CHARLOTTE AMALIE – A far-reaching, three-year FBI investigation brought operatives of a drug-peddling Mexican cartel into New England to talk business with undercover agents in Boston, St. Thomas and New Hampshire.
There is video of the secretly-recorded meetings, showing new insight into the international investigation that led to the indictment of seven cartel members in U.S. District Court in New Hampshire.
“I want you to understand before we start that this room is clean, that I had my people here earlier today and I can assure you we can talk freely,” an undercover agent posing as an Italian Mafia higher-up tells a cartel representative in one video.
The cartel members were meeting with FBI agents posing as Italian mobsters, promising help in opening a new drug pipeline to Europe.
No guns or menacing violence are seen in the videos. Instead, the hours of recording are filled with talk of logistics and finance.
“They have a CEO, they have lieutenants who have specific responsibilities, they price shop, they do cost comparisons, they have people assigned to transportation, finance, money laundering,” said Donald Fieth, acting U.S. attorney for New Hampshire.
The investigation, run out of the Boston office of the FBI, spanned half the globe, including meetings in Madrid, Mexico, St. Thomas, Boston and outside Portsmouth, NH.
In Boston, their meeting over lunch at the Marriott Long Wharf Hotel was recorded on audio. They worked out a code system, talked about money laundering and other details.
In the Wentworth by the Sea hotel outside Portsmouth, a cartel operative delivered a message from the notorious Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, handwritten on part of a torn 100 Euro note, an old underworld form of communication.
The cartel, by this point in the operation was planning to ship 1,000 kilograms of cocaine. Its supposed Italian partners were to be given 200 kilos – or 440 pounds.
“I will have clients in Europe … and (the) U.S.,” the undercover operative said. “You’re not gonna have any regrets.”
The partnership continues with a gift, captured in a photo, from the undercover agents to the cartel operative: a sweatshirt emblazoned with the New Hampshire slogan, “Live Free or Die.”
That operative was a cousin of Guzman, a connection that helped the FBI get close to the crime boss. At one point at a meeting in St. Thomas, an FBI agent is handed the phone with Guzman on the other end of the line.
In another, an FBI informant had a face-to-face meeting with Guzman in his mountain hideout.
“Here we were dealing with the ultimate supplier,” said Fieth.
John Bailey, a professor emeritus at Georgetown University who has studied criminal organizations in Mexico, called Guzman a “phenomenon.”
“The fact that this group had a face-to-face meeting is unusual,” Bailey said.
The investigation finally came to a close in 2012, when a ship left a port in Brazil and landed in Spain. On board was 760 pounds of cocaine.
Ultimately, seven people were indicted in New Hampshire’s federal court, including Guzman. Three have been convicted or pleaded guilty. Three more are fugitives. Guzman was arrested last year in Mexico. He escaped from a Mexican prison July 11.
“St. Thomas is a small district, it’s a small place. But there is no place that is not touched by these drug organizations,” Fieth said.