09/05/10 - Alexandra Natapoff

Alexandra Natapoff, author "Snitching - Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice" + Dane Schiller, reporter for Houston Chronicle, Atty. Tony Serra

Cultural Baggage Radio Show
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Alexandra Natapoff



Cultural Baggage / September 05, 2010

Broadcasting on the Drug Truth Network, this is Cultural Baggage.

“It’s not only inhumane, it is really fundamentally Un-American.”

“No more! Drug War!” “No more! Drug War!”
“No more! Drug War!” “No more! Drug War!”


My Name is Dean Becker. I don’t condone or encourage the use of any drugs, legal or illegal. I report the unvarnished truth about the pharmaceutical, banking, prison and judicial nightmare that feeds on Eternal Drug War.


Welcome to this edition of Cultural Baggage. Here in just a moment we’re going to bring in our guest, Alexandra Natapoff. She’s author of a new book, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice. I’ll tell you a little bit more about her in just a moment. To kick this off, I wanted to bring you this little speech from Mr. Tony Serra.

Tony Serra: It is called the use of informants. Not reveled, not credible, not corroborated, not related and as we speak, they’re being debriefed all over this country. There will be the drug charges that are made from frequently their false statements and in a sense it’s what to be expected because of the Draconian sentencing and the way that they torture the people they arrest psychologically by saying, “You’re going in twenty to life. You’re going in for life and the only way you’re going to get a reduction is to work with us. Put on this wire and record this phone call and go get to your grandchildren to testify against your associates.”

It’s a very ugly thing we have as this informant system. We have no equity. We have no balance. We’re out of control. Our judicial system is weighted in terms of prosecution. No one wants to be convicted by an unspeaking, no confrontation, and silent witness. No informant should be utilized at this level unless reliability was established. That has been taken away from us. We swim in a sea of snitches nowadays. (Applause)

Dean Becker: That was Tony Serra speaking to a NORML conference. Our guest today, Alexandra Natapoff, has written a great new book. I highly recommend, as I told her in an Email, it almost brought me to tears. I know about this problem but when you see the details and the elaborate web of this, as it reaches across America. It just hurts. Let’s go ahead and bring in our guest. Alexandra Natapoff, are you with us?

Alexandra Natapoff: Hi, how are you?

Dean Becker: I’m well. Thank you for joining us here on Century of Lies. Alexandra, you have written a very profound book, one that exposes this stain, if you will on America. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about what brought you – what brought focus to bare and why you did you write this book?

Alexandra Natapoff: Well, I – over the past decade or so working in and around our criminal justice system. I started to see just how pervasive and crucial the use of criminal informants really is. The book is entitled, Snitching, which is as everyone knows kind of slang for “criminal informants.” I think we have not as a community and as a society really thought deeply about what it means when the government uses a criminal informant.

We are used to the stories but when the government uses a criminal informant, the government is cutting a deal. It’s cutting a deal with an offender or a suspect and the government is saying that, “In exchange for your information, whether or not it is reliable, we are going to forgive you your guilt. We are going to relieve you of liability. We’re going to cut your sentence. Maybe we’ll turn you loose on the street.”

In effect, what we have is a massive black market in the trading of guilt, run by the government. It’s completely unregulated. It affects every city in this country, every rural community. It affects the entire criminal justice system. It’s everywhere and we know almost nothing about it.

The public almost never sees these deals. They can take place on street corners, in the back of police cars and of course, in courtrooms and in other kinds of deals. We don’t know and our criminal system has no mechanism for letting the public know how pervasive these secretive arrangements are.

So, when I started to see how powerful these deals were and how many offenders were really working off their liability in this way. How heavily the government was relying on these deals, as well as on the information gotten through these deals. I was really moved to try to research it, to delve deeper and to tell the story; this important piece of the story on how our criminal justice system works.

Dean Becker: Yeah and I don’t know how well you could hear Tony Serra in that opening piece but he was talking about the fact that “we swim in a sea of snitches.” He’s not too far wrong, is he?

Alexandra Natapoff: Well, particularly in drug enforcement, although the phenomenon has spread to every single kind of law enforcement that we have. It’s really true that criminal informants are part and parcel of how we manage our criminal system. The public occasionally sees horror stories, a wrongful conviction or a case gone wrong but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. It’s become such common practice that people in the criminal system don’t even notice it.

