By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
It never happened. Valenzuela decided to take precautions before stepping back onto U.S. soil. He settled on a simple ruse: His brother Casiano would serve as a decoy. ”Casiano and Luis look identical,“ Ensley said. ”You can‘t tell them apart unless you know them.“
On the appointed day, with Luis watching from a discreet distance, Casiano drove across the border in Luis’ car, with Luis‘ son at his side. As Casiano crossed the border plaza, federal agents stopped him at gunpoint. He was handcuffed, interrogated for two hours and finally released. Luis moved deeper back into Mexico.
According to Ensley, when he learned by phone that the task-force agents had blown the arrest, he called Eliot directly. It was, it seems, a matter of ego. ”He said, ’well, we worked real hard on this case, and we wanted to be the ones to bring him in,‘“ Ensley said. ”He told me they wanted to send a clear message to Valenzuela and his organization.“
Eliot disputed Ensley’s version. He said he did not know of the attempted move against Valenzuela at the border, and declined to answer questions about Ensley because of his lawsuit. The DEA agent did acknowledge that Ensley played an important role in Rio Blanco, however. ”I can tell you this much about Skip Ensley,“ Eliot said. ”He was certainly not a charlatan.“
Today, Skip Ensley is living in limbo. He gets by working small construction jobs and administering polygraph exams, but his family life is all but shot. His dad died in 1995, and Karen has enrolled in school and spends much of her time away from home. When she attends a family event, Casiano and Kathleen are often on hand, and Skip stays away. Karen keeps his whereabouts secret.
Ensley blames his misfortunes -- and Valenzuela‘s triumph -- on the careerist imperatives that dominate the life of the federal agencies waging the war on drugs. The Southwest Border Task Force concentrated on padding numbers that would impress supervisors in Washington, he said, instead of making the sort of arrests that could hamper the flow of drugs across the border. ”These law-enforcement agencies are actually unethical,“ Ensley said. ”They conduct their investigations to benefit themselves instead of taking care of the crime at hand.“
Ensley’s jaundiced view of the task-force system is supported, in part, by Eric Blumenson, a professor at the Suffolk University Law School in Boston and an expert in asset forfeiture. He points out that cash seized in drug busts has become a driving force in federal and local agency budgets, with seizures totaling more than $1 billion last year. Consequently, Blumenson said, ”Virtually all drug-enforcement decisions are subject to this economic temptation.“ Another researcher, a graduate student who spent a year working as an officer on a federal task force, concluded, ”The drug enforcers and the drug traffickers become symbiotic beneficiaries of the war on drugs.“ Ensley put it in more graphic terms: ”If they quit the shadowboxing and went right into Mexico, they could do some serious damage to the cartels. But then they‘d all be out of jobs.“
In the case of Rio Blanco, the $15 million in seized currency was distributed among 17 agencies, some as far-flung as Tucson and San Diego. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department received the largest share -- $5.7 million, according to the DEA. Sheriff‘s Lieutenant James Whitten said the funds can be spent on ”any legitimate law-enforcement expenses,“ but he considered cash seizures a ”side benefit“ in drug investigations. ”The primary goal is to catch criminals,“ Whitten said.
Agents with the federal task force dismiss Ensley’s critical assessment of Rio Blanco. After all, Jorge Castro was convicted in federal court on charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and to launder money, and sentenced in March 2000 to 17 years in federal prison. The three accomplices arrested with him also pleaded guilty and are now serving prison sentences, but to the task-force agents, Castro was the key. ”Obviously, we always look to get the highest target,“ Eliot said.
That‘s not good enough for Ensley. If Valenzuela and his crew were out of town, he asked, ”Why not wait until they were back in the area?“ The task force had maintained its surveillance net for more than a year -- it could have waited another week to nab Valenzuela. Eliot answers that, with Castro on the move, ”We had a small window in which to operate.“ Ensley remains adamant. ”They took a figurehead, strictly for eye appeal. Castro may have had the biggest reputation, but why not take ’em all?“
Ensley accuses his federal handlers of avarice and incompetence, but other, less malicious motives could have been at play. It could be that, in his obsessive hunt for validation, Ensley so alienated the feds on the task force that they allowed Valenzuela to slip away through deliberate indifference. ”The FBI felt Skip was a wild card,“ said Ensley‘s friend who followed the case. And Ensley could be abrasive, always ready to remind Eliot and others that he was the only one in direct contact with a ranking member of the cartel. The small-town cop with all the answers had to grate on the nerves of his federal handlers. At some point, the agents faced what must have seemed an easy choice -- use Luis Valenzuela as a conduit to other traffickers, or arrest him and share the credit and the loot with Skip Ensley.
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