Last May, a team of federal agents chasing the sons of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo, got a break.
Through a combination of electronic data and human intelligence, the agents had tracked one of the sons – Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar – to a location in the western Mexican state of Sinaloa.
Eager to get into action, the team prepared to team up with the Mexican military and go after Mr. Guzmán Salazar, one of the world’s most wanted criminals.
But eventually, according to records obtained by The New York Times and three people familiar with the case, they were told by the Justice Department to resign. Another federal agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration, separately investigated Mr. Guzmán and it was thought that any active measures to take them into custody could disrupt that investigation — or even kill people.
Under the best of circumstances, it’s challenging for U.S. federal agents to pursue drug lords in Mexico, where they must work with local partners who can often be untrustworthy or unreliable. But the episode featuring Mr. Guzmán Salazar – one of El Chapo’s four sons known as the Chapitos – points to a problem closer to home: the rivalry that can erupt when different law enforcement agencies go after the same targets.
The altercation in this case pitted DEA officials, who helped file a comprehensive indictment against the Chapitos in New York, against federal prosecutors and agents in Chicago, Washington and San Diego, who joined forces to press their own case against the sons of Mr. Guzmán. .
Neither the dispute nor its fallout was visible last month when Attorney General Merrick B. Garland — flanked by representatives from all agencies — met in Washington to announce the new charges against the Chapitos. Mr. Garland celebrated the class charges as a sweeping attack on the ability of Guzmán’s organization, the Sinaloa drug cartel, to transport fentanyl and other drugs from Mexico across the US border.
“The Justice Department is attacking every aspect of the cartel’s operations,” said Mr. Garland.
This week, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, taking note of the behind-the-scenes wrangling, wrote a letter to Mr. Garland and to the heads of three federal law enforcement agencies asking for an explanation of how the pursuit of the New York case in particular, “any attempted arrest or capture” of Mr. Guzmán’s sons may have been affected.
The letter also asked for details of how the DEA, the FBI, various US law firms and Homeland Security Investigation, the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, had “unraveled” the various cases involving the Chapitos.
The roots of the bickering go back to the fall of 2021, when senior DEA leaders learned that agents in one of their main investigative units — known as the 959 Group — had secret sources claiming insight into the Chapitos’ bustling fentanyl. . affairs, according to a senior DEA official.
Fentanyl, which kills tens of thousands of Americans a year, was a top priority for Anne Milgram, the DEA’s administrator, who vowed after taking control of the agency to take down the cartels most responsible for selling it.
The senior official said the DEA immediately saw the opportunity to build a major case that could target not only the Chapitos themselves, but their entire fentanyl network: chemical producers, money launderers, smugglers and distributors. The plan, the official added, was to pull together everything the DEA knew about the Chapitos to aid the 959 Group’s investigation, which was being conducted with the US law firm in Manhattan.
Around the same time, federal prosecutors in Chicago, San Diego and Washington — some of whom had been investigating the Chapitos for nearly a decade — came up with another plan. They wanted to merge three separate cases they had worked involving Mr. Guzmán’s sons into one case in Chicago, according to five people familiar with the case.
The Chicago case did not directly focus on Chapitos’ fentanyl operation, but it took an extensive look at men’s drug sales and violent crimes dating back in some cases to 2008. It was based on the work of a coalition of agents from the DEA, the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations and processed a massive amount of evidence from a stable of cooperating witnesses and a first set of charges against the Chapitos.
For example, Jesús Alfredo was first charged in Chicago in 2015 and his brother, Iván Archivaldo Guzmán Salazar, was first charged in San Diego a year earlier. Washington prosecutors had unsealed charges against their two half-brothers — Ovidio Guzmán López and Joaquín Guzmán López — in 2019, just days after the father was convicted on all charges at his own trial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn.
The two sides – those involved in the Manhattan case and those involved in the Chicago case – disagree about what happened next.
Five people associated with the Chicago prosecutor allege that the DEA pulled its resources from their broader investigation just as it was nearing completion in favor of the New York fentanyl case. The senior DEA official said the agents working on the Chicago case were simply told to suspend their involvement until the conflict was resolved through some sort of mediation process.
Eventually, the senior DEA official said, Justice Department officials, who served as arbitrators, reached an agreement on how to proceed. The consolidated Chicago case could move forward, the DEA official said, provided the prosecutors in charge of it coordinated with their New York counterparts and did not take “proactive” measures that would threaten sources associated with the case. 959 Group works could expose or otherwise harm the business. prosecution in New York.
But some people involved in the Chicago case saw things differently. They believed the Justice Department had effectively ordered them not to file their updated indictment until New York prosecutors had a chance to catch up and finish their work.
Battles between competing law enforcement agencies are, of course, routine in high-profile criminal cases. Over the years, multiple law enforcement agencies – from New York to Nogales, Ariz. – participated in the hunt for the elderly Mr. Guzmán, which led to his final arrest in 2016 and his extradition to the United States in 2017.
By the time El Chapo went to trial in Brooklyn, he was already facing charges in six other cities. He was convicted in early 2019, largely based on accounts from several former aides who testified against him and on sophisticated eavesdropping devices on his communications system.
But both sides seem to agree that the dispute over the dueling Chapitos cases was more painful and contentious than usual.
Indeed, the Justice Department intervened again last spring when the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations put their eyes on some of the men. There were already preliminary arrest warrants in Mexico for all four Chapitos based on the pre-existing charges, and several people involved in the consolidated case said that when the possibility of an arrest arose in May 2022, they wanted to take it.
But when the message reached the DEA, the agency raised the alarm, the senior DEA official said. Any attempt to go after the Chapitos at that point would have risked the life of at least one of the 959 Group’s sensitive sources, the official said.
The DEA official also noted that the agency never tried to stop Mexican authorities from single-handedly taking down the Chapitos. And in January, they did just that: Mexican security forces arrested Ovidio Guzmán López.
The arrest came after Mexican authorities Mr. Guzmán López had briefly detained and then released him in October 2019 when cartel gunmen unleashed a spate of gun attacks, setting cars on fire and taking members of the security forces hostage.
It remains unclear when Mr. Guzmán López will be extradited to the United States and, if it eventually does, whether he will face trial on the New York fentanyl charges or on any of the other charges. His brothers remain at large in Mexico.
Complicating matters is that the spate of activity involving the Chapitos came at a time of deep tension between U.S. and Mexican officials over their deteriorating relationship with law enforcement — and, in particular, who is responsible for the scourge of fentanyl.
In February, Ms Milgram lashed out at the Mexican government, saying officials there had failed to provide assistance to US agents working on cases involving fentanyl from Mexico. Weeks later, President Andrés Manuel López fired back at Obrador with baseless claims that his country had nothing to do with the drug.
Even the Chapitos themselves have ventured into battle.
This month they published a letter to the Mexican news media, denying the US government’s claims that they trade in fentanyl at all.
“We have never produced, manufactured or marketed fentanyl or any of its derivatives,” the letter said. “We are victims of persecution and they have made us scapegoats.”