The Miami Herald
February 1, 2001

 DEA's Latin 'takedown' boosted by dubious figures

 Herald Washington Bureau

 SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The Drug Enforcement Administration used suspect
 figures to tout the success of a 36-nation ``major takedown'' of drug traffickers in
 the Caribbean and Latin America last fall, according to an examination of the

 The DEA's scorecard on ``Operation Libertador'' reported 2,876 arrests, but
 agency officials could not provide evidence to support hundreds of them.
 Hundreds more were routine busts for marijuana possession, and some drug
 eradication figures were double-counts of a State Department program to burn
 marijuana plants. And while the DEA said $30.2 million in criminal assets were
 seized during Libertador, $30 million of that was confiscated four weeks before the
 operation began.

 The DEA official who directed the exercise -- since promoted to head the DEA's
 international enforcement division -- admits some discrepancies but says the
 international cooperation that Libertador promoted is what counts. Michael Vigil,
 then head of the DEA's regional office in San Juan, described the operation as a
 ``tremendous success.''

 Libertador, the fourth U.S.-led regional drug crackdown since 1998, intended to
 engage U.S., Caribbean and Latin American drug authorities simultaneously in
 what the DEA called ``an attempt to dismantle top-echelon traffickers in the


 However, the DEA's internal documents and interviews with drug agents and
 officials from Libertador's participating countries show:

   The DEA could not account for 375 of the 2,876 arrests attributed to Libertador.
 For most of the rest, it simply accepted whatever numbers participating countries

   The largest number of arrests -- 996 -- were in Jamaica, where authorities said
 most were for misdemeanor marijuana possession. Most of the defendants were
 fined and released.

   Much of the marijuana interdiction credited to Libertador consisted of plants
 that had been burned in Jamaica and already counted as part of the State
 Department's ``Operation Buccaneer,'' which has been under way since 1982.

   The DEA did not, as a rule, ask for the names of those arrested, the outcomes
 of their cases or what happened to their drugs and cash.

 DEA spokesman Michael Chapman said his agency saw no problems with
 Libertador or its operations' accounting system.

 ``Everything was done properly and aboveboard,'' Chapman said.

 DEA Administrator Donnie Marshall declined to be interviewed about Libertador,
 Chapman said.

 While unable to confirm the arrest figures he offered initially, Chapman said his
 agency would ``stick by the reported arrests, because those were the numbers
 that were called in'' by foreign law enforcement officials.

 Vigil, the overseer of Libertador and three previous anti-drug initiatives in the
 Caribbean, said the names and numbers were not very important.

 ``The key here is that we have 36 countries that put aside cultural, political and
 economic differences to come together,'' Vigil said. ``You can't argue with the
 success of these operations, and the fact that we're developing international
 coalitions, I think, speaks for itself.''

 Obtaining accurate arrest and seizure records is tough, said Rafael Perl, a drug
 policy analyst for the Congressional Research Service.

 ``It's hard enough to get U.S. anti-drug agencies to share information,'' Perl said.
 ``When dealing with foreign countries, the problem is magnified tenfold.''

 ``I'm not surprised at all that the statistics reported are unverifiable,'' said Eric
 Sterling, a former counsel on drug policy to the House Judiciary Committee.

 Sterling, now president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington,
 which advocates prevention and treatment measures to combat the drug problem,
 said, ``Congress and agency managers hunger for success stories to brag about.''


 Libertador began Oct. 27 and ended Nov. 19. Nearly every nation in the Caribbean
 participated, including Haiti and the Dominican Republic, along with major Latin
 American cocaine-trafficking countries such as Colombia, Bolivia and Mexico.

 The biggest catch credited by Vigil and DEA documents to Libertador was alleged
 trafficker Martires Paulino Castro, who was arrested by Dominican police. Seized
 in the process were $30 million in Paulino's assets and 360 kilograms of cocaine.

 DEA records contradict that claim, however. Vigil's DEA office in San Juan first
 reported Paulino's arrest Sept. 29, nearly a month before Libertador began.

 Vigil said Paulino's inclusion was justified because Paulino had been identified in
 a ``targeting package'' -- a list of suspected drug traffickers -- that was provided to
 Dominican officials in the planning stages of Libertador.

 Libertador's operations in Jamaica included a public relations initiative, aimed
 mainly at a TV police show, Arrest and Trial. For the cameras, DEA agents did a
 second take of their plane's arrival in Jamaica, donned caps and jackets bearing
 the DEA's insignia and made commanding-like gestures..

 One analyst questioned the value of the DEA operation and an emphasis on

 ``Did the operation have any impact whatsoever on the price or availability of
 drugs?'' asked Ethan Nadelmann, a former State Department drug policy analyst
 who now heads the New York-based Lindesmith Center, which favors drug
 treatment over arrests. ``Did it have any impact whatsoever on the number of
 people addicted to or overdosing from heroin or cocaine? The odds are
 overwhelmingly no.''