Critics Blast Informant System Cloaked In Secrecy Though movies like the 1990 mob tale Goodfellas put the spotlight on government informants, in reality, the ties between snitches and their handlers are rarely that transparent. Critics say the government often uses, then discards informants — and they want to see more safeguards.
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Critics Blast Informant System Cloaked In Secrecy

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Critics Blast Informant System Cloaked In Secrecy

Critics Blast Informant System Cloaked In Secrecy

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.

Today, we continue our special NPR News investigation, exploring the world of confidential informants. They can help the government nab a drug dealer or a terrorist. But many informants are criminals themselves, and putting them on the U.S. payroll doesnt stop them from breaking the law. Most of us will never know if an informant commits a serious crime, even murder. The system is that cloaked in secrecy.

NPR's Carrie Kahn has spent months examining this dark corner of law enforcement. Here's part two of her investigation.

CARRIE KAHN: Informants get more attention in the movies than they do in the press. Think Henry Hill, the real-life mobster turned FBI snitch who was immortalized in the 1990 gangster flick "Goodfellas."

(Soundbite of movie, Goodfellas)

Unidentified Man: People call them rats because they will do anything to survive. Isnt that right, Mr. Hill?

Mr. EDWARD HAYES (Actor): (as Defense Attorney) Objection.

Mr. PAUL McISAAC (Actor): (as Judge) Objection sustained.

Mr. RAY LIOTTA (Actor): (as Henry Hill) I don't know nothing about being a rat.

Unidentified Man: Mr. Hill, you know everything about being a rat.

Mr. HAYES: (as Defense Attorney) Objection, Your Honor.

KAHN: Hollywood told the lurid story of how Hill stayed inside the New York mob while supplying the FBI with damning evidence on his mafia bosses. But in reality, things are rarely that transparent.

Loyola Law professor, Alexandra Natapoff, is an expert on the topic and author of a new book called "Snitching." She says the public has no clue about the thousands of informants now on the government payroll.

Professor ALEXANDRA NATAPOFF (Loyola Law School; Author, Snitching): It's very clandestine, secretive and unregulated arena that yet influences the outcomes of millions of cases and investigations. It shapes the way we lawyer. It shapes the way we judge. It shapes what we call fair and good. And yet, we almost never see any evidence of it pop up on the public record.

KAHN: Natapoff says the use of informants is on the rise, especially in the government's ongoing war on drugs. She worries that far too often, police and prosecutors hire informants who continue committing the worst kinds of crimes. These deals with the devil, she says, compromise our judicial system and betray our national integrity.

Prof. NATAPOFF: There is 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: If there's a poster boy for how things can go wrong, it's Guillermo Eduardo Ramirez Peyro, a Mexican drug runner better known as Lalo. As we reported yesterday, Lalo became an informant for ICE, the Immigration Customs and Enforcement Agency. He infiltrated one of Ciudad Juarez's most notorious drug cartels and gave authorities the evidence to arrest more than 90 criminals.

Lalo says that at the time, in exchange for his information, U.S. federal agents promised him the world.

Mr. GUILLERMO EDUARDO RAMIREZ PEYRO (Former Drug Runner): Everything, payment, protection for me and all my loved ones, and permanent residence, everything, all kinds of things.

KAHN: They were also willing to overlook that he was still smuggling drugs and had connections to a string of brutal murders in Juarez. But in the end, Lalo didn't get any of the things he says the U.S. promised him. Today, he's in a federal detention facility fighting deportation to Mexico.

Mr. PEYRO: They don't give me nothing. They just put me in jail.

KAHN: He's spent more than five years in a limbo of solitary confinement.

Lalo's attorney, Jodi Goodwin, says as soon as ICE got all that it wanted, the agency stopped renewing his permission to stay in the U.S. and started deportation proceedings.

Ms. JODI GOODWIN (Defense Attorney): ICE turned around and threw him to the dogs. They were going to ship him straight back to Mexico to the people that hed informed upon, and he would be killed immediately.

