DEA's Latin 'takedown' boosted by dubious figures
BY LENNY SAVINO
Herald Washington Bureau
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The Drug Enforcement Administration used
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
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
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
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
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
Libertador or its operations' accounting system.
``Everything was done properly and aboveboard,'' Chapman said.
DEA Administrator Donnie Marshall declined to be interviewed about
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,
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,''
``When dealing with foreign countries, the problem is magnified tenfold.''
``I'm not surprised at all that the statistics reported are unverifiable,''
Sterling, a former counsel on drug policy to the House Judiciary Committee.
Sterling, now president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation
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
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
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
``Did the operation have any impact whatsoever on the price or
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