'Norma' is an undocumented Mexican who began working as a drug mule as a teen. Within a few years, she decided to help the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in a deal that would give her legal status in the US. But after more than two decades of helping the DEA, she's still waiting to get a green card.
And her case is one of thousands.
Norma, who she asked for a false name for her safety, says her life with drugs strarted in South Texas in the 1980s. She was poor and living off a dirt road near the Mexican border. One afternoon, she came home to find her stepdad drinking with his buddies. He called her over. “And he told me that they wanted me to work for them,” Norma says. “And the way he saw it, he had already said yes, and I really didn’t have a choice.”
Her stepdad had ties to a cartel in Michoacán, 800 miles south into Mexico. You’ll support the family, she remembers him saying. Norma was 16 and had a one-year-old kid.
Norma originally told her story to Texas-based reporter Yolanda González Gómez, who produced an investigative story for New America Media's Women Immigrants Fellowship Program. Here's an excerpt of that story:
Norma knows what it’s like to live through hell. She says she’s experienced it ever since she was a child growing up in an abusive family in extreme poverty in south Texas — and as a teenager, when she was forced by her stepfather to enter the world of drug trafficking. Life was no easier either while she worked as an informant for the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), or as she lived as an undocumented immigrant.
Norma agreed to start working for the DEA in 1989. She was 19 years old and undocumented at the time. She says she agreed to it mainly because the agency’s agents promised to legalize her immigration status. But that promise was never fulfilled. Now, she says, she feels trapped and deceived by the same system she served for more than two decades, which is now keeping her in a state of limbo.
According to immigration attorney Jodi Goodwin, her story is not unique.
“Federal government agencies use and abuse undocumented confidential informants for years, trample their rights with impunity, promise them permanent residency and never deliver on it,” said Goodwin. “And they know they don’t have to deliver on it. But they keep pressuring them with that promise so they will keep cooperating.”
For Norma, that reality has become a nightmare that still isn’t over.
“No work, no papers,” Norma says she was told repeatedly by DEA and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents so that she would keep cooperating with their operations to seize drugs and capture drug traffickers between 1989 and 2010.
“They promised me papers on each mission and I got excited, but they never gave me a visa. That’s how they trapped me and guaranteed that I would keep helping them in their investigations. And when I refused to cooperate, they just threatened to deport me,” she says.
Norma is now struggling to remain legally in the United States, where she has lived for almost all of her life, and where her children and grandchildren were born. “This is my home,” she says.
The secret world of informants
An estimated 4,000 active confidential informants work for the DEA, according to a 2005 report by the Department of Justice. The report tracked payments made to informants for an Office of the Inspector General (OIG) audit.
According to the 126-page document, the DEA does not have a transparent or efficient payment system for its thousands of confidential informants. In the report, DEA officials stated, "Without confidential sources, the DEA could not effectively enforce the controlled substances laws of the United States."
“It’s hard for DEA agents to enter a drug distribution site without the help of informants,” says Norma, who says she was used as “bait” in various operations where she had to go in search of criminals.
Confidential informants operate in a secret, underground world where there aren’t clear rules and anything could happen — even an unexpected outcome, such as death.
“You don’t know whether you will get out of an operation alive. There’s nothing fun about it, and the fear is constant,” says Norma, who confesses that she got used to staying alert and aware of her surroundings, making sure everything was locked in her house and always carrying a suitcase of clothes in the trunk of her car.
Even though it’s been three years since she stopped working as an informant, she says she still experiences constant fear, which sometimes turns into panic attacks or depression, and the nagging feeling that she could be a potential target — of retaliation, arrest or deportation.
Meanwhile, Norma is still trying to find a way to stay in the United States legally. She has met with immigration lawyers and sought help at an immigrant rights center. “I just want papers, freedom and peace,” she says.
Her struggle for the right to have a normal life seems to be moving forward. In June 2012, FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) officials questioned her as a witness as part of an investigation into alleged corruption by personnel working for government security agencies along the Texas border.
Norma had worked with several agents who supervised her in the DHS and DEA offices in McAllen, Texas. In fact, a federal grand jury in Washington subpoenaed employees of both agencies in McAllen to testify in the investigation into falsified evidence, misconduct and corruption.
The Office of Inspector General in south Texas is now carrying out more than 150 investigations into the operations of Homeland Security employees.
The investigation, launched in 2004, has resulted in dozens of cases of administrative sanction and dismissal of border agents for corruption, according to a statement released by the Department of Justice. As a result of Norma’s case, which was put on the FBI’s radar through the intervention of a local immigrant advocacy center, Norma says the investigations were expanded to the Dallas office.