Did the DEA hijack Sean Penn’s expedition to El Chapo’s lair in order to implant a tracking device?
Before readers roll their eyes at the prospect of such elaborate and reckless derring-do, consider the little-known scope and intensity of US military and law enforcement activities south of the border when it comes to nailing somebody the US really wants nailed.
In its details and philosophy, the hunt for Joaquin Guzman a.k.a. El Chapo closely mirrors US efforts to take out Pablo Escobar that culminated with Escobar’s death in a US/Colombian security operation in 1993. Escobar, like El Chapo, was one of those talented, entrepreneurial, and murderous narcos who built a popular base, subverted law enforcement, corrupted government and society, and walked out of country club imprisonment to the fury of the United States.
Before the Global War on Terror, the War on Drugs was seen as the best post Cold-War payday for the American mil-sec quadrant. JSOC was in Colombia. Indeed, so was Jerry Boykin, the notorious “my God is bigger than your god” religious megalomaniac, as a leader of the first Delta Force team. So was everybody else. Over a dozen US government agencies, basically every military and civilian spook service, piled into Bogota to participate in the hunt for Escobar.
The US rolled out all sorts of military, civilian, ground, and air-based communications technology to locate Escobar. The Escobar operation in the 1990s has the first public record I’ve seen of the government’s ability to clandestinely turn on a cell phone that had been shut off, tell it to emit a signal, and use it as a tracking device. That’s why you always need to remove your battery from your cell phone to disable it. Pro tip, kids.
When it came time to actually nail Escobar, it wasn’t just a matter of sophisticated US signint. Things got…kinda unconventional.
Mark Bowden’s book about the U.S. role in the campaign to do away with Escobar, Killing Pablo, shows the U.S. used its SIGINT capabilities to map Escobar’s associates. Lists of these associates apparently found their way to a particularly bloody minded office in the Colombian security establishment and led to a wave of extrajudicial killings, both by Colombian security forces and a government-tolerated death squad, “Los Pepes”, to isolate and ultimately trap Escobar. It appears likely that, as the bodies of people on the lists piled up, the U.S. government at the operating level knew of, approved, and abetted the campaign of extrajudicial killings. Los Pepes, by the way, morphed into the AUC right wing death squads that conducted a campaign of terror in the Colombian countryside that killed around 25,000 people and created, pre-Syria, the largest population of Internally Displaced Persons in the world.
When Escobar was finally caught, the Colombian security forces predictably did not give him a chance to surrender. What is a little less predictable is the allegation that a moonlighting Delta Force sniper (Delta Force was in Colombia but officially only allowed to conduct training) actually carried out the extrajudicial execution as Escobar frantically scrabbled over a rooftop away from his hideaway.
The other big U.S. law enforcement operation in Latin America pre-El Chapo, the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and three American drug war contractors from the clutches of the FARC insurgency in Colombia in 2008, also involved a good amount of the same formula of SIGINT plus extra-legal dirty dealing, as well as a remarkable degree of reckless political gamesmanship. For this story, you have to come to me and a mini-book length piece of mine, Betancourt: The Inside Story.
The French government was obsessed with Betancourt and supported a negotiation effort headed by a retired French diplomat, Noel Saez, and a Swiss hostage negotiator, Jean-Pierre Gontard. There is persuasive evidence they were on the brink of securing the release of the hostages and were indeed journeying to the Ecuadorian hideaway of FARC’s chief negotiator, Raul Reyes to seal the deal.
No deal was sealed, since the Colombian government (which had ostensibly sanctioned the negotiations) warned off Saez & Gontard three days before they would have arrived at the camp. Colombian military aircraft conducted a cross-border raid on March 1, 2008, bombing the camp, killing twenty people, including Reyes, and landing a party to recover corpses and intel. Supposedly, the US was able to pinpoint the camp through interception of a satellite phone call between Reyes and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez celebrating a preliminary release of Colombian hostages.
The story here is baroque enough to cause brainhurt because it appears that FARC was in days of voluntarily releasing the hostages to the negotiators, a PR victory for FARC and their patron, Hugo Chavez, that the US and Colombian governments were loath to allow; on the other, the US government was apparently working on its own deal, using a FARC girlfriend in custody in the United States to negotiate with her commandante boyfriend via satellite phone to shop the hostages…
The upshot was the notorious “rescue” of July 2, 2008 by Colombian special forces, four months after the bombing raid. The impersonation of an International Red Cross mission had allegedly been meticulously planned for months but was so inept the hostages themselves immediately realized it was a hoax (one giveaway: purported ICRC staffers wearing Che Guevara T-shirts and hauling a case of beer for the thirsty rebels).
But what’s truly impressive is the resources the US government devoted to recovering the three US contractors—over a quarter of a billion dollars.