They don’t even notice that this is an everyday practice, something that we all now take for granted. It is something that we shouldn’t take for granted. It’s a vital public policy. It should be understood. The public should know about it and it should be properly regulated, the way we regulate all important public policy decisions.

Dean Becker: Once again we’re speaking with Alexandra Natapoff. She’s author of a great book, I highly recommend, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice. Alexandra, I want to read from your book here, just a brief example:

“For example, when police threaten first time offender, Amy Gepfert, with a forty year sentence for drug distribution, they offered to drop all charges if she engaged in oral sex with another suspect in exchange for money. So the police could charge him with prostitution. She did and no charges were filled against her.”

It just reaches across the board, any and every kind of example of manipulation, right?

Alexandra Natapoff: Absolutely, I’m glad you picked that example. What I tried to do in the book is lay out the structure of how our criminal system works and it’s dependence on criminal informants an also, to tell the real stories of the real people who have gotten caught up in the web of informant use and it touches everyone.

It’s so broad. it touches people in so many different ways. Amy Gepfert is a terrible but very key example of the way that informants themselves can be victimized by the practice. Of course, the criminal system is full of vulnerable people. The majority of criminal suspects and defendants are not well educated. Many of them suffer from substance abuse problems. Many of them have no resources. The vast majority of criminal defendants cannot afford a lawyer.

So, when the government puts pressure on people to become informants, it’s very difficult for individuals, particularly vulnerable individuals to resist. Amy Gepfert is an example of a woman who was facing drug charges. The government told her the drug charges were more serious than they in fact were. They told her that she was facing a forty-year sentence when she wasn’t. They put pressure on her to engage in sexual acts with another suspect do the government could go after him.

It just goes to show this other aspect of the informant system, which is that absolutely everything can be negotiated. Nothing is off limits. Sex is not off limits. Family members are not off limits. There is nothing that the system holds sacred and says, “No you can’t trade that. You can’t bargain over that.”

We really cast all principles and caution to the wind and put everything up for sale. I think it has eroded many of the deeper principles of American criminal justice that we wish governed our system.

Dean Becker: Alexandra, we’re – I watch the enemy camp, so to speak. I tune into FOX news and I watch some of these cable programs and there’s a relatively new out. It’s called DEA where they set up people and get them to snitch on one another. They try to “go up the ladder”, so to speak and they’re laughing up their sleeves at the way they deceive these people, at the way they manipulate them to flip the next person. Your thoughts on that?

Alexandra Natapoff: Well, I haven’t seen the show but it is certainly true that our criminal system and the rules of our criminal system permit trickery, manipulation and lying on the part of government officials as well as individuals. It really is a no-holds-barred kind of arrangement. As I said before, it takes place off the public record and it contradicts many of the principles of our criminal system that we’re proud of – that we are rightfully proud of.

Countries around the world copy our Bill of Rights. They copy our procedural protections for defendants. They copy our right to a jury trial. They copy our right to council. Why? Because these are principles that we can be proud of. Any system that adopts can say, “We have a fair and just and rigorous system.”

Snitching and the setting of people against each other, their families, their friends, their neighbors in this underground way is really the opposite model. It’s anything goes, anything is for sale, playing on people’s weakness and vulnerability. In my view, it’s not the way we should run one of the most important aspects of our government.

Dean Becker: Alright, get you a drink of water. We’re going to take a one minute break and hear a little bit more from Mr. Tony Serra.

Tony Serra: Now, because of the war on drugs and because of the war on marijuana, our judicial system is once again tainted by informants at every level. We have more nomenclature for informants than any country in the history of a war. We’ve got material informants, percipient informants; we’ve got reliable informants. We’ve got informational sources. We’ve got a sea of participatory informants. We’ve got cooperating defendants and it goes on and on.

We have developed a whole lexicon of legal principles that apply to relegation of informants and the use of informants. The bottom line, my friends, is that there is no truth seeking process that can ever rely on the word of the informant so frequently and never reveal this very, very ugly thing. (applause)

It’s about the creation of a spy society. It’s an Orwellian prediction. It’s a totalitarian state and application. It’s the KGB for America. The war on drugs has brought this ugly scar onto the face of the judicial process.

