DEA's Caribbean Office Lied About Arrests, GAO to Investigate 5/18/01

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In February, DRCNet reported on a scandal brewing over the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) Operation Libertador, a sweeping, Caribbean-wide bust of thousands of drug offenders. Problem was, the DEA was inflating the numbers and taking credit for busts in which it had not participated, as well as including minor marijuana possession offenses in its bust tallies (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/172.html#deanumbers).

The scandal has only deepened since then. DEA agents in Puerto Rico have told Knight Ridder reporter Lenny Savino, who broke the original story, that the San Juan office routinely inflated its arrest and drug seizure numbers for at least the past three years. According to Savino, the bogus figures provided ammunition for the DEA's Caribbean head, Michael Vigil, in his quest for more money and more agents.

Savino interviewed five DEA agents who had worked the San Juan office, all of whom said they suffered reprisals -- including reprimands, demotions, and transfers -- after complaining about falsified figures to their superiors. All spoke on the condition they not be identified. He quoted the DEA agents as saying that Vigil demanded more impressive arrest statistics, then used the inflated figures to argue that the San Juan office merited budgetary and personnel increases.

He got them. In a laudatory article on the agency last year, Caribbean Business magazine reported that the DEA Caribbean Division, run from San Juan, has seen its staff increase by 181%, with the number of DEA special agents ballooning from 40 in 1996 to 131 last year. Savino says the staff size doubled and the arrest rate tripled in the late 1990s.

But the impressive jump in the arrest rate was manufactured. Agents at the San Juan office told Savino that the DEA claimed credit for hundreds of arrests that were actually made by local police. One former supervisor estimated that 70% of the arrests reported by the San Juan DEA from 1998 to 2000 were phony.

"It got so bad," said the unnamed supervisor, "that agents were checking the newspapers every day to see who was arrested so they could go get the information and transfer it onto DEA arrest cards."

The unnamed agents told Savino many of the arrests claimed by the DEA in San Juan were penny-ante busts for a few grams of cocaine or ounces of marijuana. DEA policy in the San Juan office directed agents to pursue only cases involving more than 5 kilograms of cocaine or 20 kilos of marijuana.

Savino asked for DEA permission to interview Vigil or DEA Administrator Donnie Marshall, but the agency demanded written questions in advance. When Savino submitted the questions, neither Vigil nor Marshall would comment. Savino did manage to corner Marshall in a congressional hallway on May 3rd for what he charitably called a "brief interview." Marshall said an internal investigation of "all the issues" related to the funny arrests was under way, but it would be "inappropriate" to comment. Marshall was back on the Hill appearing before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control this week. He told the senators Puerto Rico accounted for a precise 31% of cocaine flowing into the US, but did not address the bubbling fake arrests scandal.

Readers who recall last week's story about the DEA's investigation of itself in the Andrew "Supersnitch" Chambers case (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/185.html#deasnitch) will not be expecting earth-shattering revelations from the agency, but may take some comfort in the fact that Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), a member of the Judiciary Committee and the drug caucus, has asked the General Accounting Office to conduct a broad investigation of whether drug war personnel have been routinely inflating arrests and seizures. The GAO will look not only at the DEA, but also Customs, the Navy, and the Coast Guard.

Sessions, a dedicated drug warrior with a lengthy law enforcement background, told Savino that over-counting drug arrests "gives a false sense of accomplishment" to the US anti-drug campaign.

Marshall will be replaced by Bush nominee Rep. Asa Hutchinson. Vigil, meanwhile, has since been promoted to head all of the DEA's international operations.

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Issue #186, 5/18/01 Editorial: Supreme Fictions | Supreme Court to Medical Marijuana Movement: Drop Dead -- Movement to Feds: Get Real | Study Finds Seattle Drug Arrests Target Blacks, Suggests Decrim Dialogue, Police Chief Suggests Arresting More Whites | In US First, South Carolina Court Finds Drug-Using Woman Guilty of Murder in Death of Fetus | Colombian Coca and Poppy Production Up Last Year Despite Heightened Drug War, Market Crash Ahead? | Thugs Kill New York City Marijuana Retailer, Two Others, Police Blame Marijuana | DEA's Caribbean Office Lied About Arrests, GAO to Investigate | Two Steps Forward, One Step Back in Indiana Sentencing | Canadian Medical Association Journal Calls for Marijuana Decriminalization | Media and Resources: Arianna Huffington, Village Voice, Salon.com, MotherJones.com, U. Miami Law Review, CDC | The Reformer's Calendar
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