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Was The NSA Spying On A Mexican Druglord's Son?


Was The NSA Spying On A Mexican Druglord's Son?

One of the first tests of just how the NSA’s surveillance dragnet is used by other law enforcement is beginning to play out in an organized crime case being heard on the Mexican border.

Lawyers for accused trafficker Serafin Zambada Ortiz are demanding to know whether the NSA spied on their client. The request was made in a motion to compel the United States to disclose its evidence against the drug kingpin’s son.

Zambada is a son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a long-time leader of the Sinaloa Cartel who is wanted in the U.S. on a $5 million bounty. Serafin was arrested in late November as he crossed into the United States through Nogales, Ariz. His lawyers say Serafin is a U.S. citizen and that he was born in San Diego.

He was arrested on a single charge of trafficking methamphetamine and cocaine. Serafin’s lawyers told the judge that 30 to 100 phone lines may have been subjected to wiretap surveillance. Along with their request for the government’s evidence, his lawyers asked for the names of all witnesses, records from surveillance done in Mexico, and information that law enforcement “obtained from the NSA.”

“He may have a potential challenge,” said Saji Vettiyil, an Arizona defense attorney on Serafin’s legal team. “It’s questionably illegal to spy on a U.S. citizen without proper court authorization.”

Cross-border surveillance by the NSA has been known since before Edward Snowden first disclosed the agency’s sweeping surveillance programs last year. But as The New York Times reported last summer, Americans’ communications picked up in cross-border surveillances are supposed to be sifted out and deleted if they’re not relevant to understanding foreign intelligence.

It’s unknown whether the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has given the NSA the ability to spy on Americans in foreign countries wanted on non-terror related charges and then turn the information to another law enforcement agency.

Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.