Shortly before midnight on July 3, 2012, Fernando Palma-Carias called his handler in a panic. Lance Anthony, a Wake County sheriff’s investigator assigned to the Drug Enforcement Administration, was looking into the local arm of a Mexican drug cartel. Carias was his snitch. And Carias was in trouble.
“The police, they are trying to kill me!”
“What are you talking about?” Anthony replied, according to a case report. “Why are they trying to kill you?”
“I did something bad. I shot her.”
“Who did you shoot?”
“Is she OK?”
“I don’t know. I think I killed her.”
“I won’t let anything happen to you,” Anthony promised. He told Carias to meet him at the DEA office on Falls of Neuse Road.
Few people knew about Carias’s secret life. To friends and neighbors, he was a rags-to-riches story, the owner of a South Saunders Street grocery store called Mexico Lindo”beautiful Mexico.” After escaping poverty in his native Honduras in the early nineties, he’d met a woman in Durham. Though they never married or fell in love, Carias says, they moved into a $385,000 cul-de-sac home in southern Wake County in 2008, where they raised twin sons.
But that night, Carias was freaking out. He drove to the DEA office and stopped his car; Anthony and another agent motioned him forward with a flashlight. Carias, however, detoured a short distance up a road and parked. He jumped out and pointed a 9-millimeter to his chin. The agents took cover behind a parked car.
“The gun is not for you or Lance,” Carias shouted. “I like you guys. The gun is for me!”
Cops and journalists soon flooded the area. Carias’s mother saw his breakdown on TV and sped to the scene. Through a police megaphone, she begged her son to give up. As the sun began its ascent on the Fourth of July, Carias spotted a sniper out of the corner of his eye and surrendered.
He was correct: Marisol Rojas, the woman with whom he shared a house and children, was dead. She was thirty-seven.
Though he now claims the killing was self-defense, Carias pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2013 and was sentenced to sixteen to twenty-one years in prison. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2029; if that happens, he’ll almost certainly be immediately deported.
But that was just the beginning. Four months after his conviction, Carias filed a federal lawsuitstill ongoingaccusing the DEA of luring vulnerable immigrants into dangerous drug operations through empty promises of citizenship. Though his lawsuit is full of sensational claims, Carias is hardly the first undocumented immigrant to accuse the DEA of coercing him into the dangerous world of snitching. (See “The Informant Game,” page 17.)
Among the defendants Carias names in his lawsuit is Wake County sheriff’s deputy Jim Cornaire, whom Carias says was his personal DEA escort. Carias alleges that Cornaire extorted money from him and outed him as a snitch to Rojas, prompting the fight that led to her death. (Cornaire, who declined an interview, has denied those accusations.)
From there, Carias’s tale gets even stranger.
With Rojas dead and Carias in prison, on August 3, 2012, Cornairein accordance with Rojas’s willtook custody of Carias’s twins, who are now eighteen. A year later, on the twins’ behalf, Cornaire lodged a wrongful-death lawsuit against Carias. A judge ordered Carias to pay $8 million in damages.
As much as interviews and court documents reveal about this case, there’s plenty we don’t know. Many of Carias’s claims lack independent corroboration, and the circumstances under which he became an informant are disputed.
But we do know that it is against DEA rules to promise undocumented immigrants citizenship, and that the agency’s handling of its informants has recently come under fire.
We also know that, not long ago, Carias was living the American dream. If the DEA hadn’t made him a snitch, would he still be? And might Marisol Rojas still be alive?
The Perfect Man for the Job
Carias, now fifty-one, is five feet four and bald, with olive skin and a squat frame. During two lengthy interviews conducted last year at Raleigh’s Central Prison, he spoke in halting English and hushed tones. He sounded paranoid.
“I have very sensitive information,” he whispered at one point. “They are trying to destroy me.”
Carias grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Honduras with seven siblings. Even then he was ambitious. After college, he took out a loan to open a restaurant.
In 1991, he left Honduras for America, crossing Guatemala on foot and eventually arriving in Vera Cruz, Mexico. Seven months later, he says, he rafted across the Rio Grande on a tire. He did odd jobs in Houston and Tampa before moving to Durham; he’d heard that some Mexicans had found work in North Carolina’s tobacco fields. Instead of tobacco, though, he landed a job installing computer screws in Research Triangle Park.