Dean Becker: Alright, you know he calls it an “ugly scar”. In that speech, Alexandra, he was talking about the fact that is a rather recent development in the American justice system. That heretofore twenty, thirty and especially forty years ago, it was practically unheard of. You thoughts please?

Alexandra Natapoff: Actually, the use of informants is an old law enforcement practice. It’s been around for centuries and certainly decades in our criminal justice system.

The explosion of the use of informants, the heavy use of informants that in my view has really changed the nature of our criminal justice system that is new. That is a child of the war on drugs and that is a child of the new sloppiness and criminal justice system that has accompanied the war on drugs. So in that sense, yes, the scale of informant use is twenty or thirty years old but the practice has been around for a long time.

Dean Becker: Well, Ok and I think I kind of misrepresented. He was talking about heretofore, it had been a more procedural thing, where things were done by the book and people had to be creditable and so forth. Whereas now, it’s people with a criminal record trying to reduce their sentence by manipulating the lives of others, right?

Alexandra Natapoff: Well, we’ve certainly gotten a lot more information about the role of criminal informants in our criminal justice system and the way it has eroded many of the pillars of criminal justice and of course one piece of that puzzle is unreliability. The chapter in the book where I talk about it is called “Beyond Unreliable” because it is so deeply rooted in our justice system.

Northwestern Law School did a study a few years ago and concluded that “the use of criminal informants is the single largest source of error in American capital cases. More people, more innocent people are on death row because of a criminal snitch than any other single source of error.” So, it’s a terrible source of unreliability.

Yet, it is also a source of crime, as I said at the outset. These are criminal offenders who are making deals so that their own crimes will go unpunished and as I lay out in the book, this has taken a terrible toll on high crime neighborhoods.

Neighborhoods where the criminal system has become a revolving door with people coming in and out of prison and we’ve seen all too many cases where innocent people in high crime neighborhoods have been harmed by informants who the government had turned loose, in exchange for information, sometimes false or inaccurate information. So, not only are informants unreliable, they are also a source of crime in some of our most vulnerable neighborhoods.

Dean Becker: Speaking of those vulnerable neighborhoods, you write in your book that informant use disrupts these communities more than others because police make disproportionately more drug arrests in black neighborhoods and the practice of “flipping” on your neighbors is more prevalent there. It’s kind of a self-maintaining situation, right?

Alexandra Natapoff: Absolutely, it’s one of the costs of the radial skew in the war on drugs, which I think has gone unnoticed until now. We know that the Drug War has been waged primarily in low-income and minority neighborhoods. The boom in the American prison population has been largely at the cost of black and brown men – increasingly women – but largely young men.

It’s because of our drug policies. It’s because of our arrest patterns and prosecution patterns because using criminal informants is so central to drug enforcement, it means that snitching has become central to life in high crime, low-income urban communities.

I try to describe in the book that folks in these neighborhoods know, in ways that people who do not live there do not know and are not forced to see everyday, how demoralizing and frightening it can be to live around individuals and live around a law enforcement system when you know these deals are going on.

Someone may commit an offence and you don’t know if the police will arrest them or prosecute them or turn them loose because the world of snitching is so prevalent and it’s so secretive that we may never learn about it.

Dean Becker: Once again friends, we’re speaking with Alexandra Natapoff. She’s author of a great book, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice. I first learned about her through an issue of Prison Legal News, where she wrote a great piece there as well.

I look at it this way, Alexandra, as I think I indicated earlier. I knew about this problem but I didn’t know the detail. I didn’t know how pervasive this is in our criminal justice system. It’s part of the scenario whereby; I think Tony Serra was talking about it, where “we’re going to give you thirty years. We’re going to give you forty years or we’re going to give you maximum possible unless you wear the wire and tape the phone call and go to the grand jury.” This is not the way things used to be. It’s not how they were, when I was a kid. The grand jury system was more straightforward. It’s become a monster of it’s own in many ways, right?

Alexandra Natapoff: Well, don’t forget our criminal system itself has exploded in the past thirty years. Again, largely in connection with war on drugs but also more generally our criminal system is so much vaster than it was when you and I were kids that this part of it has grown as well. You raise an important point.

It’s not surprising that you didn’t know the scope of this practice. Most people do not know the scope of this practice because our criminal system isn’t designed to keep data about it. It’s not designed to keep track of it to let policy makers make rational decisions about it.