KAHN: Goodwin has been representing Lalo for more than five years. She pulls a cardboard box from behind her desk into the middle of her small office in Harlingen, Texas.

Ms. GOODWIN: This is Lalo's case. It's about 13 three-inch three-ring binders. And I've actually gone to storing it in a huge U-Haul moving box, because theres so much of it, it doesn't fit in my filing cabinet.

KAHN: Lalo's case has dragged on for years. Twice a federal judge has sided with him, ruling that the ex-informant would be killed if returned to Mexico. But ICE has appealed both federal rulings and wants to send him back.

Goodwin says, in her experience, confidential informants are often treated like disposable property.

Ms. GOODWIN: The agencies that they're working with don't do anything to protect their informants once the cases are over. But while they're making that case, they'll give you the world. They'll promise you the world. But after you're done, they don't need you anymore, it's like use, abuse, throw away.

KAHN: As the war on drugs escalates, the government continues to run through and discard informants, say defense attorneys we interviewed in several cities along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In McAllen, Texas, attorney Kyle Brown represents a Mexican national who was a DEA informant south of the border. Brown says the agency promised his client they'd fix it so he could have legal residency in the U.S. But after the informant's information dried up, the DEA stopped renewing his legal residency papers. Brown says that's the way it works.

Mr. KYLE BROWN (Defense Attorney): At the end of the usefulness of that informant, the benefits end. There's no longer any parole documentation, and it is by their actions, theyre saying, see you.

KAHN: He says after working for authorities here, there's no way most informants can return to Mexico, so they stay in the U.S. illegally or ask for asylum, like his client has done.

Mr. BROWN: If youre an informant, if youre a known informant and you go back to Mexico, I think your time on this earth is not going to be very long.

KAHN: The DEA declined our requests for an interview, as did Justice Department officials. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement did talk about the many complaints we heard from border attorneys.

Kumar Kibble, ICE's former acting director of criminal investigations, says it's not true that his agency abandons or double-crosses its informants.

Mr. KUMAR KIBBLE: You know, I don't know who youve been talking to, but I mean we have been successfully recruiting informants year after year. And I think they have a comfort level in working with ICE. I mean, otherwise, we wouldn't be able to continue to bring the highly successful investigations we've been bringing.

KAHN: But Kibble wouldn't talk about Lalo. He had no comment about why the agency wants to send its once-prized informant back to Mexico, where he faces almost certain death.

No one is advocating banning the use of confidential informants. They've helped lock up scores of notorious criminals, from drug traffickers to terrorists. But Loyola law professor Alexandra Natapoff says the practice needs more safeguards.

Prof. NATAPOFF: The argument is not we should get rid of snitching. The argument is we should handle it the way we handle any other crucial allocation of power and liability. We should do it rationally, with guidelines that everybody follows. And there should be some accountability mechanism. And right now, theres almost no mechanism for doing that.

KAHN: The Justice Department and the FBI have taken the lead in setting guidelines for the use of confidential informants. Under pressure from Congress, those rules were strengthened several years ago. But in a 2005 Inspector General report, investigators found that in 85 percent of the cases reviewed, the guidelines were not followed.

Texas Senator John Cornyn spent six years trying to get some answers about the Lalo case. He finally got a response last month, when ICE stood by its investigation and its policies. But critics say more has to be done.

Representative WILLIAM DELAHUNT (Democrat, Massachusetts): I think we have been remiss in not pursuing the kind of oversight that's necessary.

KAHN: Massachusetts Congressman William Delahunt has been pushing for stricter guidelines.

Rep. DELAHUNT: Because what we've discovered is, in too many cases, these informants have a free pass, if you will, to commit serious acts of violence, including murder. And thats not what justice is about. That's not what the American people would ever approve of.

KAHN: Delahunt says he'll call for congressional hearings into a practice that now operates with virtually no outside regulation.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: And tomorrow morning on WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY, how one informant is trying to force the government to live up to its promises. That story from our partnership with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

(Soundbite of music)

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