That issue was raised this week by an El Paso court case in which a jury just returned RICO convictions for a half-dozen members of the Barrio Azteca gang, providing a rare glimpse into both the drug-running underworld in Juarez's sister city and the well-intentioned but problematic tactics used to investigate high-level drug crimes. Reported the El Paso Times ("6 in Barrio Azteca guilty," Dec. 3):
Was it worth allowing thousands of pounds of drugs onto the street to secure these six convictions? Would El Pasoans have been better served by shutting down 47 dope houses over the last five years? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Quien sabe?
After the verdict, Herrera's lawyer, Ken Del Valle, criticized the FBI's use of informant Josue "Casper" Aguirre, a member of the gang who had criminal charges dismissed and was paid a total of $75,000 by the government.
Aguirre, who has left El Paso in fear of his life, testified that at one time, the BA was collecting quotas from 47 drug sellers.
"During the course of this five-year investigation, the FBI allowed 47 dope houses to operate in El Paso so they could gather evidence about the Barrio Azteca extorting these dope houses," Del Valle said. "If each of those houses sold an ounce a day, over five years, they allowed over 5,000 pounds of drugs to be on the streets of El Paso."
Even local police don't think these convictions will shut down Barrio Azteca's drug operation:
"It doesn't mean the Barrio Azteca will be wiped out by any stretch of the imagination, but it puts them on notice that their drug dealing and murderous activities will not be tolerated," El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen said.Well, as long as BA is "on notice" I'm sure people living near the 47 locations where drug dealing was knowingly tolerated won't mind, right?
MORE: The issue of whether tolerating crime by informants may increase crime overall made me think of a recent study (mentioned in this Grits roundup post) purporting to sustain the so-called "Broken Windows" theory that "if people look around and see other people violating norms, they will tend to violate them as well."
How does that observation, to the extent it's correct, apply to a police tactic that allows 47 drug houses to operate in El Paso for five years? Doesn't the "Broken Windows" theory imply that doing that actually caused other crime because people saw those crimes were tolerated?
Alexandra Natapoff, whose critiques of snitching I've relied on for this argument, and James Q Wilson, the progenitor of the Broken Windows theory, come from very different places on the political spectrum (he's a neocon intellectual, she's a former federal public defender), but their theories on this subject seem to coincide.