Sunday, January 17, 2016

Joaquin El Chapo Guzman and Richard Wershe, Jr. - Two very different prisoners in the War on Drugs

Bizarre new revelations following the arrest last week in Mexico of supreme drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman can be enlightening for those interested in the Michigan imprisonment of Richard J. Wershe, Jr., and for those who believe the War on Drugs is a costly farce. Wershe has no ties to or association with any Mexican drug cartel but the way he’s been treated in the War on Drugs is in stark contrast to the shenanigans south of the border.

When humorist Dave Barry was writing his regular syndicated column about nutty things people do, one of his recurring lines was, “I swear I’m not making this up.”

I thought about that as I sat down to write this week’s Informant America blog post. Like Dave Barry, I swear I’m not making this up.

Last weekend, the media was abuzz with word that Mexico’s (and the world’s) Number One drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman had been captured—again—by Mexican special forces in a bloody raid.

Joaquin El Chapo Guzman-Back in custody again. (Photo-NBC News)

Guzman had humiliated the Mexican government by escaping from prison—twice. Those prison breaks alone show the “War on Drugs” is a pitiful joke, but wait! There’s more!

Mexican authorities said the raid that snared Guzman was the result of an informant’s tip. 

But the next day Rolling Stone magazine came out with an exclusive interview with El Chapo by movie actor, sometime-activist and wannabe journalist Sean Penn. The Mexican government quickly shifted PR gears and said they knew all about the actor’s secret interview with Guzman in a Mexican jungle in October and that the interview led to El Chapo’s capture. They have yet to explain why, if they knew about the October interview, it took them from October to January recapture the fugitive Guzman.

Mexican soap opera actress Kate del Castillo. El Chapo Guzman, the world's most powerful drug lord got an erectile dysfunction implant in anticipation of meeting her.(Viva Photo)

The RollingStone/Sean Penn interview with Guzman, who was the world’s most wanted man, turns out to have been brokered by a sexy Mexican soap opera actress Guzman was hot to meet and woo. She had posted a comment on social media saying she thought Guzman was more truthful than the Mexican government. The drug kingpin was flattered and reached out to her through intermediaries to say he wanted to meet her to discuss a biopic movie about himself. The actress, Kate del Castillo, apparently seeing a career opportunity, contacted Sean Penn about Guzman’s desire to have a movie made about himself. A secret meeting was arranged for October in a jungle region of western Mexico.

Guzman and del Castillo had exchanged flirty text messages as the meeting was being set up. A Mexican newspaper obtained transcripts of the texts.

Guzman: “You’re the best in this world. … I’ll take care of everything so you’re comfortable. I will take care of you more than I do my own eyes."

del Castillo: "I am so moved to hear that you will take care of me. No one has ever taken care of me."

Later that day Guzman exchanged text messages with his lawyer.

Lawyer: “… she wants to bring along actor Sean Penn…. curious fact, he is the most renowned actor in Hollywood.”

An hour later Guzman sent another text to his lawyer.

Guzman: “What’s the name of that actor again?”

Lawyer: “Sean Penn.”

Sean What's-His-Name. He says his Rolling Stone interview of drug lord Joaquin Guzman failed because it didn't spark a national discussion of the War on Drugs. (Photo-60 Minutes)

El Chapo made some interesting preparations for his planned meeting with Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo. Even though Mexican authorities were supposedly conducting an intense, nationwide manhunt looking everywhere for him, sometime last September Guzman went to Tijuana, the border city adjacent to San Diego, and had erectile dysfunction surgery. The procedure was a new one involving a testicle implant which reportedly improves blood flood to the penis. The procedure required a general anesthetic but for some reason Guzman was not worried about getting captured while his balls were under the knife. He had the procedure and left Tijuana with some pain meds and pills for erectile dysfunction even though he had just had surgery for that problem. Apparently he wasn’t leaving anything to chance. He wanted to ensure he was up for the meeting a few weeks later with Kate del Castillo. Oh, and Guzman intended to be cordial to that American actor—what’s his name—Sean Penn.

In October Guzman shared tacos and tequila with Penn and del Castillo at a jungle hideaway and gave Penn a self-serving interview. The Mexican federales, Mexican special forces and their pals in the DEA were nowhere to be seen and Guzman remained on the lam.

