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Win at all costs
Written by Bill Moushey Part 6 of 10

Switching sides (cont.)

Making converts

Informants are supposed to help federal agents arrest criminals. But too often, these informants create new criminals out of those very agents.

Former Drug Enforcement Administration agent Celerino Castillo III says he knows why. The government has come to rely on informants to make cases more and more often, he said. And these informants have power and material possessions and money — temptations they gladly use in their efforts to compromise an agent.

The safeguards that are supposed to help prevent it often are ignored.

"You know, there’s an old saying: ‘Tell me who you hang out with, and I’ll tell you who you are,’" said Castillo, of McAllen, Texas, who worked mostly undercover for the DEA for 12 years.

Mike Levine agrees. The upstate New York man spent 25 years as a DEA agent, the final 10 as a supervisor.

"As a street agent and as a supervisor, one of the biggest problems was agents falling in love with informants," he said. "They literally become part of the crime. It’s just a flat out conspiracy.

"[Agents] tell informants, if you come in with a good case, you get away with murder ... literally. And [informants] know what’s going on. They know if they dangle a good case in front of a gullible agent or an agent whose morality is not such that it gets in the way of his ambition, that agent starts to overlook what the informant does."

Compounding the problem, Castillo said, is a mentality within federal law enforcement that will forgive almost any conduct as long as agents produce.

Undercover agents especially are often left to their own devices by supervisors — "suits," Castillo and Levine call them — who have little experience but a driving interest in moving up the career ladder "by not making waves," Castillo said.

"There’s a great disrespect and fear of management at DEA," Levine said. "Most management don’t really know anything about drug cases. They are bureaucrats with no real-world experience."

Levine said DEA operations manuals order supervisors to review undercover investigations with agents at least once a month. Other federal agencies have similar requirements.

That doesn’t happen often, especially in deep undercover operations, he said.

"Unrestricted secrecy is unlimited corruption," he said.

Ego also drives misconduct, Levine said.

"The individual agent who gets himself in league with the bad guys, like DeVecchio, listens to this guy tell him, ‘I’m going to make you famous. You’re going to have a book deal, a movie deal.’ "

It reaches the point that even a murder can be overlooked, Levine said, since it’s rationalized as one bad guy killing another.

The media’s fascination with big crimes feeds the process, he said.

"Prosecutors have careers made by media," Levine said. "Early on in the War on Drugs . . . that manifested itself when literally every Spanish-speaking person you busted would eventually have a link to the Medellin cartel. Agents would see . . . the hype, media would gobble it up. Before you knew it, [agents] started lying or hyping their own cases. What quickly happened was that if you made a top media case, or made the big guys look good, you got rewards yourself."

And then there’s money.

Castillo fought in Vietnam and began his career in law enforcement as a Texas cop. In 1980, he joined the DEA and worked in New York, Peru and Guatemala, where he was in charge of anti-drug operations centered in El Salvador from 1985 to 1990.

As part of his job, Castillo said, he sometimes handed checks to snitches for more than $100,000, even as he earned less than $40,000 a year.

Agents often work long hours at low pay in dangerous surroundings for little appreciation and can rationalize that accepting a gift or a loan from an informant is OK.

"Before you know it, he is compromised," Castillo said.

Castillo said he finally quit his DEA job in disgust in 1992. He now writes and teaches law enforcement classes to high schoolers.

He believes agents simply become expendable. He’s seen case after case where agents who may have worked for years undercover get little help readjusting to the real world when they’re reassigned.

"Basically, I realized they could care less about me."

Levine said a solution to the problem of keeping agents on the right side of the law would be for the Justice Department to come down hard on those caught in an illegal activity.

It won’t happen, he said, for one simple reason: "They’d have to go after themselves. People are going to ask them ‘How did that happen? How did you let that happen? You’re the supervisor.’ "

Unwanted information

Geovanni Casallas has seen that government reluctance up close.

He is serving 24 years at the Federal Correctional Institution at Bradford, Pa., and, like most convicted drug smugglers, got the chance to cut his sentence by snitching on others in the drug trade.

Casallas had good information. When he was arrested in 1991, he was working for two men on the southern U.S. border whose crimes included arranging for the theft of an airplane to smuggle drugs; overseeing the transport of hundreds of pounds of illegal drugs into the United States; and splitting both drugs and money from those shipments among themselves and others.

The government turned down his information. Not only that, prosecutors warned his lawyer that if Casallas pursued the charges, they might be inclined to indict his wife, who was with him when he was arrested, and eliminate any reduction in sentence that Casallas might otherwise be promised.

For in this case, one of the men Casallas fingered was a government informant who had lured Casallas into the drug deal. The other was an agent for the DEA, who also was based in Texas.

Investigating its own in this case would do more than harm the informer and the agent, the Post-Gazette found. If they were found guilty of the charges made by Casallas, dozens of cases in which they participated or testified might face reversals in court.

Casallas finally agreed not to press his charges against the informant and agent, to spare his wife from indictment. Casallas pleaded guilty and accepted a federally mandated 24-year prison term.

But once in prison, he found he couldn’t — in good conscience — allow what he considers a travesty of justice. He sent a sworn affidavit detailing what he knew to U.S. Attorney Gaynelle Griffin Jones of Houston in February 1995.

He got no satisfaction.

Finally, after five years in prison, he asked a federal judge for a writ of mandamas, which asked that an investigation be undertaken into his allegations.

The judge granted his request and ordered federal prosecutors to conduct a grand jury investigation.

They did. But they never called Casallas — the person who was an eyewitness to the misconduct — to testify. The investigation was concluded in a few months and no action was taken.

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