Narconews.com is an informative website that performs a very aggressive brand of investigative journalism. Their radical politics and their willingness to take risks can put them on the leading edge of important stories, though at other times it can lead them down a blind alley. (Would-be blockbusters that went nowhere include the 1,100 U.S. Marines allegedly inserted in southern Colombia three years ago, or the U.S. contractors in Peru being paid to kill guerrillas crossing the border from Colombia.)
This time, though, Narconews may be on to something big. Reporter Bill Conroy has obtained a December 2004 Justice Department memo alleging massive, murderous corruption in the BogotÃ¡ office of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and a cover-up by DEA and Justice Department internal-affairs officials. The memo is written by Thomas M. Kent, an attorney in the wiretap unit of the Justice Departmentâ€™s Narcotic and Dangerous Drugs Section (DEA is part of the Justice Department). It makes four allegations that are summarized here as briefly as possible. (For more detail, see the memo itself [PDF format] or â€“ with more context â€“ Conroyâ€™s piece.)
First allegation: informants from the drug underworld who had begun cooperating with the DEA in Florida alleged that DEA agents in BogotÃ¡ were helping them with drug shipments. Specifically, the BogotÃ¡ agents were providing them with information about U.S. and Colombian law enforcement operations. The informants were even able to provide Florida agents with confidential reports that the BogotÃ¡ DEA agents had given them. One BogotÃ¡ agent was put on administrative leave. During that time, an informant was killed as he left a meeting with DEA agents in BogotÃ¡. Other informants who worked with the Florida DEA were also murdered. â€œEach murder was preceded by a request for their identity by an agent in BogotÃ¡.â€
Second allegation: informants were to bring a sample of cocaine infused in acrylic plastic from Colombia, in order to show DEA chemists in Florida how the cocaine could be extracted. This was agreed with the BogotÃ¡ DEA office. But when the informants ended up being arrested in the BogotÃ¡ airport, the BogotÃ¡ DEA told the Colombian authorities to â€œlock them up and throw away the key.â€ The informants spent nine months in jail before it was determined that the BogotÃ¡ agents were lying. After his release, one of the informants was kidnapped and murdered in BogotÃ¡.
Third allegation: BogotÃ¡ agents â€œidentified as corruptâ€ by the first two allegations repeatedly frustrated contact between the Florida DEA and an informant who claimed that he (a) had been approached by the FARC to provide communications equipment and (b) had information about weapons-grade nuclear material for sale in Spain. Finally it was agreed that the informant would provide the FARC with communications equipment that the U.S. government could intercept. Wiretaps appeared to reveal that several DEA agents based in BogotÃ¡ and perhaps Washington were on the payroll of narcotraffickers. The informant was intimidated by an anonymous fax of a document identifying him as a DEA informer on the FARC.
Fourth allegation: an internal investigation into money-laundering by corrupt agents was shut down under unclear circumstances. â€œThe same agent connected to the murders of the informants described in the first allegation then began to call my case agent to learn the identity of his informants.â€
The problem continues today, Kent indicates. â€œOne of the corrupt agents from BogotÃ¡, who was central to the second and third allegations, was recently intercepted over a wiretap. â€¦ [I]n it he discusses his involvement in laundering money for the AUC. That call has been documented by the DEA and that agent is now in charge of numerous narcotics and money laundering investigations.â€
The Narconews allegations, which Conroy writes were corroborated with unnamed law-enforcement officials, are starting to find their way into more mainstream media. The Miami Heraldâ€™s Gerardo Reyes got a former DEA official â€“ albeit one who has a grievance against the agency â€“ to go on record.
Sandalio GonzÃ¡lez, former deputy director of the DEA in Miami and former chief of the agencyâ€™s El Paso bureau, told El Nuevo Herald the memo is accurate and reflects the state of moral decay of some departments in the agency. â€œThe information contained in the memo is accurate as far as I know, because I was involved in some of those cases,â€ said GonzÃ¡lez, who is suing the DEA for discrimination. â€œThe DEA is unable to police itself.â€
Semana, Colombiaâ€™s most-circulated newsmagazine, put the story on its cover. It added two more allegations of DEA corruption in Colombia.
In 1999, during Operation Millennium, one of the largest antinarcotics operations in the history of the drug war, some DEA agents and Colombian investigators who carried out a series of recordings in the office of drug lord Alejandro Bernal Madrigal, alias â€œJuvenal,â€ documented â€¦ a conversation with several of his partners, in which the capo told them that DEA agent Richard Meyer had given him a million dollars to leave him alone. â€œThe recording with the drug lordâ€™s statements launched an internal investigation in the DEA, but nothing happened. In order to avoid problems, the only thing they did was transfer the agent. When â€˜Juvenalâ€™ was extradited to the United States and began to collaborate with U.S. justice, they made him retract those statements,â€ one of the officials who participated in Operation Millennium with the DEA told Semanaâ€¦.
One of the most common complaints has to do with what some call â€œthe extradition business.â€ This basically means that when a narcotrafficker is arrested and is going to be extradited, he receives a visit in prison from a DEA agent. â€œWhat he does is tell the narco: your situation is very difficult and in the United States many years in jail await you. Then the agent tells the narco that he knows a very good lawyer who could help him to negotiate. These lawyers are called â€˜fixers.â€™ The agent puts the narco in contact with the lawyer, and the lawyer gives a percentage of what he charges his client to the DEA agent,â€ says the official, who knows several of these cases closely and who works with the DEA in Colombia.
A Justice Department official told the Associated Press that further investigation into Kentâ€™s allegations â€œfound no wrongdoing.â€ That should not be enough to stop reporters from asking many more questions, nor should it stop Congress from performing its oversight role, including requesting access to some of the extensive evidence to which Kentâ€™s memo refers.
Whether these allegations are just the tip of the iceberg or an exaggeration of a smaller problem, one thing is clear: oversight of the DEA is atrociously bad. While itâ€™s easy to appreciate why its agents need to operate in secrecy, somebody has to be minding the store. Secrecy without accountability leads too easily to situations like the one the Kent memo describes.
DEAâ€™s internal-affairs office, or Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), appears to be dysfunctional. â€œWhen confronted with the allegations,â€ Kent writes, â€œthe investigators at OPR treated the reporting agents as if they had a disease and did not want to have anything to do with them or the evidence they amassed.â€
The internal-affairs structure at the Justice Department (which includes DEA) also appears to be unable to do its job. Kentâ€™s memo states that an investigator at the Department of Justiceâ€™s Office of the Inspector-General â€œwas advised up front that the allegations would make his career, but the process of holding those responsible accountable may destroy his career. â€¦ He was recently removed from the investigation for reasons that still remain a mystery.â€
Outside the executive branch, things arenâ€™t much better. Congress goes years at a time without holding hearings on the DEAâ€™s performance, and oversight staff rarely ask tough questions. Reporters rarely look into DEAâ€™s operations, and even when they attempt to do so they find it difficult to get information out of the agency. The experience of CIP and other NGOs seeking to monitor DEAâ€™s relationship with Latin Americaâ€™s security forces has been similarly frustrating. (A common joke is that DEA stands for â€œDonâ€™t Even Ask.â€)
Congratulations to Narconews for breaking this story. While we hope that the mainstream media follows this lead and investigate it further, we especially urge Congress to do its job and find out what is really happening at DEA. Legislative staff need to be asking questions and holding hearings to determine whether criminal behavior and a cover-up have been undermining the BogotÃ¡ officeâ€™s work, and whether people whose salaries are paid by U.S. taxpayers are perversely helping to bring drugs to the United States, with impunity.