Mexico's Witness-Protection Program: What Protection?

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Omar Torres / AFP / Getty

Police officers investigate the crime scene where federal police officer Edgar Bayardo was killed in Mexico City on Dec. 1, 2009. Bayardo had recently entered a witness-protection program

Thanks to movies like Goodfellas, Americans appreciate how witness-protection programs are supposed to work. A mobster may not be able to find decent marinara sauce where the feds have him hiding, but in return for his testimony, he can count on not getting whacked.

But then there's witness protection in Mexico — which may as well be called witness detection, since it seems the country's violent drug traffickers are having little problem locating, and assassinating, the informants whom the government is supposed to be shielding. In less than two weeks, in fact, two of the country's most valuable soplones, or stool pigeons, have been killed in Mexico City. On Dec. 2, Edgar Bayardo — a former high-ranking federal police official whose information led to last year's indictment of Mexico's federal police chief and other top cops for alleged narco-corruption — was fatally riddled with bullets by two hit men dressed in suits as he sipped coffee in a Starbucks. Last month, Jesús Zambada, the nephew of a top drug-cartel boss, Ismael (El Mayo) Zambada, was found dead in the federal safe house where he was being guarded. Officials say he hanged himself, but few in Mexico are buying that.

Mexico is in the throes of its bloodiest drug war ever. There have been almost 11,000 narco-related slayings in the past two years. Because the nation's police forces are so corrupt — many cops moonlight for Mexico's $25 billion drug-trafficking industry — informants are especially important to interdiction efforts. (They helped cops last week locate a sophisticated, 260-yard narco-tunnel beneath Tijuana that almost reached the U.S. border.) Despite that, Mexican officials concede they have an utterly inadequate witness-protection system in place. "There is a vacuum regarding the rules and how to operate a witness-protection program," a high-level source inside the Mexican attorney general's office (PGR, after its Spanish initials) tells TIME. "We keep [informants] in secure houses, but they can move around and do as they want. This does not work like the American system — we do not have [protective] marshals, and as far as I know, we have not given any [informants] new identities."

The PGR source adds that "it's of the utmost importance that new and specific rules" be adopted in Mexico for witness protection — and Bayardo's murder could prompt that reform. Described by officials as a "collaborating witness," Bayardo was arrested last year for allegedly taking $25,000 a month from the powerful Sinaloa cartel (headquartered in Mexico's northern Pacific state of Sinaloa) in exchange for information about police operations. Since then he had been providing crucial testimony not only regarding drug trafficking, but also about links between federal police bosses and Sinaloa capos.

Bayardo was a key witness in the ongoing trial of the indicted federal police chief, Gerardo Garay, who has pleaded not guilty. (Mexican officials tell TIME they're confident they can win a conviction.) He was also an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. So it's all the more astonishing that he was allowed to roam as freely, as openly and as unprotected as he was at noon on Wednesday, when he was sitting in a Starbucks in Mexico City's middle-class Del Valle neighborhood with a family friend. Two men with machine guns nonchalantly entered, walked to Bayardo's table and fired more than a dozen rounds, killing him and wounding the friend and a nearby customer. They just as calmly walked out and drove away in an SUV. Officials tell TIME that Bayardo, whose activity had made him a millionaire, was carrying about $1,200 and more than $10,000 in checks made out to his sister.

Attorney General Arturo Chávez says he'll review Mexico's witness-protection program. But it will be difficult to build a proper protection apparatus when the Mexican cops assigned to do the protecting can so rarely be trusted. The Mexican government has vowed to investigate Bayardo's murder; presumably one of the key focuses will be whether any officers inside the witness-protection program itself tipped off cartel bosses as to his movements and whereabouts.

Another oft heard complaint is that aside from the dearth of real protection for bona fide informants, the system doesn't do enough to weed out the inveterate liars and con men looking for government shelter. "Many witnesses under protection will say anything to save their skins," says Carlos Gallegos, a lawyer and political analyst at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. "How can the system trust them? They can cause havoc in a legal system as fragile and corrupt as ours."

True, but given the epic levels that Mexican drug-trafficking and violence have reached today, the government needs every intelligence resource it can get. The U.S. has pledged almost $1.5 billion for Mexico's war against the cartels, and critics say more of it should be directed to software like police-modernization programs instead of hardware like Blackhawk helicopters. A reliable witness-protection program should be on that list before more soplones get whacked.