The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) came under intense criticism this week in the wake of Congressional hearings highlighting reports that agents in Colombia attended sex parties with prostitutes paid for by criminal gangs, among other allegations. A House Oversight Committee hearing this week led to a no-confidence vote for DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart, symbolically refuting her arguments that agent improprieties named in a recent report were due to a few “bad apples.” Hearings on the scandal extended past oversight into a Judiciary Committee subcommittee, where the DEA’s Office of Responsibility Chief defended the botched allegations and echoed Leonhart’s testimony.
“The mission and work of the DEA are highly respected by the public at large and the law enforcement community. It does not take much to tarnish this hard-earned and well-deserved reputation, however," said Herman "Chuck" Whaley who added that he was disgusted by the lax punishments of agents in his agency. Top DEA officials have limited authority to punish agents, who are afforded extensive due process. Of course that’s just when they care to look. Lionheart herself was part of leadership that overlooked narco violence involving the DEA’s own informants, known in the media as the “House of Death. The Guardian explains:
“[Twelve] brutal killings at the Juarez 'House of Death', is part of a gruesome scandal, a web of connivance and cover-up stretching from the wild Texas borderland to top Washington officials close to President Bush. These documents, which form a dossier several inches thick, are the main source for the facts in this article. They suggest that while the eyes of the world have been largely averted, America's 'war on drugs' has moved to a new phase of cynicism and amorality, in which the loss of human life has lost all importance -- especially if the victims are Hispanic.”
For the DEA’s biggest critics, recent alleged DEA corruption in Latin America fueled calls for overhaul of U.S. drug policy in general, not just punishments for individual agents.
“There’s simply no excuse for the outrageous behavior of the DEA’s so-called leadership,” said Neill Franklin, a retired narcotic agent and ED Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). “Leonhart just helps us add to the list of reasons of why we need to rethink our entire approach to drug policy.”
The current approach, which aims to reduce drug consumption by interdiction makes the DEA the most ubiquitous U.S. law enforcement agency abroad. Over 800 DEA agents are stationed around the world, with many of those agents in Latin American countries. There’s evidence that they are disliked by both local law enforcement and citizens, especially in Latin America. Colombian police were responsible for reporting the prostitution scandal, as well as allegations that various agent were receiving bribes from drug cartel leaders: watches, guns, and cash.
Bolivian banned the DEA from it’s borders, partly because of it’s generally bad relationship but also due to riots by local coca farmers. Venezuela kicked out the DEA for it’s spying (along with general anti-American sentiment). While Venezuela has a penchant for conspiracy theories, the DEA’s spying is very real, and it’s not just about drugs. Countries like Brazil are already furious about NSA wiretapping, and the DEA is making it worse. As The Hill reported last June, the NSA and DEA share information, bringing both agencies into the tasks of counter-narcotics, political espionage, and the protection of U.S. financial interests.
“According to [documents leaked by Edward Snowden], there is a ‘two-way information sharing relationship’ between the DEA and NSA: it’s not just the NSA helping the DEA catch drug traffickers, but also the DEA helping NSA with its non-drug-related spying programs.”
It’s not just leftist governments that are pissed-off about the DEA’s role in foreign policy. Retired American law enforcement agents at LEAP are disappointed, too, like Sean Dunagan, a former DEA Senior Intelligence Research Specialist. Stationed on-and-off in Mexico and Guatemala, he witnessed first hand how the DEA squandered U.S. money in an effort to enforce U.S. drug laws.
“I saw that Guatemala was very poor, with an abysmal educational system, high infant mortality, malnutrition, poor health care, and very under-developed national infrastructure,” Dunagan says in his biography, which focuses on his work and not the recent prostitution scandal specifically. “Yet the government, at U.S. insistence, directed much of its resources to fighting drug traffickers.
“The people there suffer two-fold: precious government resources are squandered fighting the drug war, and the only tangible results for those expenditures are higher crime and law enforcement that can’t do its job. This is occurring all over the globe.”