CHICAGO — A federal judge in Chicago handed a more than three-year prison sentence Thursday to a former Mexican intelligence-unit commander on charges he divulged American investigative secrets to cartel bosses in Mexico — a betrayal one DEA agent told the court collapsed drug-trafficking investigations and cost lives.
Ivan Reyes Arzate, 46, was a main point of contact for intelligence sharing between U.S. agencies and Mexican Federal Police. He drew on access to U.S. intelligence to help unmask a cartel informant, who was later tortured and killed, according to filings by prosecutors.
Arzate turned himself over to American officials in 2017 and changed his plea in May from not guilty to no contest to obstruction and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Sergio "El Grande" Villarreal Barragan, a longtime confidant to the head of the Beltran Leyva cartel, testified at Thursday's hearing. He described to U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber how Mexican syndicates rely heavily on corrupt police, like Arzate, to expand their illegal operations and vanquish rivals.
Government attorneys called Barragan and the U.S. agent to testify during a five-hour sentencing hearing in a bid to buttress their argument that Arzate deserved a tougher 10-year prison term. Prosecutor Katherine Sawyer told the court the sentence the defense wanted, 17 months , would amount to a "slap on the wrist."
In a statement to the judge, Arzate gave a forthright defense of his police work. Leinenweber interrupted Arzate at one point, asking: "Is it your position you did absolutely nothing wrong?" While Arzate said that wasn't his position, he then went on to concede no wrongdoing. He also offered no apologies during his 10-minute statement.
Arzate's Chicago lawyer, Joseph Lopez, has portrayed police meetings with cartel figures in cash-for-intel deals as standard in Mexico. He echoed that before the judge Thursday.
"Whatever your sentence is is not going to stop corruption in Mexico," Lopez said. "It's how they do law enforcement in Mexico... It's not going to change."
The judge said he found parts of Arzate's statement "troubling." But he also said the government's recommended sentence of 10 years behind bars was "too high." With time served since his arrest, Arzate could be eligible for release in just over a year.
DEA agent Matthew Sandberg, who had worked with Arzate in Mexico, testified in a dry, matter-of-fact tone for most of his time one the stand. But his voice broke when he began to describe how leaks by Arzate — who he had once considered a friend — put the lives of agents like him and even their families in jeopardy.
"That stuff can't happen unless there are corrupt officials," Sandberg said.
Leaks to cartel kingpins by Arzate forced Americans to freeze their cooperation with Mexicans in some cases and to cut off relationships with some Mexican police officials as a precaution, as they scrambled to find the mole who turned out to be Arzate. Sandberg said about the ripple effects, including the distrust the incident fostered: "It was a real tragedy."
Barragan, who is also known as "King Kong," told the court he had personally witnessed several murders, including that of an alleged turncoat executed in front of him by a cartel hitman.
Barragan is serving a federal trafficking sentence after agreeing in a plea deal to cooperate with U.S. agents. He testified for nearly two hours Thursday in gray, pin-striped jail clothes.
He said it was common for cartels to have Mexican federal police on their illegal payrolls, often bribing them to steer police operations against competing cartels. Defense attorney Lopez asked him at one point if such payments went "all the way up the chain almost to the (Mexican) president."
"Yes, sir," Barragan answered. "That is how they do it."