I am not making this up.

It’s important to remember: the story of El Chapo is part of the U.S. War on Drugs. We’ve spent a trillion dollars and 45 years waging this modern version of Prohibition with the same level of success. 

The U.S. has the finest spy satellites and electronic intercept equipment in the world. U.S. spy satellites have long had the ability to see, from thousands of miles in space, the headlines on a newspaper being read by someone on a park bench on the ground.

The DEA and CIA have stunning electronic eavesdropping spyware in their arsenal. IMSI—International Mobile Subscriber Identity—devices can suck all the data from a targeted cell phone using a little box attached to a light pole. Yet, somehow, the warriors of the War on Drugs couldn’t find Joaquin El Chapo Guzman while he was just across the border in Tijuana having surgery for erectile dysfunction.

Some cynics and conspiracy buffs say that’s because the U.S. has been allowing Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel to continue doing business in exchange for actionable intelligence on rival Mexican drug cartels.

In 2014 a major Mexican newspaper, El Universal, reported the DEA had cut a deal with the Sinaloa cartel to continue shipping tons of cocaine to the United States in exchange for information the narcs could use to shut down rival Mexican cartels.

That seems a bit far-fetched but it is known that the DEA flipped one of Guzman’s top lieutenants and turned him into a snitch. Vicente Zambada-Niebla’s work as a DEA informant had to be known and tolerated by El Chapo, who is responsible for thousands of drug murders in Mexico as head of the Sinaloa cartel. Zambada-Niebla’s information presumably helped the DEA make some key arrests in exchange for favorable treatment in the courts. For El Chapo Guzman Zambada-Niebla’s work as a snitch for the DEA meant getting rid of some of the competition.

DEA’s kid-glove handling of Zambada-Niebla, who has been involved in massive, ton-level drug smuggling stands in stark contrast to the DEA’s treatment here in the U.S. of Richard J. Wershe, Jr. who has been described as perhaps the FBI’s most valuable informant in Detroit in terms of prosecutable cases. In fact, Wershe was so valuable the FBI, for a time, had Wershe in WitSec—the federal Witness Security program.

That may be part of the reason why Wershe remains in prison serving a life sentence when others in Michigan charged for similar crimes have been paroled. He was working for the FBI, not the DEA. 

The rivalry and competition between the FBI and DEA runs wide and deep ever since Congress gave the Bureau concurrent jurisdiction in the War on Drugs. The two most powerful federal law enforcement agencies are locked in competition to make big cases which help secure ever larger budgets.

When Wershe was put in the WitSec program he was moved to a federal prison outside Phoenix, Arizona. There he was housed with an array of headline-making inmates. The common denominator was they all had helped the Justice Department win major cases. Among Wershe’s fellow inmates in Phoenix were Carlos Lehder and Steve Kalish.

Carlos Lehder, one of the notorious drug lords of the Colombian Medellin Cartel. He and Rick Wershe were in prison together for a time.

You may remember Carlos Lehder. He was one of the founders of the legendary Medellin Cartel in Colombia. He was captured in 1987, the same year the DEA was helping Detroit Police narcs build a case against Rick Wershe. Some say a rival drug lord, the late Pablo Escobar, was the snitch who tipped the DEA and Colombian narcs on where to find Lehder. He was tried in the United States and sentenced to life without parole plus 135 years.

That didn’t last long. Lehder soon turned snitch himself and cut a deal with the Justice Department to testify against Panama’s leader, Manuel Noriega, who had also been busted for drug trafficking and had been brought to the United States for trial. Lehder’s sentence was reduced to 55 years and he was put in the WitSec program along with Rick Wershe.

One of Wershe’s fellow WitSec inmates was a preppy-looking drug trafficker named Steve Kalish

Steve Kalish-he bribed Panama's Manuel Noriega, got busted, then testified against Noriega in exchange for a sentence reduction. In other words, he became another high profile snitch. Rick Wershe said Kalish made a stock market fortune while they were in prison together.