Overall responsibility was in the hands of of U.S. Southern Command, Admiral James Stavridis, who stated on his blog:
[Stansell, Howes, and Gonsalves] were the top priority of U.S. Southern Command, and over the course of five years, we expended over $250 million, 17,000 flight hours, 3,600 air sorties, and undertook many operations in the jungle to try and recover our shipmates.
Plenty of non-military resources as well, as Frank Bajak reported for the AP:
From mid-June on, [U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William] Brownfield and a team of 100 people at the U.S. Embassy who had been dedicated to securing the American hostages’ release worked closely with the Colombians running the operation.
“The truth of the matter is, we have actually come together in a way that we rarely have in the United States of America, except with longtime allies, principally NATO allies,” Brownfield said of relations with Colombia’s security forces, which have received more than $4 billion in military aid since 2000.
Several times, he said, the U.S. government had to make decisions — “at the highest levels” — about proceeding.
During this time, Admiral Stavridis was in contact with Ambassador Brownfield three to four times a day.
The Escobar and Betancourt cases present a pretty consistent picture of US operations when pursuing what we now call HVTs (High Value Targets): clandestine involvement to dodge the local sovereignty/legality/political headaches; provision of massive US resources with an emphasis on SIGINT capabilities; compartmentalized cooperation with a few trustworthy local partners to preserve operational security in a corrupt, leak-prone environment; and a willingness to engage in skullduggery to catch the bad guys.
With that context, let’s look at the El Chapo case.
There’s more than a whiff of American involvement in the ostensibly Mexican government capture of El Chapo.
First, some dramatic foreshadowing on January 5, 2016, a couple days before the capture:
“Everyone is looking for him, and we’ll get him again,” said the DEA official, who according to the Washington newspaper, “brimmed with anger at the mere mention of El Chapo.”
The agent also explained that U.S. agents are strictly banned from talking to the media about Guzman, who escaped a maximum security jail for a second time in July 2015.
According to the DEA analyst, Chapo will likely be captured or killed in a shootout with security forces within two years at most. Meanwhile other U.S. law enforcement agents told The Washington Times that they are confident that the “international manhunt” is closing in on El Chapo and “his days of freedom are numbered.”
Official story: Mexican Marines captured El Chapo fortuitously a couple days later while chasing some other guys.
But then, the discreet crowing of the soldier-of-fortune crowd:
In the lead for the capture were the Mexican Marines, who are the go-to preferred force for counter-drug cartel operations in a country where public officials are often hopelessly corrupt. It is interesting to see how, around 2006 or 2007, the Mexican Marines suddenly became very effective at direct-action (DA) raids. Such raids were responsible for capturing and killing high-value targets (HVTs), causing speculation that the Marines were receiving a little help from their North American neighbors. America has also leveraged its significant signals intelligence (SIGINT) capabilities to help the Mexican authorities track down drug cartel leaders.
In regards to the latest El Chapo capture, SOFREP has been told that it was actually the U.S. Marshals who had an important role in tracking down the drug lord. Also on the ground was the U.S. Army’s elite counterterrorism unit, Delta Force. Operators from Delta served as tactical advisors but did not directly participate in the operation.
As to the intensity of US engagement on the issue, and the inescapable SIGINT component, there’s a nice, in depth piece in the New Yorker from last year by Patrick Radden Keefe (on the occasion of El Chapo’s previous capture) that gives an idea of the high level US interest in the case and the resources it made available.
Keefe’s piece also hints at US cultivation of an elite Mexican Marine detachment, SEMAR, as a reliable, pro-US force to receive and exploit all that quality SIGINT. Working through a trusted professional military force is certainly an improvement over the opportunistic outsourcing of the Escobar liquidation effort to death squads organized by his rivals (but maybe not too much improvement; Keefe gives credence to speculation that SEMAR tortures detainees to obtain fresh, actionable intel and also has a tendency to kill everybody in the room during the conduct of a raid if surrender is not instantaneous).
In 2009, Dennis Blair, President Barack Obama’s national intelligence director, met with Guillermo Galván, who was then Mexico’s Secretary of Defense. Galván told him that everybody knew, roughly, where Guzmán was. The challenge was taking him into custody.
In early February of this year, when the special-forces unit from SEMAR began making forays into Sinaloa, it was the first time that Mexico’s marines had ever pursued such a significant operation in the state. Unlike the Mexican Army—which tended to move slowly, and always informed state authorities before conducting an operation, even when those authorities were corrupt—the marines were nimble and secretive. They mobilized rapidly, on Blackhawk helicopters, and did not ask permission before initiating raids.
Apart from the admiral who commanded them and a few senior personnel, none of them knew where they were headed or who their target might be until they boarded a Blackhawk to undertake the mission. Several days before an operation, the commandos were obliged to surrender their cell phones, to protect against leaks.
