drug wars

special reports
interview: chuck labella


photo of chuck labella

LaBella is a former United States Attorney for the Southern District of California. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in 2000.
If the drug war were run like a business, how would you describe your role?

The role, theoretically, was to stop the commodity from coming into the United States, and to stop the money from going south to form the operation further. That's the role; that's the mission. Do we have the resources to do that on the southwest border? No, of course not. We don't have the commitment from the agencies to do that. There are not enough people to do that. Objectively, I think we perform the function of keeping the status quo. We prevent a significant amount of dope coming into the United States, and prevent a significant amount of money going south to fund further the operation. To become a cost of doing business to the drug traffickers--obviously that's a part of it.

Is the net effect to stop them or to raise the price? In the short term, it's probably to raise the price. Ultimately you try to dismantle the organization, like we did with organized crime. You try to hit them where it hurts--their economics. The seizures, and those sorts of things, and that's happened from time to time. We've had spikes, and we've had valleys. The bottom line is that it's very difficult to do those things. And when you impose upon that the fact that there is systemic corruption in Mexico at the law enforcement level, you're dealing with situations that's almost impossible in some instances, almost impossible to be effective. But that doesn't mean you throw up your hands and you say, "We can't do anything. Let's give up. Let's just let the dope come in." . . . .

Can you describe the problem that the border poses?

The benefit of the drug traffickers is protection of this umbrella that we call the border. What we need to do with Mexico, you can't do it unilaterally. . . . You have to take this protection away from the drug traffickers. We have to preserve the sovereignty of both countries, but take this protective ring that is around the drug traffickers--we have to take that away from them. The violence doesn't stop at the border. I mean, the border is a very fickle thing. The drug traffickers use it as protection, but they use it as a sword too. They use it affirmatively to help themselves.

They can operate on both sides free, because they have no agreement. They don't have to check with drug traffickers in the United States and say, "Hey, I'm coming over to your territory to do some dirty work." They have free hand. We don't have that. We've got one hand tied behind our backs, because we've got to go through all these hoops before we can do something in Mexico and vice versa, before Mexico can do something here. There really has to be a change in the protocol so it's workable. . . .

There used to be hot pursuit on both sides of the border, but there's no longer hot pursuit. There used to be this understanding that so many kilometers on either side was a border region. One of the things that I kept harping on is that Mexico and the United States should create this zone, this border region, within which certain rules and regulations--different rules and regulations may apply. It may be that, within this region, certain undercover operations could take place with only very limited people knowing. Maybe you could have hot pursuit even within this border region whether it's ten kilometers or fifteen kilometers on either side of the border.

Unless we start thinking a little bit outside the box, we're not going to get anywhere on this. The border isn't changing. The line is the line is the line. We have to think creatively how we deal with that line. The drug dealers have used the line as a shield and a sword. We have used it as handcuffs for both the Mexican and the US law enforcement, and that's the problem. The border is a third country. The border region is a special area. . . .

There have been rumored sightings of the Arellanos. What would it take for us to capture them?

We know that the Arellanos are in Mexico. We know that. We have people who have told us that they are, they've been seen at discotheques, they've been seen at fights, they've been seen there, they've been seen shopping, they've been seen all around. Even discounting half of those spottings, assuming that only half of them are accurate, these people are around. They're living from time to time open and notoriously in Mexico, in various sections of Mexico, no question about it. I think if you ask US law enforcement, and if you candidly ask Mexican law enforcement, they'll say, "Yes, they're around." There's a way to find them.

So how could we capture them?

The cornerstone of my idea was to use the intelligence agencies, Mexican and the US to simply to do one thing--to locate them. Not to develop evidence on them. Not to tap their phone conversations. Not to do anything but to establish an ethical wall between law enforcement and the intelligence agencies.

The US and Mexican intelligence agencies join at one point to locate the Arellanos. Simple job. One job. That's all they have to do. That's the extent of their cooperation. They locate them. Point A, point B, point C. On an Air Force base in the United States, we have a group of 10, 20, 50, vetted Mexican law enforcement, military, whatever it takes. Qualified individuals to place people under arrest who are trained, vetted and ready to go. They're incommunicado. They don't have cell phones, they don't have pagers. They're ready to go. Their mission? To deploy and to arrest.

I think within six months the intelligence agencies should be able to figure out where those people are. You take the people up in a helicopter or a plane, depending on where in Mexico they are, and you deploy them. And you arrest. And you let the Mexicans take them into custody. You've solved the sovereignty problem. The Mexicans take them into their system and do what they will with these people. They have cases against them.

Now, people say, "Well, they'll just going to let them out, they're going bribe their way out, blah blah blah." If they do, so be it. We have at least shown that law enforcement can work at a high level to put people behind bars and to let the system take over. If the system is corrupt, that's the next problem we have to deal with. But at least get them under arrest. At least show them that we know where you are, and we're going to place you under arrest. And we're going to make you use your chips to get out of jail.

You were surveying an Arellano family member in San Diego, and then you heard that he was lost at the border. How did you feel when you heard that?

Frustrated--frustrated. Disappointed. You know, it's a shame. But you move on. Every slap in the face or every bump you trip over, you've got to pick yourself up and you dust yourself off and you move on. Law enforcement is full of frustrations. And I think the mistake you're making is this frustration could happen in the United States. You can lose somebody in the United States. And we do. We lose people all the time. . . .

And why didn't it work? You get five different reasons why it didn't work. Well, this one misunderstood. They thought they had to wait for the car to pass this point. They thought you were going to follow it to this point. There are always several excuses, and you don't know which are legitimate and which are not. What do you do, other than be frustrated, pound the table, and move on? That's all you can do. That's the nature of being in the border region.

But I've had several frank conversations and open conversations with high-level Mexican officials about the problem of corruption. Most of them, in candid moments, will acknowledge the systemic corruption problem that they face, and the negative impact it has on their law enforcement efforts. . . .

Do the Arellanos have immunity?

I don't know if they have immunity, but they certainly are in a position where no one's snatching them up. The reports are that they're living, at times, open and notoriously--some of them are open and notorious at various times--they're spotted here and there. And there's never an arrest. So I assume that there must be some sort of protective ring around them locally. . . .

I'm told that their chief operating officer travels regularly from Mexicali to Encinada, and that nobody stops him, because people are afraid to stop him.

. . . Well, wouldn't you be, if you were in Mexican law enforcement, based on what's happened to Mexican law enforcement? I mean, there's got to be a fear factor. . . . It's easy for us, in the safety of the United States, to criticize people who are faced with something that we're not faced with in law enforcement in the United States--that if you do your job, you may lose your life. That's real there. It's not some Hollywood drama. Someone's not going to yell "Cut!" and everybody gets up from the ground, dusts the fake blood off and walks home to their family. These people really die. I think that's one of the things that we don't fully appreciate.

We expect a lot from them, and I don't think that we should stop expecting a lot from them. But I don't think we recognize the conditions that they work under. It's difficult for some of those people to put a gun to their head when they're about to engage in a law enforcement operation. A lot of it is self-preservation. They just don't act like we do. But the situation is different. When they engage in a law enforcement operation, they may be imposing a death sentence on themselves, or their family. Not only themselves, but their families. That's tough. . . .

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