"Thousand Arrested, Tons of Drugs Seized in Sweeps," read the headlines last fall when the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) celebrated what it called a major victory against drug traffickers in the Caribbean. The DEA, working with authorities in 36 countries, unleashed Operation Libertador on October 27th and ended it three weeks later.

"Police arrested 2,876 people and seized more than 20 tons of cocaine during the operation," crowed DEA Caribbean director Michael Vigil. "It was a tremendous success," Vigil added.

Or not.

According to an investigation done by the Knight Ridder News Services' Washington Bureau and first published in the Miami Herald, the bust wasn't all it was cracked up to be. The 2,876 arrests? The investigation found that the DEA had no idea who 375 of those arrested were, or if they were even really arrested. And nearly one-third of the arrests came in Jamaica, where local law enforcement authorities told Knight Ridder most of them were for minor marijuana possession and unrelated to the operation.

Carl Williams, head of the Jamaican narcotics squad, told Knight Ridder that not only were the arrests minor, but that the DEA had taken credit for destroying hundreds of thousands of Jamaican marijuana plants that were in fact destroyed under an existing State Department program.

The DEA also touted its seizure of $30.2 million in criminal assets during Operation Libertador. According to the agency's own records, however, all but $200,000 was seized in a separate operation a month before Libertador began. The other $30 million was seized from accused Dominican trafficker Martires Paulino Castro, along with 360 kilograms of cocaine on September 29th.

That didn't stop the DEA from claiming Castro's arrest as one of Libertador's biggest successes, though. When questioned on the discrepancy, the agency feebly retorted that because Castro was on a suspect list for Libertador, his arrest should be seen as part of that operation.

Neither was the agency much interested in intelligence gathering, according to the investigation. The DEA did not, generally, ask for the names of those arrested, the outcomes of their cases, or the destination of the seized goods and cash.

One former DEA official with experience in Latin American operations called Libertador "seriously flawed."

"It's ridiculous if names are not included," said the official, insisting on anonymity.

In the wake of the investigative report, the DEA is circling its wagons. "Everything was done properly and aboveboard," DEA spokesman Michael Chapman maintained. "We will stick by the reported arrests, because those were the numbers that were called in," he said.

Operation overseer Vigil, who has since been promoted to head all of DEA's international operations, has changed his tune, too. The names and numbers weren't that important, he said.

"The key is that here we have 36 countries that put aside cultural, political, and economic differences to come together," spun Vigil.

Ethan Nadelmann of The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation had a different take.

"The criteria for success or failure of our drug policy depends on being able to say you arrested somebody," Nadelmann told Knight-Ridder. Operation Libertador "has essentially nothing to do with the drug problem in the US or with the flow of drugs into the US. Did the operation have any impact whatsoever on the price or availability of drugs? Did it have any impact whatsoever on the number of people addicted to or overdosing from heroin or cocaine? The odds are overwhelmingly no."

-- END --
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Issue #172, 2/9/01 New York: District Attorneys Mount Opposition to Rockefeller Reforms | New Jersey to Pay Out $12.90 Million to Victims in Racial Profiling Shooting, Attorney General Dismisses More Drug Cases | San Francisco Ecstasy Conference Generates Heat but Also Light | DEA Posts Funny Numbers in its "Operation Libertador" Bust | NarcoNews on Key Moves in Venezuela, Legal Fundraising Appeal | Britain: Medical Marijuana Research Gets Underway, Legislation Stalled in Parliament | Study Deals New Blow to Gateway Theory | Miscellania | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: Go Back to Law School
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