DEA laundering money for drug cartels?

In order to dismantle international criminal and terrorist organizations, some infiltration into their operations has to take place.  The trick is to infiltrate enough to track down the bad guys without becoming one of them.  The ATF missed the mark by a mile in Operation Fast & Furious, and now the New York Times wonders whether the DEA did the same with its efforts to track money laundering by the same Mexican drug cartels (via Katie Pavlich):

Undercover American narcotics agents have laundered or smuggled millions of dollars in drug proceeds as part of Washington’s expanding role in Mexico’s fight against drug cartels, according to current and former federal law enforcement officials.

The agents, primarily with the Drug Enforcement Administration, have handled shipments of hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal cash across borders, those officials said, to identify how criminal organizations move their money, where they keep their assets and, most important, who their leaders are.

They said agents had deposited the drug proceeds in accounts designated by traffickers, or in shell accounts set up by agents.

The officials said that while the D.E.A. conducted such operations in other countries, it began doing so in Mexico only in the past few years. The high-risk activities raise delicate questions about the agency’s effectiveness in bringing down drug kingpins, underscore diplomatic concerns about Mexican sovereignty, and blur the line between surveillance and facilitating crime. As it launders drug money, the agency often allows cartels to continue their operations over months or even years before making seizures or arrests.

This is somewhat puzzling, for a couple of reasons.  First, one can see how such an operation would help track down and identify the key players in these cartels.  The guns get sold to lower- and mid-level cartel leaders, but the money goes right to the top.  Being able to trace cash and locate the accounts used by the cartels would not only pinpoint the top echelons of the cartels, but also would expose their bankers and other financial conduits so that the US and other countries could smash them to pieces, making it much more difficult for new leaders, bankers, and conduits to take their places.

Makes sense, right?  Except … that doesn’t appear to have happened, even after “a few” years of laundering their cash.  Where are the bank shutdowns, the cartel raids, and the cash seizures?  If the DEA has been doing its job, it could at least put a big dent into cartel operations by grabbing their fiscal assets.  So far, though, nothing of the sort seems to have happened.  The DEA seized one billion dollars last year — a drop in the bucket for drug cartels, and even that doesn’t appear to have netted any big fish for the US.

Besides, the US took a much different approach in their efforts to shut down terrorist networks.  Instead of helping them move their money, the US forced banks around the world to refuse to cooperate with terrorist networks by barring their access to American financial institutions if they did.  That was the point of the SWIFT program (which the New York Times also blew), which did actual and ongoing damage to al-Qaeda and other affiliated networks.  Why not just use the same approach with the drug cartels instead of reinventing the wheel — and abetting cartel operations along the way?

Unlike Fast & Furious, this doesn’t appear to be an operation designed primarily for domestic policy manipulation rather than law enforcement, but it does call into question the judgment of high-ranking US officials.