For Paid Informant, a Life on the Edge
Originally published July 2, 1989, Sun-Sentinel
Colombian drug lords murdered his brother, his brother-in-law and his grandfather. Now Mario Jose Pena has declared a personal war on drugs.
And the police pay his bills.
In a sworn statement filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, Pena described how Colombians tried to use him in 1983, when he worked at the Guatemalan consulate in Los Angeles, and how they murdered his family members.
“I hate dopers,” Pena said in the deposition, filed in a pending West Palm Beach drug case. “I got a very strong motivation. That is why I hate the dopers.”
Pena, 29, earns his living on the shadowy edge of the law, among the ranks of informants who supply information, arrange drug deals and earn perks from law enforcement.
Pena said he made nearly $30,000 last year, all from state and federal agents — and taxpayers.
Law-enforcement officials say they cannot begin to attack the lucrative drug trade without informants such as Pena. They say informants have a hand in most of their drug cases.
“We try to treat our sources like jewels, so they come back. The word gets out and you get more information,” said Pat O’Brien, special agent in charge of the U.S. Customs Service in Miami.
Most agencies say the majority of their drug cases are based on informants. One agency cited a case in which an informant made $400,000 for his help.
Defense lawyers say Pena, and others who profit by setting up drug deals, are corrupting the judicial system by trading information for money.
In Pena’s case, the issue may be aired in court on Aug. 7, when a judge considers whether West Palm Beach police cut a deal with Pena and his protege, Gloria Blackstone, to arrest five Dade County men in a drug bust in November.\r\nIt would not be the first time the issue has been raised. The U.S. Supreme Court and the 4th District Court of Appeal have both frowned on the payment of “contingency fees” to drug informants.
Court rulings suggest that such activity could provoke informants to “color testimony or even commit perjury.”
Still, the practice continues. Police and prosecutors make cases based on information from anonymous tipsters, from criminals looking for a light sentence and from people like Pena, who are looking for money.
“We have to substantiate what the informant says,” said Rob Shepherd, a Palm Beach County prosecutor. “It’s very tough to go only on an informant’s word.”
He said police and prosecutors win cases all the time using confidential informants — as long as there is something else to go on.
But Pena and Blackstone are anomalies among informants because they do little else. They meet potential buyers, they arrange drug deals and they stand back while police make the bust.
“This is my job. This is what I do for a living,” Blackstone said in her statement. “I’m against dopers. I have two kids and I want to make sure that when they grow up, they’re not going to be doing these things.”
Law-enforcement officials say that kind of informant is rare.
“It’s a very dangerous living, but some people do it,” O’Brien said.
Defense lawyers say it is almost unheard of. And they say it is wrong.
David Roth, Nelson Bailey and Richard Springer — lawyers who represent three of the defendants arrested in the Nov. 15 West Palm Beach case — say police should not rely on paid informants, trading arrests for money.
“At some point, you create too much of an incentive for people to frame other people,” Bailey said.
In his motion, Roth quotes from the deposition of Sgt. Harvey Starr, a West Palm Beach officer who worked on the Nov. 15 arrest: “I said if we are successful in this investigation and that we do seize monies, I will give you … a substantial amount of money.”
All three lawyers filed motions asking for the Aug. 7 hearing. They argue that police have no idea how Pena and Blackstone arrange drug deals. Do buyers come to them, or do the informants manufacture the crime?
In their sworn statements, Pena and Blackstone detailed their part in the morning drug bust at a house on Barnett Street.
The day’s work earned the pair $3,700, paid by city police who posed as drug dealers peddling seven pounds of cocaine. Police seized nearly $49,000.
For Pena, it was just another day at the office.\r\nIn his deposition, Pena said he began working for the Drug Enforcement Administration in March 1986, after three family members had been murdered by Colombian drug lords.
Pena said the Colombians had tried to extort fake passports from him while he was a low-level diplomatic official in the Guatemalan consulate in Los Angeles. He refused. In 1983, his grandfather was murdered. In 1985, his brother and his brother-in-law were killed. He gave no more details in his deposition.
Pena said he has set up as many as 100 drug deals with the DEA; U.S. Customs; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; the Broward Sheriff’s Office; and the Fort Lauderdale Police Department.
Blackstone, who has been an informant only a year, credits herself with fewer cases.
In their work with informants like Pena and Blackstone, law-enforcement officials say they never negotiate.
They say paying rewards after an arrest is not a contingency fee. They say the reward does not depend upon a conviction or testimony in court. That is why they can use informants and gain convictions. Yet the reward often depends on how much is seized and how many people are arrested.
“The more you give, the more you get,” one federal agent said.
And experienced informants do not have to ask about payment.
“Nobody has to explain to us about the case,” Pena said. “We already got experience how the system is.”
O’Brien, the customs agent, said as much as 75 percent of the agency’s cases are initiated by contact from informants. And the money is good.
He said that in one case, an informant earned $400,000, but that was the result of a major arrest over a long period of time. The informant probably had to leave town after the arrest, O’Brien said.
“I don’t want to make it sound like we’re paying everyone $400,000,” O’Brien said. “But very few of our cases are under $5,000.”
Officials at other agencies said that was high. Officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said payments were typically in the $500 to $1,000 range.
Where does the money come from?
“Congress,” O’Brien said.
No one will discuss how much taxpayers chip in to pay confidential informants.
In Pena’s case, the Nicaraguan native has earned as much as $5,000 a case from federal and state agencies, all paid in cash. His first case, in March 1986, was for the DEA, he said in his sworn statement.
In his statement, he would not answer questions about his address or his phone number. He would not give details about his car.
“I cannot describe you what color and what year, for personal security,” he said.
He does pay taxes, reporting his earnings as a paid informant to the Internal Revenue Service, he said. He gives a beeper number, but a call to that number reached a recording that said the number was out of service.
Pena said he met Blackstone in Hialeah two years ago.\r\n”We was talking about the bad people from the street dealing drugs,” he said. “I suggest to her if she know people so we can cooperate with the United States government.”
In her statement, Blackstone said she made her first case for the DEA nearly a year ago. Since then, she has been involved in nearly a dozen cases. One case earned her $12,000.
She says her job is easy.
She meets people who want drugs and answers their questions. She tells them, “I know where you can get some cocaine or marijuana or whatever. If you’re interested, just call me.”
“And that’s what they do,” she said. “They always call.”
Copyright 1989, Sun-Sentinel