The Drug Enforcement Administration has been having a rough patch, with scandals piling up across Latin America and fentanyl deaths soaring in the United States. But according to a new $1.4 million report the agency commissioned to scrutinize itself, everything is going just fine.
The DEA published its “Foreign Operations Review” on Friday afternoon last week, releasing a 50-page document that was more than a year and a half in the making. The report, co-authored by a former DEA chief and an ex-federal prosecutor, essentially calls for continuing business as usual, ignoring recent dysfunction and corruption in the agency’s Mexico operations.
Congressional leaders responsible for oversight of the DEA expressed concern over the cost of the undertaking and the lack of recommendations for meaningful reform. Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who recently demanded answers from DEA leadership about the agency’s relationship with a Mexican official convicted in February of narco-corruption, told VICE News he intends to push forward with his own investigation and called for whistleblowers to speak up.
“For spending two years and nearly $1.5 million in tax dollars on a so-called independent review, this report is stunningly vague in its actual evaluation of known problems at the DEA and remedies to fix them,” Grassley said. “This speaks to the agency’s broader effort to evade oversight.”
In February, a VICE News investigation revealed how the DEA’s former top official in Mexico opted to quietly retire rather than be fired after coming under investigation for disobeying orders, meeting with defense attorneys who represent cartel leaders, and requesting taxpayer funds to pay for a lavish birthday party that featured a mariachi band.
But the name of former regional director Nick Palmeri is not mentioned in the DEA’s “Foreign Operations Review.” The report does acknowledge “there have also been several recent instances of individual misconduct by DEA personnel assigned to DEA’s foreign offices,” and lists several examples, including the case of former DEA special agent Jose Irizarry, who was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison for conspiring to launder money with a Colombian cartel to, as the Associated Press put it, “fund a decade’s worth of luxury overseas travel, fine dining, top seats at sporting events and frat house-style debauchery.”
“In the past, there have been critical incidents involving the DEA’s foreign operations in Mexico, Honduras, Colombia, and Haiti,” the DEA report said. “Certain of these incidents have involved corruption, compromised intelligence, and civilian death.”
But the report offers no fresh details or insights about the root causes of foreign operations gone haywire, instead focusing on ways the agency can streamline communication between offices, part of an approach dubbed “One DEA.” The authors called for the DEA to rename its “foreign regions” as “foreign divisions” to match terminology used domestically. They also urged the agency to continue “breaking down information silos” and increase “compliance training.”
The authors, Jack Lawn and Boyd Johnson, did not respond to inquiries from VICE News. The DEA acknowledged receiving questions about the report but did not provide a response.
Lawn, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s “chief drug law enforcement strategist,” and Johnson, who once oversaw international narcotics prosecutions in Manhattan federal court, were never expected to hammer the DEA. But Adam Isaacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, told VICE News he was hoping for more transparency and accountability.
“It’s not at all a useful document on how these foreign operations have gone wrong,” Isaacson said. “We don’t have a good explanation of why the scandals keep coming so rapidly.”
Absent the DEA fixing its own mess, Isaacson called for federal lawmakers to step up and push change within the agency.
“Congress has to get mad about the frequency of corruption scandals,” Isaacson said. “The DEA’s sort of the hidebound way of working led them to sort of miss the rise of fentanyl. They are so focused on sharing information with a small number units and taking down kingpins, which we know makes no impact on drug supplies, that they miss out on big trends.”
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