When federal agents in Seattle announced last July the completion of a major drug investigation, they didn't share one detail: Ernesto Gamboa, a key informant who helped make the case, had quit the investigation weeks earlier.
The El Salvador native was until then one of nearly 3,000 active informants working undercover for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency of the Homeland Security Department, according to records obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Gamboa, 41, was essentially a guest worker for the U.S. government's war on drugs. At the request of U.S. law enforcement, immigration officials had regularly given him special permission to live in the country to help bust drug traffickers.
'My Only Crime Was Helping The Government'
Many informants who cooperate with police are criminals or gang turncoats who want to avoid prison. They may only work a few cases, even if they're motivated by money.
But Gamboa was different, his former law enforcement handlers say. He volunteered to become an informant more than a decade ago and hoped to eventually become a legal U.S. resident, a privilege several former narcotics agents say he has earned.
"I can't even tell you off the top of my head how many cases we've done, because there were so many," said Tom Padukiewicz, a retired narcotics detective with the Washington State Patrol. "Ernesto's made a case for himself over the last 13 years of work that he's done."
Instead, Gamboa is in immigration limbo after ICE agents arrested him in July, just days after the news conference where federal agents trumpeted the successful drug case, dubbed Operation Arctic Chill. Federal agents arrested 31 people following a 14-month investigation into a drug trafficking organization that supplied methamphetamine and cocaine from Mexico to Washington state.
"It's hard to believe now that they turned their back on me and I'm the criminal. They put me in jail without committing a crime," Gamboa said. "My only crime was helping the government. I don't think it's fair."
Several other informants interviewed for this story -- also without permanent status in the United States and at risk of being deported -- made similar allegations against ICE.
They cited bureaucratic bungling, mistreatment and broken promises of being shielded from deportation in exchange for their cooperation in dangerous investigations. The informants have been willing to put their lives on the line, but they now face the prospect of harm in their native countries if they're sent back. Their claims are supported by immigration attorneys, former drug agents and members of Congress.
"It's troubling to think that the same agencies of Homeland Security would use someone to tackle crime and bust up drug rings and then turn around and prosecute the same people, knowing they had basically worked in partnership for many years," said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who has questioned ICE officials about Gamboa. "And then their reward for that is to deport them to a possibly life-or-death situation."
Federal officials say informants often hear what they want to hear, turning vague assurances into promises. Agents are prohibited from making promises to adjust an informant's immigration status, and they don't have the authority to render such decisions. Moreover, informants rarely deserve special consideration, officials say.
In 1994, Congress created the "S" visa to recruit valuable foreign informants by offering them a pathway to legal immigrant status. But with bureaucratic red-tape and an annual cap of 200 so-called "snitch" visas, the government has been reluctant to give them to people like Gamboa, immigration attorneys and former federal agents say.
Nearly 100 Convictions Over 14 Years
Before he retired in 2007, Tom Zweiger, then a detective sergeant with the Washington State Patrol, requested legal immigrant status for Gamboa from an ICE agent. He was told that the matter was being attended to. No other law enforcement agency -- and Gamboa has worked with several -- has been willing to sponsor his "S" visa application.
"This thing should have had a peaceful resolution long before they ever went out and arrested Ernesto," Zweiger said. "All it would have taken is a little effort on that agency's part, and something could have been worked out for Ernesto. They don't seem to want to do that."
When Gamboa first offered to help the Seattle police in the mid-1990s, he was in the country illegally. He wanted to make money and avenge the drug-overdose death of a friend.
Police obtained from immigration officials a renewable special permission, known as "significant public benefit parole," for Gamboa to stay in the country to help fight drug trafficking, and regularly renewed it. In 2005, police asked Gamboa to return to the United States to help with drug investigations after he had moved the year before to live back in El Salvador. Immigration officials then reinstated his parole status, and police renewed it through late 2009. But when he quit the investigation, ICE revoked his parole, making him an illegal immigrant.
In turn for his parole status, Gamboa helped drug detectives and federal prosecutors win nearly 100 convictions and seize hundreds of pounds of drugs and $1 million in illicit funds and weapons. Over 14 years, Gamboa was paid about $140,000, he said.
Although Gamboa served a short jail term for a cocaine possession conviction before becoming an informant, Zweiger and other former drug agents say that should be overlooked because of the work he did.
The ICE agents, however, didn't take those efforts into consideration when they moved to deport Gamboa, Zweiger said.
Hoping For Someone To Come To His Rescue
Weeks before his arrest, Gamboa left the investigation, upset that ICE hadn't paid him in 13 months. Gamboa said when he asked his handler if he could take a job in Florida, the ICE agent told him he could be deported if he left Washington. Feeling trapped, he quit. ICE agents were angry that Gamboa walked out on the case, Padukiewicz said.
"I think there are certain individuals in law enforcement that look at confidential informants as commodities -- something that can be used, abused and then discarded," he said.
Alonzo R. Pena, ICE's head of operations, declined to comment on Gamboa's case, and wouldn't confirm or deny whether Gamboa was ever an informant. He said it's ultimately an immigration judge's decision to order someone deported. ICE agents and attorneys, however, often initiate the process and can make recommendations to block deportation.
"Our agents would be insulted if they heard that they're viewed as just looking at individuals, at other human beings, as a commodity," he said. "We would never have an effective program if we operated in that manner."
In August 2009, ICE dropped its efforts to deport Gamboa, saying it wasn't "in the best interest of the government." He is now living -- illegally -- in the United States, hoping someone will come to his rescue.
'If We Don't Help How Are We Going To Recruit Other People?'
In December, Sen. Cantwell pushed the issue with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano during a Senate committee hearing. Cantwell raised the matter after ICE officials told her that Gamboa's deportation wasn't the agency's problem.
"He can't work because he doesn't have paperwork. And if he is returned to El Salvador, I'm sure he will likely be killed," Cantwell said at the hearing. "If we don't help the Gamboas who have been informants for us, how are we going to recruit other people to help us in finding drug traffickers and criminals?"
Mark Bartlett, the first assistant U.S. attorney for Western Washington, said his office isn't equipped to monitor Gamboa or any confidential informants who have an S visa, as required. But informants are a constant concern.
"We are very concerned about the use of informants that might use law enforcement to further their criminal means -- in other words, to eliminate their opposition. We are also very worried about informants' personal safety, their family's safety," he said. "It is a very tricky area."
Gamboa hopes a resolution in his favor is near. Otherwise, he will return on his own to El Salvador, even if the risk of death there is real.
"If I go back to El Salvador, I know for a fact I will be killed. It's a dangerous country, and it's easy to find people," he said. "But I can't live here without working."
Andrew Becker reports for the Center for Investigative Reporting. The piece was produced for broadcast by Michael Montgomery, who is also with the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Also visit our "Informants: Resources for a Snitch Culture" section.
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