GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Second Skin" episode. Today, we're exploring what happens when, for one reason or another, we have to act like someone we are not. And for our next story, SNAP JUDGMENT's, Nancy Lopez, brings us to that vast border between Texas and Mexico.
NANCY LOPEZ, BYLINE: At 19, Norma isn't proud of what she has to do to provide for her family. She's a single mother living in the U.S. illegally, and she's thinking of a way out when she gets her chance in the least likely of places. One day, her boyfriend gets caught smuggling weed across the border, and she goes to visit him in a Corpus Christi jail.
NORMA: This agent - DEA agent, approaches me and tells me he wants to talk to me. He explains to me the trouble he's - my boyfriend's in, that I can help if I know anything I want to share. Anything I say can get me out of trouble. It would be helping my boyfriend and myself. So I sit down with him - with the agent, and I tell him everything I've been doing for the past three years.
LOPEZ: The agent is Charles, or Charlie as Norma comes to call him, a police officer assigned to the DEA task force in Corpus Christi. What Norma tells them is that when she was 16, her mother's boyfriend sold her to drug traffickers from Mexico to work as a mule.
NORMA: I had heard that they would kill you before you can get out of it so I was worried. I didn't know how long this was going to last.
LOPEZ: Norma had been making the trip to Mexico twice a month smuggling 3 pounds of heroin across the border to California for the past three years. As she got more comfortable, the trips got shorter and the money got better. Norma even bought a house.
NORMA: I'm not going to lie, it felt good in a way. I felt like I was getting out of being poor, having to worry about what we're going to eat tomorrow. It felt good to have money in my pocket. I was 16, I knew what it was like not to have.
LOPEZ: Still, Norma knew this couldn't last forever.
NORMA: I'm just thinking, what's next? What's it going to take for me to be able to get away from all this? The cartel people knew everything about me, knew where I lived, knew about my family. It wasn't going to be easy to get out. I was theirs, and they were going to use me 'til either I got caught or I got killed.
LOPEZ: Back in Corpus Christi, Charlie offers Norma a third option.
NORMA: He tells me that we're going to make a deal. He promised me citizenship, and he promised me witness protection if I become an informant, if I help them catch something big. They were after something big. I'm relieved, and he made it seem like the right thing to do. And I agreed. I said I would do it.
LOPEZ: Charlie connects her with another agent who gives Norma her first assignment. A month later when she returns from a trip to Mexico, she goes to Corpus Christi where agents tape a wire to her chest and send her to her usual drop in California.
NORMA: When I get to California, the people I deliver the car to are mad. I took too long delivering. I kept telling them, I had car trouble so it took me longer, but they weren't buying it. They knew something was up. They're unloading the car in a garage. They couldn't find what they were looking for. And one guy came towards me with a - like, a wrench hitting it on his hand, like, in a threatening manner, like he was going to hit me with it if I didn't say where his stuff was.
I'm kind of talking to myself, and I was saying, he's coming with a wrench, but they weren't responding. I thought I was going to die. And that's when the DEA agents came in and busted everybody. I thought that was the end of it, but it didn't happen that way.
LOPEZ: The DEA busts the California drug traffickers and confiscates 25 pounds of heroin from the operation - that's millions of dollars. And in exchange, Norma says she gets $10,000 and a Social Security card. She escapes the cartel and starts a new life in Dallas. But instead of permanent resident papers, she gets a temporary permit to be in the country.
NORMA: I call Charlie and I ask him. And he tells me somebody dropped the ball and there's no paperwork. Nothing is being done.
LOPEZ: And you say to him?
NORMA: Nothing. Nothing. I never really - I guess I never stood up for myself.
LOPEZ: The reality is, as a police officer, Charlie cannot grant citizenship. What he can do is put Norma in touch with DEA agents who can help her get an S Visa, also called a snitch visa for informants like Norma.
NORMA: Every time he knew of somebody needing help, he would call me. He would tell me, this is your chance. This guy's good. He's one of the best agents. He's going to give you what you need, and you should talk to him. And I always did.
LOPEZ: Norma does things like set up a drug deal over the phone or meet a dealer face-to-face to buy heroin, each time placing herself in danger. And for the risk, each time she gets a temporary permit lasting six months to a year. As frustrated as Norma is with the DEA, the one person she can talk to is Charlie.
NORMA: I would talk to him every week. We were - I don't know, people have asked about this relationship, but we were just friends. If I was feeling bad or if I - I don't know, if I was going through something hard, I would call him and share my stuff with him. If things were hard at work or if my kid was sick, just regular stuff.
LOPEZ: But all of that started to change a few years ago when Norma realizes Charlie can only do so much. This time, she calls Charlie with an operation. A drug dealer has asked her to hide a large stash of cash.