In 1996, he met Rojas, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. She became pregnant after they had a one-night stand, Carias says, and they moved in together. Not long after, Carias opened Mexico Lindo with a loan. His store served as a wire-transfer hub for the area’s Latino population.
Over the next decade, Carias expanded his business, purchasing a commercial building on Capital Boulevard for $985,000 and opening a sports bar called Flamingo’s. His acumen afforded him life’s niceties. He gave to charities, including UNC Children’s Hospital and the Wake County Fraternal Order of Police, court filings show.
But while Carias appeared to be living the good life, he was secretly under federal surveillance.
In 2005, not long after he opened Mexico Lindo, Bank of America informed the DEA that Carias was making corporate deposits in excess of $400,000 a month. The deposits “far exceed the amount of business that is customary for such an establishment,” a DEA official noted in a report. The feds opened an investigation.
Carias says Raleigh agents summoned him to their office, where they peppered him with questions about his customers. He denied any wrongdoing, though he acknowledged living in the country illegally. He says that his original handler, DEA agent William Atwell, threatened him with jail and deportation but promised citizenship if he supplied information on dubious customers.
Atwell, who retired in 2010, did not return calls. But, in an official declaration included in court records, he said the “DEA cannot make promises regarding [confidential informants’] efforts to procure green cards, and it is not DEA’s practice to do so.”
“DEA promised me that they’d never leave me behind because I was contributing to the interest of national security,” Carias counters. “They told me, ‘Fernando, you are the perfect man for the task.'”
After Rojas’s death, Jim Cornaire told investigators that he first met Carias at Mexico Lindo in 2006. The DEA, he said, had nothing to do with it.
Cornaire joined the sheriff’s office in 1998; he was a bailiff, a deputy who keeps order in courtrooms. In 2006, Cornaire started a side business called JMS Vending, which sold snacks at various Triangle outfits. He approached Carias about installing vending machines at Carias’s store. According to Cornaire, Carias began voluntarily supplying him with information about his customers’ illegal drug activity.
Carias tells a different story. Cornaire, he says, approached him to deliver a message: he was under investigation for money laundering, and the DEA demanded to meet with him. (A DEA spokesman says the agency doesn’t use third parties when dealing with informants, although Cornaire has acknowledged attending multiple DEA meetings with Carias.)
Regardless, the two men hit it off. They spent evenings at Bahama Breeze and Red Lobster. Carias says Cornaire referred to him as his “compadre” and coached him on ways to protect himself from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “He told me, ‘If you don’t want to be deported, listen to what I’m saying to you. ICE will not arrest you if I am around you,'” Carias says.
In court filings, Cornaire admitted to making one of Carias’s traffic tickets go away, using Carias’s informant status as leverage. And when Carias was battling deportation in 2009, Cornaire stuck up for him. “I have witnessed him being a helpful, honest member of the community and willing to make his community a better and safer environment,” Cornaire wrote in an affidavit.
Cornaire and his own teenage son would invite Carias’s twins, Alex and Christian, to family outings, and the bailiff became a regular presence in their lives. “We’d go to the movies,” Cornaire later testified. “We would go on vacation with themthe boys … they would go as part of our family.”
The twins may have been escaping a tumultuous home life.
“Growing up there was fighting, fighting, fighting,” Christian told the INDY. “My dad is a dick.”
Carias also paid Cornaire to provide security at his sports bar. Cornaire, who filed for bankruptcy in 2009, likely appreciated the extra cash.
“Cornaire never had money,” Carias says.
In 2007, Carias alleges, Cornaire began demanding cash in exchange for protection from immigration authorities. In court filings, Carias provided copies of several checks, plus one receipt, made out to Cornaire, totaling more than $31,000. Cornaire testified that the checks represented loans that he paid back.
Despite this, in 2009, Carias and Rojas appointed Cornaire executor of their respective estates and guardian of their twins. According to Cornaire, Carias wanted to ensure that his twins would continue their American education if he and Rojas were deported.
Carias now says he was “duped.” Cornaire wanted to “use the children to get what he wantsthe money.”
Carias says his work for the DEA was straightforward: identify customers making wire transactions of $2,000 or more; make copies of their receipts, driver’s licenses, social security numbers, tax IDs, bank statements, phone numbers, and, for those who purchased cellphones, account information; listen closely to their conversations; document their license plates; and photograph their faces through a one-way mirror.
His code name, he says, was Cartel Destroyer.
