboa. Gamboa agreed to talk about his double life because he no longer works for the government.

He's a citizen of El Salvador, but has lived off and on in the U.S. since the early 1990s. Gamboa says he infiltrated the Mexican gang by posing as a Colombian drug trafficker.

Mr. ERNESTO GAMBOA (Former Informant): When I have a target in front of me, I'm a totally different person. I'm Tony from Colombia and everything changed. I totally changed.

BECKER: Gamboa says he liked working as a police informant, but the big Seattle case was his last. He walked away from the investigation weeks before it ended, saying federal agents failed to pay him and deliver on other promises. Then, just days after the press conference, Gamboa got a shock. It started with this seemingly innocuous phone message from an agent of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, or ICE.

Unidentified Man: Can you please give me a call? I have some paperwork I got to get to you somehow or another. Thanks a lot. Talk to you later. Bye.

BECKER: Gamboa thought the message was all about getting paid for his work, but it was a setup. ICE agents arrested Gamboa and put him in immigration lockup, pending deportation. To Gamboa, returning to his native El Salvador would be a death sentence.

Mr. GAMBOA: It's a dangerous country, and it's easy to find people and easy for any drug dealers to hire somebody for a thousand dollars. And I will be killed.

BECKER: Gamboa is a stocky 41-year-old. He asked that we not reveal what he looks like or where he lives out of fear that drug gangs might retaliate. Immigration agents seem to brush off Gamboa's safety concerns, but they had a harder time ignoring the backlash his arrest unleashed.

Retired narcotics detective Tom Zweiger supervised Gamboa in earlier investigations. He was livid.

Mr. TOM ZWEIGER (Retired Narcotics Detective): Looks to me like they took from him as much as they could and then just decided, OK, he's a nuisance to us anyway so we'll just deport him because we can. There was no reason for this to happen.

BECKER: Zweiger isn't the only person troubled by Gamboa's arrest and threatened deportation. Senator Maria Cantwell says his case raises hard questions about how ICE is dealing with some immigrants who have risked their lives as informants and want a shot at staying in America.

Senator MARIA CANTWELL (Democrat, Washington): It's troubling to think that the same agencies of Homeland Security would use someone to tackle crime and bust up drug rings, and then their reward for that is to deport them to possibly a life-or-death situation.

BECKER: ICE maintains around 3,000 informants, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. ICE officials won't comment on specific cases, including Gamboa's. But Alonzo Pena, ICE's head of operations, says his agents protect informants however they can.

Mr. ALONZO PENA (Head of Operations, ICE): We do not view informants as a commodity, just on a practical matter. If we treated people like that, we would never have people wanting to come work for us.

BECKER: Under pressure, ICE released Gamboa after six weeks in detention. But that hasn't removed the threat of deportation.

On a recent winter morning, Gamboa took us to some of the locations where he helped engineer big drug busts. There was a motel just off the interstate, and a parking lot behind a movie theater.

Mr. GAMBOA: We always put the sniper right there.

BECKER: Then we went to Pike Place Market. It's a Seattle landmark and big tourist hub, where young people strum guitars for pocket change and fishmongers chant to shoppers. It's cleaned up a lot since the mid-1990s; that's when Gamboa got his start, helping local cops.

Mr. GAMBOA: Back then, it was tons of people here dealing drugs, and now everything is way, way different. Look more safe. Good, I like that.

BECKER: Gamboa says he's proud of his work in clearing out the drugs dealers. And the cops who directed him, they say he's earned the right to stay here. But they dont like to call him an informant. They say that sounds too much like a gang turncoat trying to stay out of prison.

Gamboa's story is different. He had his brushes with the law. He was convicted of minor drug possession and originally entered the US illegally.

But retired Washington state patrol Detective Tom Padukiewicz says Gamboa volunteered to work with police.

Mr. TOM PADUKIEWICZ (Retired Detective): I felt that he thought he was doing the right thing for the community. I think he felt like he was part of the team, and I think he really liked that. He had that want-to-be-cop personality, and it just gave him a sense purpose.

The cops paid Gamboa for his work - $140,000 over 14 years. But Gamboa says federal agents promised something more valuable: help getting an S-visa. That's a special visa given to a small number of high-value informants.

Jorge Baron is Gamboa's attorney.

Mr. JORGE BARON (Attorney): In terms of what the government said to Ernesto, it is pretty clear that they gave strong indications that they were going to try to help him obtain legal status.

BECKER: This is where Gamboa's supporters say federal agents betrayed him. While agents told Gamboa they were looking into a long-term visa, ICE renewed his temporary permission to be in the U.S. so he could continue working as an informant. That was in 2008. But according to court documents, at the same time, ICE also secretly prepared to deport Gamboa. Fourteen months later, agents arrested him.

Attorney Baron.

Mr. BARON: They kept promising this sort of carrot - that, we're going to try. But they didnt try. The simple fact is that they didnt initiate the process, which they had the ability to do. And they still had the ability to do, even at this late stage - to be able to get him legal status.

BECKER: ICE officials declined to talk about whether Gamboa was ever promised any kind of residency, including an S-visa. Justice Department officials say the S-visa program is limited. Under law, only 200 can be issued to informants like Gamboa each year. The actual number is usually much lower.

Mark Bartlett is the first assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle.

Mr. MARK BARTLETT (First Assistant U.S. Attorney, Seattle): With regard to a sponsoring law-enforcement agency, it isn't just that an agency steps forward and says, I think John Doe would be a good person for this program.

BECKER: But Maria Cantwell says government bureaucracy is hindering the goals of the S-visa program. When she raised her concerns with ICE, Cantwell says she just got the runaround.

Representative MARIA CANTWELL (Democrat, Washington): When it comes to talking about S-visas, it seems to go into the ether...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Representative CANTWELL: ...that it's somebody's, and it's also nobody's, responsibility.

BECKER: So in December, Cantwell took Gamboa's case to the top of the Obama administration in meetings, letters, and in this Senate hearing.

Representative CANTWELL: If we don't help the Gamboas, who have been the informants for us, how are we going to recruit other people to - helping us with finding drug traffickers and criminals?

Even though weve asked a lot of questions and a lot of people are looking at this, the fact that no one is stepping up and taking responsibility means that these people will fall through the cracks. And when they fall through the cracks, it means our system of security will also fall through the cracks.

BECKER: Ernesto Gamboa hasnt slipped through the cracks yet, but he's still in limbo. He's trying to get legal status so he can start a new life in the Pacific Northwest. So far, no law-enforcement agency has stepped forward to support his bid.

For NPR News, I'm Andrew Becker.

SIMON: And weve got more stories from our series on confidential informants on our Web site, NPR.org.

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