NORMA: The first thing I thought was Charlie. Maybe they need cash money, maybe when they see a bunch of money, they'll help me out.
LOPEZ: And it's actually common for an informant to get a cut of the money that the DEA captures in a sting.
NORMA: They always promise you 25 percent of whatever they get.
LOPEZ: Norma wants to use her cut of the money to hire her own attorney to get citizenship. The deal goes down, but afterwards, Norma says they refused to pay her the money.
NORMA: They were not going to pay me because I'm illegal. And Charlie, I don't know if he played it off or if he knew all along. At first, he pretended to be mad at the agents, but then he acted like nothing happened.
LOPEZ: It might seem like Norma's just mad about the cash, but for her, it's more than that. By this point, she's been working as an informant for 20 years.
NORMA: I always told Charlie I'll give you everything for a piece of paper. Don't give me money, I don't need money. I work, and I'm good enough with that. I just need to feel free.
LOPEZ: And in 2010, Charlie comes to Norma with a new mission.
NORMA: Charlie told me that I had a real good chance of getting help if I call this guy, and I did. This guy was Rolando. I called Rolando, and I said, if he could help me, I would help him.
LOPEZ: This time, Norma wants a guarantee.
NORMA: And I told him that I wanted my papers. And I told him I wasn't going to risk my life again for just a permit. And he told me he couldn't. So I told him I couldn't help him either. We left it at that.
LOPEZ: Norma says that two weeks later, he calls her again.
NORMA: He asked me if I had changed my mind, and I told him no. And before he hung up, he asked me if I still lived at the same address, and I said yes. Early the next Monday around 5 in the morning, Rolando came to my house with three other male agents. And he told me that he was going to sign me up.
LOPEZ: Norma says that the agents gave her an ultimatum - help us or else.
NORMA: He wanted me to sign up for an operation to help them bust a border patrol agent who was charging to cross illegals. He told me that he was going to deport me and take my daughter to CPS. I had to agree. He really didn't leave me a choice. They told me they were going to be in contact with me.
LOPEZ: A female agent contacts Norma, but then she learns how Norma got pulled into the operation. She tells Norma she's been compromised, cancels the operation and sends her home. Norma says she's relieved until she gets a call from agent Rolando.
NORMA: He called me to the McAllen office. He said I was a troublemaker. He took my papers. I still had a permit for a year left. He turned my purse upside down, and he got an agent to escort me to the Hidalgo Bridge. And he deported me.
LOPEZ: Just like that, she's in Mexico. And Norma is afraid, fearing retribution from the old drug cartel.
NORMA: I couldn't call anybody. A week later, I swam the river to get home to my family.
LOPEZ: Norma finds her way back to Dallas, but she knows she's in trouble. So she goes to go see an advocate who can find her an immigration attorney willing to take on her case.
NORMA: Nothing I said to him he believed because I was nervous. I couldn't sit still.
LOPEZ: The advocate had heard thousands of deportation stories, but he'd never heard one like Norma's. And then she handed him business cards of the different agents she'd worked for.
NORMA: And that's when he got, I guess, excited 'cause he couldn't believe something like that could happen.
LOPEZ: The first person she told him to call was Charlie.
NORMA: He knew my situation. He knew everything I had done. I thought he would help me.
LOPEZ: Charlie recently retired from the force. He doesn't want to talk, but he does help. He writes a letter on Norma's behalf. In it, he says Norma helped the government, and that her help was very substantial. He writes that Norma has been a good example of a caring citizen, and that he has spoken with her on several occasions. If she were deported to Mexico, he continues, he feels she would be a target for retaliation by the cartel she used to work for.
But even with this letter, no lawyer has yet to take her case because of her criminal past. They all tell her they can't do anything for. The only thing she can do is tell her story.
NORMA: I spoke to my advocate, and he has a group of reporters. He would tell me talk to them, tell them everything they ask, everything you know.
LOPEZ: And that's exactly what Norma has done. That's all she has left.
NORMA: I can't regret things that I've already done. I just wish I could have done things different. And yeah, some people took advantage of me, but I'm still here. I'm still fighting. Sometimes I feel like I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm still alive.
WASHINGTON: Norma, please stay safe. Thank you so much for sharing your story with the SNAP. We first heard about Norma's story from Yolanda Gonzalez Gomez's investigative report "Double Crossed by the DEA." We'll have a link on our website, snapjudgment.org. That piece was produced by Nancy Lopez with sound design by Renzo Gorrio.
WASHINGTON: When SNAP JUDGMENT returns, we're kicking it live, on stage with a young man trying to be something he most certainly is not. SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Second Skin" episode back in just a moment. Stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.