Legislators do not know how deep the situation is in their own states. Courts often do not know. It’s a secretive off the record, completely discretionary process that has only recently begun to get the attention that I think it deserves.

Dean Becker: I would certainly have to agree with that. Well, Alexandra, we’ve barely touched on this. Here’s hoping that you come back and visit this soon and we can delve a little further into this. It’s an issue that definitely needs to be addressed. Any closing thoughts that you would like to relay?

Alexandra Natapoff: I would love to come back and thank you so much for having me. If people take anything away from this conversation, I hope it gives people pause to think that there’s so much of our criminal system – a system that’s so important to the way that we run our society and the way our communities function. A huge piece of our system that we just don’t know anything about and our government isn’t, at the moment, obligated to tell us about it. If anything needs to change, it’s that fact.

Dean Becker: Yes and often the information gathered never sees the light of day, unless it goes to trial, right?

Alexandra Natapoff: Absolutely.

Dean Becker: Alright, Alexandra Natapoff author of, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice. Thank you so much.

Alexandra Natapoff: Dean, thanks so much.


Cheech Marin: This is America. You get to criticize the government in this country. You get to say, “I think these guys are ridiculous.” It’s guaranteed in the very First Amendment in the Constitution. It’s what this country was founded on. You get to do that by being an American.

The fact that that she brought up our movies means that, “We don’t want you to say whatever you want to say. This is not your America anymore. It’s our America.” Then putting Tommy Chong in jail for making Cheech & Chong movies means you don’t get to say that in America. We get to put you in jail for it.


Homer Simpson: I had a bas experience with drugs.

(Psychedelic music)

Homer Simpson: It was that golden weekend between summer school and regular school.

Lenny Leonard: Hey Homer, you wanna smoke some marijuana?

Carl Carlson: They say it’s a gateway drug.

Police Officer: Well, well, if it isn’t the Doobie Brothers?

Lenny Leonard: Oh, uh. Crotch the weed, man.

Police Officer: Smell any drugs, Sergeant Scraps?

Sergeant Scraps (dog): (sniffs and growls)

(Sergeant Scraps attacks Homer Simpson who is screaming.)

Homer Simpson: For me, the sixties ended that day in 1978.


(Game show music)

It’s time to play: Name That Drug By It’s Side Effects

Yellow eyes, vomiting, black tarry stools, cloudy urine, fever with chills, sores, ulcers or white spots on lips and mouth and unusual bleeding.


Time’s up!

The answer: Another FDA approved product, Acetominophen.


Over the past few weeks, I‘ve been making note of the fact that the business in reporting on the Drug War is good. It seems to be prevalent. It seems to be a part of nearly every broadcast and print media around the country on a daily basis.

Here to talk about his beat, if you will, is a reporter from the Houston Chronicle, Dane Schiller. He reports on crime. He reports on the Drug War. He reports on happenings in Latin America. Most recently he’s been talking about the situation where “Le Barbie”, Edgar Valdez Villarreal, has been captured in Mexico. Is that going to bring an end to their efforts amongst the cartels or is this just going to lead to more violence?

Dane Schiller: Well, I know one thing for sure. He’ll be replaced, if hasn’t been replaced already. There will certainly be a power vacuum in his corner of the world as people try to take over what was once his. I certainly don’t see an end to the violence anywhere. Some have said that his people, his soldiers were involved in certain turf wars and with him gone they’ll be wiped out. Oh, they’ll be beck.

Dean Becker: Alright, “Le Barbie,” he’s a little bit of a unique cartel leader, if you will. He was born an American and kind of infiltrated himself into the Mexican gangs and rose through the ranks, correct?

Dane Schiller: That’s what we understand. I spoke to people that describe how he got his start and there seems to be two opinions but somewhere in his career, he made contact with the Mexican cartels and gained their trust and moved up the ranks.

Dean Becker: Now, as I understand it, there was a two million dollar reward offered for his capture. Do you think anybody is going to try and claim that?

Dane Schiller: We had always suspected that there was some sort of snitch involved. I find it highly unlikely that the Mexican military or police just found it. But will we know who got that money? Will we even know if that money was paid? No way.