Steve Kalish, along with Leigh Ritch and Michael Vogel of Michigan, established a massive, thriving marijuana smuggling operation that began with ocean-borne smuggling and eventually took to the air with the help of CIA pilots who were flying guns to the Contras in Nicaragua and flying back under CIA protection with cargo planes loaded with bales of marijuana. Does the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan years ring a bell? This was part of it. But the DEA wasn’t involved in this investigation. It was an FBI case. Kalish, Ritch and Vogel were all prosecuted and sent to prison.

The Kalish-Ritch-Vogel organization had bribed Panama’s Manuel Noriega to facilitate their smuggling operation. They even bought Noriega a jet for his personal use. All of this was documented in a series of hearings by then-Senator John Kerry. Kalish, like Carlos Lehder, rolled over and became a government witness against Panama’s Noriega. Kalish got his sentenced reduced and he wound up in the same Arizona WitSec unit as Lehder and Rick Wershe.

Rick Wershe tells me he remembers Lehder liked to talk about the costs and profits of the drug smuggling business. Kalish, on the other hand, busied himself playing the stock market using a satellite-linked device he was allowed to have in his cell. Hey. You help the U.S. government make a big, politically-potent drug case, you get all kinds of breaks. Kalish, by all accounts, has a good head for business. Wershe believes Kalish made a fortune in the stock market while doing time in prison. He’s now out.

While Wershe was in the WitSec program in Arizona, a pair of Detroit DEA agents came to visit. They begged him to come back to Detroit and testify before a federal grand jury investigating the Best Friends murder-for-hire drug gang. Wershe agreed to help the DEA. He was flown back to Detroit where he remembers Assistant U.S. Attorney James King promising he would go “balls to the wall” to help Wershe with his state life prison sentence if he would just help the DEA and the Detroit U.S. Attorney’s office nail the Best Friends organization. Wershe kept his end of the bargain. He testified against the Best Friends, who were convicted. King didn’t keep his end of the bargain. As near as can be determined he did nothing to help Wershe with his state conviction.

Eventually the DEA rewarded Wershe for his help with the Best Friends case by permitting two agents to testify AGAINST his parole in a 2003 hearing. The U.S. Attorney’s office rewarded him, Wershe says, by leaking his sealed grand jury testimony to the Wayne County prosecutor’s office. Wershe believes that information was used against him in questioning at his 2003 parole hearing, despite a signed agreement from an assistant United States Attorney promising the information provided by him would not be used against him. Interestingly, three former Detroit FBI agents testified in Wershe's behalf and urged his release on parole at that 2003 hearing. So there were three FBI agents testifying FOR Rick Wershe and two DEA agents testifying AGAINST Rick Wershe. Apparently no one on the Michigan Parole Board thought this was strange and worthy of further inquiry. A transcript of that hearing reads like a proceeding in a kangaroo court.

One of the witnesses at the 2003 parole hearing, former Detroit Police Homicide Inspector William Rice has signed a sworn affidavit stating he was shown Wershe’s sealed grand jury testimony in preparation for his testimony against Wershe at the parole hearing.

If true, this was a felony. Leaking court-sealed grand jury testimony is a crime. Of course, no one can be prosecuted now because the statute of limitations is long past. And no one, including the federal courts, seems interested in finding out what the hell happened.

So Rick Wershe remains in prison, beginning his 28th year behind bars. Steve Kalish is in Texas living off the stock market fortune he made while in prison with Wershe. Carlos Lehder is believed to be in prison somewhere in the WitSec program.

The DEA is doing heaven-knows-what in Mexico where the world’s top drug kingpin got sex enhancement surgery without getting caught by the Mexican federals and the DEA. Talk about impotence.

Maria Teresa Osario de Serna - she has replaced Joaquin Guzman as the DEA's Most Wanted.

Guzman is back in prison—for now. He’s been replaced on the DEA’s International Most Wanted list by a mysterious Colombian woman named Maria Teresa Osorio de la Serna who is reputed to be a world-class money launderer for the drug cartels. She either lives in Colombia or Hileah, Florida. The DEA isn’t sure which.

Meanwhile, Sean Penn is on 60 Minutes tonight complaining his big scoop interview with Joaquin El Chapo Guzman “failed” because it didn’t spark a national debate on the War on Drugs.

And the band played on…  

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