Atwell says in court documents that Carias voluntarily provided him with information on suspected drug traffickers beginning in 2007. He also admits to promising to testify on Carias’s behalf during deportation proceedings. But using Carias as an informant ran afoul of DEA protocol.
“Because Carias was an illegal alien,” Atwell wrote in an official declaration, “DEA policy prohibited Carias from being documented as a confidential informant.” So Atwell contacted ICE, which can register undocumented immigrants as snitches.
In 2007, according to court records, Carias was introduced to ICE special agent Christopher Brant. Carias says Brant promised him citizenship if he became a snitch for ICE. So Carias began snitching for both ICE and the DEA, and on October 30, 2008, ICE rewarded him with a “benefit parole” protecting him from deportation through September 2009.
But Carias’s relationship with ICE quickly soured. Carias says Brant wanted him to cut all ties with the DEA. At the time, ICE and the DEA were locked in a turf war; a withering 2009 Government Accountability Office report criticized ICE for failing to share drug-trafficking information with other federal agencies. That interagency rivalry, Carias later testified, led Brant to tell him, “Fuck the DEA.”
Carias, however, says he continued to give most of his information to the DEA. Four months later, “when Carias no longer provided any substantial assistance,” Brant wrote in an official declaration, ICE revoked Carias’s parole.
On February 23, 2009, Brant personally arrested Carias on immigration violations.
During deportation proceedings, Carias’s lawyer told the court that his snitching had saved the life of a Raleigh police officer and led to the deportation of a Zeta cartel member, and that if he returned to Honduras he could be killed. A federal judge released Carias on a $10,000 bond.
His lawyer then began negotiating with the feds so that Carias could legally work as an informant. They soon reached a deal. In exchange for his “continued assistance” to the DEA, according to a letter Carias’s attorney sent to the state bar, he was protected from prosecution and deportation.
In February 2012, Lance Anthony visited Carias’s store, according to Anthony’s affidavit. He was investigating a Mexican drug cartel that was eyeing a Rogers Lane warehouse as a stash house. The DEA knew Carias was acquainted with the drug traffickers; photos from a surveillance operation a few weeks earlier showed Carias with them. Anthony instructed Carias to rent the warehouse with DEA funds and then allow the cartel to use it.
Court records offer few details about the operation. But Carias says the cartel’s leader was called El BuitreThe Vulture. According to Carias, The Vulture was smuggling billions of dollars in drug money into the warehouse under truckloads of tomatoes.
The operation was at least somewhat successful: Carias’s information helped lead to two cash seizures totaling at least $2 million, according to court records.
A Special Place in Hell
Five months later, Carias gunned Rojas down in their home.
In Carias’s telling, several weeks before Rojas’s death, Anthony told him that Rojas was working for the very cartel he was infiltratingand she was sleeping with The Vulture. (In court documents, Anthony denies that Rojas was a cartel member.) After that, Carias says, he begged Anthony to let him quit snitching and move his children to “a safer place,” according to his lawsuit. “But Anthony became angry and reminded [Carias] of their work contract and threatened deportation if [Carias] quit.” (Anthony denies this, too.)
Carias says he requested protective custody, but after the DEA agents brushed him off, he eventually agreed to play dumb.
Then, on July 3, Carias and Rojas got into an argument at Mexico Lindo, where she worked alongside him. At one point, he claims, Rojas blurted out, “Jim Cornaire told me you are a government snitch, and we are going to lose everything one day!”
He’d never told her about his work with the DEA, he says.
“My life was on the line,” Carias says. “My identity was discovered.”
She left for their house. According to Carias, when he got home that evening, Rojas confronted him. She grabbed a machete and began swinging it, he claims; in self-defense, Carias retrieved his Ruger 9-millimeter and pointed it at her.
Then he shot her nine times.
“After [Rojas] raised the machete to strike me,” Carias explained in his handwritten civil complaint, “I picked up the gun and pointed it at [her] with the intent to scare her. But the look in her eye told me she was going to kill me. She swung [the machete] at me, and I meant to only fire once to stop her. But the gun fired like a machine gun.”
Carias’s sons contradict his story. Alex says he heard the commotion and ran downstairs into his mother’s room. “My dad was on top of her in a strangling position,” he recalls. Christian, meanwhile, heard his mother’s cries for help and called 911. Alex says he was standing a foot away from his mother when she was shot.
With Rojas dead, Carias fled the house and called Anthony.