For years, U.S. law-enforcement officers had chafed at the pretense that they were merely “advising” their Mexican counterparts in the fight against the narcos; some of them wanted American armed forces to have wide operational latitude on the ground, as they had once had in Colombia. …Peña Nieto’s administration began capturing or killing some of the country’s most brutal drug kingpins, often in close collaboration with the U.S.
It has been reported, erroneously, that Guzmán used a satellite phone; in fact, his favored communication device was the BlackBerry. Like many narcos, he was suspicious of satellite phones, because most of the companies that manufacture them are American and the devices are relatively easy for law-enforcement officials to compromise. But the BlackBerry is made by a Canadian company, and Guzmán felt more comfortable using one. This trust was misplaced: by early 2012, the D.E.A. had homed in on Guzmán’s BlackBerry, and could not only monitor his communications but also use geolocation technology to triangulate his signal.
[Then El Chapo wised up and reduced his personal communications to a single cutout] Upon receiving the message, the lieutenant would transcribe it onto an iPad, so that he could forward the text using WiFi—avoiding the cellular networks that the cartel knew the authorities were trolling. The transcribed message would be sent not to Guzmán but to a second intermediary, who, also using a tablet and public WiFi, would transcribe the words onto his BlackBerry and relay them to Guzmán. Although Guzmán continued to use a BlackBerry, it was almost impossible to track, because it communicated with only one other device.
This is sometimes described as a “mirror” system, and it is fiendishly difficult for authorities to penetrate (especially when the transcribers keep moving from one WiFi hot spot to another). Nevertheless, by studying the communications patterns of the cartel, analysts at the Special Operations Division of the D.E.A. eventually grasped the nature of the arrangement. They resolved to focus on the small ring of logistical facilitators surrounding Guzmán, to identify the mirrors that he was using, and, ultimately, to target their communications.
So U.S. government was massively involved in SIGINT-intensive pursuit of El Chapo. Now consider Sean Penn’s visit in October.
Not much consideration in the popular press, since US journos generally seem obsessed with the idea of knocking down the Penn interview on ethical, journalistic, and stylistic grounds. The most bizarre manifestation of this mindset appears to be the New York Times doing its best to bigfoot the Penn interview by reporting it shortly before it had even gone live on the Rolling Stone website.
But the Mexican government said it was somehow able to acquire information on El Chapo’s whereabouts—in an area of Sinaloa according to some reports without cellphone coverage—at the time of Penn’s visit:
Mexican Attorney General Arely Gomez confirmed Saturday that it was Penn and del Castillo to whom she was referring when she said earlier that Guzman’s communications with “actors and producers” had “formed a new line of investigation” before Guzman’s capture.
She said authorities were able to track the drug lord’s meetings with lawyers and other associates and identify his whereabouts in October — apparently close to the time he met with Penn and del Castillo in a mountainous jungle redoubt.
Subsequently, the Mexican military blanketed the area; El Chapo fled to a town, Los Michos, where he was supposed accidentally apprehended during a raid targeting some heavily armed narcos (reports that U.S. Marshals and or special ops were kibitzing at the time tend to complicate this “happy accident” narrative). There is a determined effort to minimize the angle that the capture could be attributed to any Penn-related SIGINT shenanigans:
While questions have been raised about whether electronic contacts between Guzman and actors Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo could have led police to his hideout, it was a simple tip-off that led to Friday’s arrest, according to Mike Vigil, a high-level Drug Enforcement Administration official in Mexico for 13 years who has been in contact with Mexican authorities conducting the investigation.
In passing, I would not be surprised if the aptly-named “Mr. Vigil” was not the “voice brimmed with rage” anonymous DEA agent who declared El Chapo’s days were numbered a week before.
Marcy Wheeler, the proprietor of the Empty Wheel blog and a close observer and analyst of U.S. surveillance practices, paid attention to some puzzling elements of the story and drew the conclusion that the October Penn trip was related to an enforcement effort to locate El Chapo.
Consider these details. Two men whose real names Penn doesn’t provide — one of whom Penn met with amid Enrique Peña Nieto’s security forces at a hotel in New York just before they made the final decision to take this trip — set up the meeting, playing both the role of Hollywood producer and key broker. The one he met in EPN’s hotel, Espinoza (“espinosa” translates as “spiny”), wears a “surgical corset” for his back (get it? spiny?) that somehow gets through Chapo’s extensive security unchecked.
Espinoza had recently undergone back surgery. He stretched, readjusted his surgical corset, exposing it. It dawns on me that one of our greeters might mistake the corset for a device that contains a wire, a chip, a tracker. With all their eyes on him, Espinoza methodically adjusts the Velcro toward his belly, slowly looks up, sharing his trademark smile with the suspicious eyes around him. Then, “Cirugia de espalda [back surgery],” he says. Situation defused.