Dean Becker: Mexico has been absorbing the brunt of the violence. Now nearing 29,000 dead since Calderón sicced the army and the federal police on the cartels. Most recently there were seventy-two migrants that were murdered, supposedly for not wanting to join the Sinaloa cartel.

The investigator into those killings has already been killed himself. Do you see Calderón’s efforts, his focus changing? It seems that his perceptions or his focus is changing a bit, does it not?

Dane Schiller: I’m not sure. I do know that the current plan has not been working. There’s nobody that says, “Your people are dying” or that there is any legitimacy that the flow of the drugs have slowed or the demand for drugs has slowed. I think he may be privately wondering if it’s time to take the gloves off a little bit.

Dean Becker: It seems to me that the death toll might be subject to rising at an even faster rate should he “take the gloves off.” Your thoughts?

Dane Schiller: Well, what I’m hearing privately from people who have dedicated themselves to the counter-narcotics fight – if you call it that – they say that back in the day the Mexican gangsters or “dope lords”, as they call them, were scared to death of military, were scared to death of the police, were scared to death of getting caught because they knew that one of the first things that were going to happen to them is that they would be tortured extensively. They were going to be just really put though the sausage machine, literally.

I think now that with democracy, the government is behaving better and the gangsters are trying to take advantage of that to some degree because they know there’s a Human Rights Commission and they know that things can’t be done they were before. This is what some of the drug fighters are telling me privately that they see as an issue. They’re not saying it’s right but they’re saying it’s the reality in Mexico.

Dean Becker: It is fear that gives the Drug War life and there’s quite a bit of new instances of creation of fear. The State Department in Monterrey is now saying that the diplomats should remove their children from the country. There’s been some gun battles at an elite school down there and they are now learning to set off car bombs, much like they do in Iraq and Afghanistan.

How far do you think they’re willing to take this Drug War? It’s now lasted decades. Do you think people now have the courage to continue this for another ten years in the hopes of eliminating drugs?

Dane Schiller: I know, I have to think that the smartest people are realizing that they have to do things differently. I think they’ve got to realize that they are not going to be able to slow flow of drugs and until the streets are flooded, they’re going to do it. I think this is the kind of thing that has to happen for them to think outside the box and say, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. What is the very basis of what we are doing here?”

Dean Becker: Calderón was quoted as saying that Mexicans should “brace themselves for more violence.” Do you think the Mexican population will stand for it?

Dane Schiller: I don’t think they have a choice. I think if we look at what’s happened – what happened in Colombia. We know that war is going to have to be worse before it gets better. We don’t know how much worse.

It seems like every single week, they’re topping themselves. There’s something more horrifying. Does the media play a role in that? Sure, we do. But every week its, “Now, look what they’ve done. Now look what they’ve done and man, now look what they’ve done.”

Dean Becker: Right, ever escalating. Here’s hoping that rational minds will somehow take control of this situation. Any closing thoughts, Mr. Dane Schiller?

Dane Schiller: No, other than this is going to continue and Mexico is going to continue to have it’s cartel bosses and bogeymen. They’re going to be larger than life figures at the helm of a war.


Reporter: Do you have a comment, sir, on the recommendation of your Commission on Drugs that the use of marijuana in the home no be longer be considered a crime?

Richard Nixon: I met with Mr. Shafer. I read the report. It is a report which deserves consideration and will receive it. However, as to one aspect of the report, I am in disagreement. I was before I read it and reading it did not change my mind.

I oppose the legalization of marijuana and that includes its sale, its possession and its use. I do not believe you can have effective criminal justice based on the philosophy that something is half legal and half illegal. That is my position, despite what the Commission has recommended.

(Reporter clamor)

Oh, yes. President Nixon read the Shafer report and threw it in the trash. We’re out of time here. I just want to thank Alexandra Natapoff, author of Snitching. You guys have got to do your part. Help end the madness of Drug War. As I always remind you, because of prohibition, you don’t know what’s in that bag. Please, be careful.


To the Drug Truth Network listeners around the world, this is Dean Becker for Cultural Baggage and the Unvarnished Truth.

This show produced at the Pacifica studios of KPFT, Houston.

Drug Truth Network programs are archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Policy Studies.

Transcript provided by: Ayn Morgan of www.eigengraupress.com

Tap dancing… on the edge… of an abyss.