By MARISA TAYLOR
McALLEN -- Every prosecutor knows the saying: Cases made in hell don't have
witnesses who are angels.
Federal agencies in the Rio Grande Valley, ranging from the FBI to the Drug
Enforcement Administration, depend on paid informants not only to investigate
crimes, but also to bring criminals to justice.
When informants turn out to be lawbreakers themselves, the investigative edge
they can provide comes at a great cost.
"I think of informants as being like in-laws," said Alonzo Pe a, the agent
in charge of the U.S. Customs Service in Brownsville. "They can be very, very
bad or very, very good."
In recent years, paid informants have lied, stolen money, evaded taxes,
committed welfare fraud and skimmed drugs from the government agencies that
Sometimes paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, informants are often the key
to cases brought to court by law enforcement agencies.
Federal officials point out that informants not only can tip them off to a
case, but provide inside information and even secure convictions with their
As a result, few federal officials question the system, which is regarded as
essential to most cases. Designed to protect the identity of confidential
informants, or CIs, the system remains cloaked in secrecy.
The FBI, DEA, Immigration and Naturalization Service and U.S. Customs Service
did not immediately respond to requests made by /The Monitor/ under the
Freedom of Information Act for the number of federal informants employed
The same agencies also failed to respond to requests for the amount paid to
informants in the past fiscal year.
The DEA and the FBI refused to comment, even in general terms, about the
federal informant system.
But court records show some federal informants commit crimes, even after
agreeing to cooperate with the government.
One DEA informant, Ernesto Tijerina, skimmed 1,100 pounds of marijuana before
tipping off agents to drug hauls.
His common-law wife accused him of beating her. And Tijerina later was charged
with deadly conduct after two acquaintances claimed he tried to run them off
Another informant, Roberto Jimenez, allegedly stole $5,000 from the government
after agents had given him the money to rent a truck for a drug deal. He later
admitted in court that he did not pay taxes on the money paid to him by
federal agents. While on the government's payroll, he also collected welfare.
An informant's wrongdoing can cost money, but it also can botch a case. After
Jimenez's revelation came out during testimony in a federal drug case, a
McAllen jury acquitted the defendant.
Occasionally, an informant may be a concerned citizen who wants to stop crimes
like drug trafficking. But even agents admit that's extremely rare. Usually,
an informant expects money or a deal with prosecutors awarding them a light
sentence in exchange for testimony.
Tom Lindenmuth, a McAllen federal public defender, said informants are often
tempted by the potential rewards to fabricate a case. Most informants do not
receive any formal training to prevent such legal disasters as entrapment, he
"Informants are tremendously overused," Lindenmuth said. "They have a huge
incentive to go out and make up cases."
While investigators are trained to use other techniques to land a case,
informants can be an easier way to obtain information. Undercover work is
considered dangerous and surveillance could tip off the criminals being
But even federal officials admit the system could be improved by guarding
against the compromising of agents by their informants.
Informants can provide agents dozens of cases, sometimes clouding the judgment
of the agents who work with them. Agents have been known to bend the rules
applied to informants to obtain information essential to their case.
During the 1995 trial of two former INS inspectors, federal agents admitted
meeting a confidential informant and a fugitive at Roma and transporting him
The agents later testified they did not know the informant was a fugitive,
clashing with the testimony of an INS inspector on trial. After meeting with
the informant, the agents let him go. He remains a fugitive to this day.
"The informant system is a legitimate system," said Jack Wolfe, a former
federal prosecutor and a defense attorney in the case. "The problem is that
informants and agents are human beings. It's inherent that human beings are
going to use bad judgment."
Law enforcement officials insist informants are closely monitored. In most
federal agencies, an informant signs an agreement outlining certain
requirements. If the informant breaks the law while cooperating with agents,
they are "blackballed," or dismissed.
"We have to follow strict procedures," INS Deputy District Director Alfonso
De Leon said. "If the procedures aren't followed, then pretty soon, the
informant is running the agency instead of the other way around."
An informant can be dropped for either leaking or fabricating information
about an investigation. Recently, Customs officials refused to talk to an
unreliable informant even though he claimed to have information about a
substantial drug haul.
"If we have a credibility problem, we will drop an informant," Pe a said.
"To us, the end does not justify the means."
"Informants are a very useful tool," Pe a said. "If used properly, they can
mean the difference between a great case or no case at all."