Right after arriving in Chapo’s presence on what would be October 2, 2015, Espinoza goes by himself to a bungalow, purportedly to take a nap. Penn and his party stay overnight with the cartel boss. Immediately upon their departure, according to Penn’s sources, who apparently have better information than all the reporters who work this beat did last October, Mexican authorities started a siege on Chapo that was publicly explained by claiming they had geolocated the cell phone of one of his men but isn’t that a remarkable coinkydink that it actually happened immediately after Espinoza and his spiny back device showed up?
An especially remarkable coinkydink when one considers that area of Sinaloa supposedly had no cellphone coverage according to Mr. Vigil, who may have been less than vigilant in keeping the story straight in the post-capture enthusiasm:
“The meeting with Penn in October occurred in the mountainous region of Sinaloa state where there was no cellphone coverage, so they weren’t tracking him there,” Vigil said.
In a subsequent post Wheeler cites an extremely circumstantial press report that makes it clear that the Penn party was tracked and photographed during the entire October escapade, indicating that somehow law enforcement had penetrated the elaborate if amateurish opsec Penn had adopted.
Perhaps, as Marcy Wheeler believes, one or more members of Penn’s party were deploying a tracking device to pinpoint El Chapo’s location for the raid.
Apparently El Chapo was eagerly texting Estillo as well as his lawyer during the period he was supposedly ensconced in the cell-coverage-free Sinaloa mountains. Either there is cell-phone coverage up there–any enterprising journo want to go up there and, you know, try to make a phone call?–or, which seems more likely, El Chapo was spending his precious days of freedom in a comfy hotel in some town, maybe Los Michos where he was eventually captured, instead of rusticating in the mountains. And, inevitably, he traipsed back to the ranch for the bucolic interview with Penn instead of receiving the movie-star studded party in downtown wherever.
If, as I expect, El Chapo was texting his lawyer and Estillo through a cutout (charged perhaps with retyping the semi-literate jefe’s musings instead of forwarding them, maybe Mexican and US law enforcement really weren’t able to get a bead on him and needed to run the Penn op.
Penn and Estillo were under surveillance during the October visit–they Mexican government’s got the photos to prove it!–so the US clearly knew they were headed El Chapo’s way. It wouldn’t be surprising if the DEA or somebody decided to run some sort of geolocation operation piggybacked onto the meeting in case they weren’t able to physically follow the group to El Chapo.
There are ways to do this using a cell-phone, even where there’s no coverage. The DEA can fly a Stingray, basically a fake cellphone tower, through the area, turn on the phone remotely (this program, known as “The Find” is a much-treasured capability of the NSA’s alliance with JSOC in the “We Track ‘Em You Whack ‘Em” tag-team; it’s unclear how it works but it may require installing some malware on the target phone) and triangulate the phone’s location. One of the amusing sidelines of El Chapo’s texting is his desire to gift Estillo with a pretty pink phone; maybe that’s how law enforcement got a fix.
A simpler but more dangerous method would be carrying a beacon up there, something that Wheeler believes likely. The standard drone-assassination tracker, known to AfPak targets as the “pathrai,” has a range of 12 miles and is “the size of two AA batteries” in other words rather bulky and would need a hiding place–like Espinosa’s back brace. I’m guessing the law enforcement mindset is “redundancy is better; let’s do both!”, so maybe for the ranch op they could have gone with the relatively low-risk phone thing and the much risker “pathrai” approach.
After Penn and his party left, the Mexican Marines conducted an extremely messy raid on the ranch, not netting El Chapo but, according to one report, collecting a bunch of cell phones. El Chapo then fled (or returned to Los Michos), perhaps in some opsec disarray, and was captured there.
For what it’s worth, I tend toward the theory that Rolling Stone gave a head’s up to the government (if I were a lawyer, I think I would have suggested that incremental profits from marketing El Chapo’s story might enmesh the magazine in some kind of RICO headache; better check in with the Feds!) and the US government used this knowledge to piggyback on the operation with or without the knowledge of Rolling Stone and either hide a device in the luggage of the party or persuade one of them to carry it. I tend away from the idea of Penn as an individual taking the suicidal risk of knowingly infiltrating El Chapo’s camp to implant a tracking device because, you know, suicide.
And as to why create a media firestorm around Penn’s visit and article and at the same time alleging El Chapo was, basically, captured by accident–instead of acknowledging a successful op, well, murder. If Sean Penn is murdered in a revenge attack, it’s easier for the government if he’s portrayed as a silly dingbat in the wrong place at the wrong time, not somebody on whose back the US government painted a bull’s eye by involving him in an extremely dangerous clandestine effort.