New court documents allege that a top-level criminal enforcer in Mexico served as an informant prior to his arrest, but doubts remain about the level of cooperation he provided authorities in the United States.
Between 2008 and 2010, Edgar Valdez Villarreal, alias "La Barbie," reportedly provided sensitive information to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), according to an investigation based on court documents obtained by Anabel Hernández and published in Aristegui Noticias.
La Barbie, a former Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) operative and Sinaloa Cartel ally, was arrested in Mexico in 2010 and later extradited to the United States in 2015. After originally pleading not guilty, he eventually reached a plea deal with US prosecutors, and in June 2018 was sentenced to nearly 50 years in prison.
In cooperating with US authorities, La Barbie reportedly passed information on corrupt Mexican officials and their sharing of sensitive intelligence to members of the Sinaloa Cartel and Beltrán Leyva Organization, according to the report.
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What’s more, La Barbie allegedly witnessed corrupt officials from the administration of former President Felipe Calderón, according to the report, providing cartels with identities, photographs and locations of undercover DEA agents in Mexico.
One of La Barbie’s most important contributions, according to the report, was passing along a tip that allowed Mexican marines to locate and kill his former boss, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, in 2009.
If true, his work for the United States starting in 2008 would have come at a time when an alliance between the Sinaloa Cartel and Beltrán Leyva Organization was coming undone, eventually spiraling into a bloody war. Violence first surged in the Sinaloa state capital of Culiacán with the killing of one of the sons of the now-jailed former Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” before spreading across Mexico.
La Barbie is expected to be a key cooperating witness in the upcoming trial of Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s former top security official from 2006 to 2012, who US authorities arrested in December 2019 on drug charges and taking millions in bribes from traffickers.
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The revelations about La Barbie’s alleged cooperation with US authorities raise more questions than answers, and it is unclear to what extent La Barbie collaborated.
“If he had been cooperating and providing any credible information, they would not have given him so much jail time,” Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former head of international operations, told InSight Crime.
Moreover, García Luna’s arrest came more than a decade after the beginning of La Barbie's cooperation.
“If the DEA was getting this type of information from La Barbie, I'm surprised their operation wasn’t blown up sooner,” Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown told InSight Crime.
“This level of egregiousness and risk to DEA operations would be shocking," she added.
La Barbie was no run-of-the-mill criminal player. To get 50 years for being such an important asset would be a terrible plea bargain, according to Felbab-Brown. “There’s a clear mismatch between the length of the sentence and what information he supposedly provided," she explained.
Infamous drug traffickers in Mexico have in the past received light sentences for their cooperation. Sandra Ávila Beltrán, known as the "Queen of the Pacific," for example, walked free after just seven years in jail due to her cooperation despite allegedly being a key link connecting Colombia’s Norte del Valle Cartel and Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.
Beyond being a distinguished drug trafficker, La Barbie gained notoriety for being a “top-level enforcer” and terrorizing his enemies, at times videotaping them being tortured and murdered. His lengthy prison sentence sent a strong message at the time and now casts doubt on his level of cooperation.
What’s more, La Barbie spent five years in prison in Mexico before being extradited. If he truly was providing crucial information on high-impact players that could very well have ordered him killed in Mexico’s out of control prisons, it's likely that La Barbie, as well as the DEA, would have wanted to get out of the country as quickly as possible.
Whatever La Barbie’s relationship with US law enforcement may have been prior to his arrest, his assistance in the trial against García Luna is likely to make more than a few corrupt government and security officials nervous, given his prominent role in Mexico's criminal world.
The allegations against the former drug lord also further blur the lines of what’s been portrayed as a clear-cut war against organized crime in Mexico, with the US and Mexican governments on one side and criminal groups on the other. In reality, La Barbie's case suggests that the two sides interact much more often.
“This information allows us to push back against the manipulated narratives we’ve been fed by both governments,” said Siria Gastelum, Resilience Director at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. “Despite this ‘us’ against ‘them’ story, we know that there were corrupt actors on both sides.”
Gastelum cautioned that whatever information La Barbie may have to offer won’t impact organized crime dynamics.
“If we continue to just blame particular government officials and not address the broader systemic failures of the state, we’ll continue to go down this same path like we currently are under the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, which seems to be repeating the same strategies,” she told InSight Crime.