(The next day in Rojas’s roomwhich was separate from Carias’sdetectives found black zip ties, a Bic lighter, and duct tape. They also reported a machete tucked under Carias’s mattress. “Somehow the machete ended up under the mattress instead of where it should have been,” Carias said in his complaint.)
As Carias awaited trial, he gave the Cornaires temporary custody of the twins. Cornaire later testified that he began collecting $203 monthly payments from Wake County to help care for them.
In 2013, Carias pleaded guilty to Rojas’s murder, a plea he now says was induced by medications he was taking. During the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor suggested that the couple’s fight that day had nothing to do with a drug cartel, but was instead about something more ordinary: jealousy. Carias had discovered that Rojas had provided another lover (not The Vulture) tens of thousands of dollars from Carias’s store, which prompted his rage.
When Cornaire testified at the hearing, he lectured his former friend. “Anybody that would murder their mother in front of their children has got a special place in hell for them,” he said. ” … Those are my boys now.”
Tell Them I Love Them
Alex and Christian were upbeat during an interview in a Raleigh McDonald’s last August, the day before Christian was to depart for his freshman year at East Carolina University. Alex, an army recruit, had recently completed cadet training at Fort Knox and was about to leave for Georgia Military College. After their mother’s killing, they cut all ties to Carias. They intend to change their last name to Rojas.
The brothers also express appreciation for the Cornaires saving them from foster care. “They didn’t have to take us in,” Alex says. If they didn’t, “we would have been separated.”
One week after Carias was sentenced in 2013, Cornaire filed a wrongful-death suit against him on the twins’ behalf. He accused Carias of secretly disposing of assets that were rightfully his, including “large sums of cash” stashed inside a Mexico Lindo safe.
During a hearing, Carias accused Cornaire of revealing his identity to Rojas. He suggested that Cornaire wanted him dead in order to collect money from his will or life insurance policy.
The judge didn’t buy it. He awarded Cornaire $8 million, though that amount was largely symbolic. Carias had no money. Mexico Lindo had already been sold, and the bank had foreclosed on his home. This past August, however, another judge ruled that Cornaire was entitled to the proceeds from the sale of Carias’s last remaining property, the building that once housed his sports bar. The equity, totaling $76,000, will go toward trust funds for the twins, minus Cornaire’s legal expenses, Alex and Christian say.
Upon Carias’s releasesometime between 2029 and 2034and deportation, he suspects he’ll be killed in Honduras.
“The Vulture is around,” he says. “My head has a price on it. I’m really not worried for my life, because for me, it is too late.” But his sons, he predicted, “will be targets of vengeance.”
He says his family has already received death threats.
Toward the end of a final prison interview, Carias grasped for some kind of justification for Rojas’s death.
“I know Alex and Christian hate me,” he said. “Tell them I worked for the government. I was an infiltrator in the cartels for national security. And if I die, tell them I love them.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “The Snitch”
The Informant Game
In 2010, a joint investigation by The Los Angeles Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting cited at least a dozen cases in which immigrants claimed that, after years of delivering drug-related information under verbal agreements for visas with DEA and ICE agents, they were placed into deportation proceedings anyway. Many predicted they’d be killed upon returning to their countries, a consequence of their informing.
Even without explicit promises of citizenshipwhich they’re not allowed to makesome agents recruit undocumented informants merely by suggesting that it could happen, says Raleigh criminal-immigration attorney Jorgelina Araneda. “They’re pretty slick. They don’t say they will, they maybe say they could, which is true.”
But even using undocumented immigrants as official informants runs counter to DEA policy, at least without ICE’s help. In Fernando Palma-Carias’s case, for example, DEA agent William Atwell acknowledged receiving “voluntary” information from Carias, but said in a declaration that he could not register him as a snitch because of his undocumented status. Only ICE could do that.
More broadly, the agency’s use of informants has been a recent target for criticism. Last July, a Department of Justice inspector general audit revealed that the DEA routinely flouted informant-recruitment guidelines, failed to regularly review long-term informants’ activities, and permitted informants to sell drugs without oversight.
“Despite various instances of DEA resistance to our audit,” the audit concluded, “… the [Office of the Inspector General] has identified certain deficiencies that we believe are indicative of inadequate oversight and management by the DEA of its Confidential Source Program.”
The DEA responded by putting a moratorium on seeking federal benefits for confidential sources.