One element of the United States' efforts to find and track Mexican drug money is surprising: Undercover US agents have laundered and smuggled millions of dollars for the drug cartels, reports the New York Times. American officials, particularly those with the DEA, say these laundering operations provide invaluable intel, allowing them to learn how the cartels funnel their money about, where they stash their assets, and who's in charge. But critics say these programs help the cartels, violate Mexico's sovereignty, and turn undercover agents into crime facilitators. "My rule was that if we are going to launder money, we better show results," said a former DEA official. "Otherwise, the DEA could wind up being the largest money launderer in the business, and that money results in violence and deaths."
DEA officials object to comparisons to the ATF's infamous "Fast and Furious" gun smuggling operation that ended up putting hundreds of weapons on the streets. Money is less dangerous than guns, they argue, and tracking the money is both more important and more difficult. The top ranks of the cartels "are super-insulated," says one expert. "And the only way to get to them is to follow their money." Mexico isn't the only country where criminals are getting unlikely laundering assistance: About 50 laundering operations are active around the globe, notes the Times. (Read more Mexico stories.)