DEA agents: San Juan office falsified arrests
BY LENNY SAVINO
Herald Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- The Drug Enforcement Administration's Caribbean office routinely falsified its claims of drug arrests and seizures for at least three years, according to five present or former agents who worked there.
Agents in the DEA's office in San Juan, Puerto Rico, claimed credit
for hundreds of arrests that were in fact made by local police, the agents
told The Herald's
Washington Bureau. A former supervisor estimated that 70 percent of the arrests the DEA claimed from 1998 through 2000 were phony.
``It got so bad,'' said the former 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 DEA office in San Juan investigates substantial drug cases in Puerto Rico and supervises DEA agents who provide information about drug activity in other Caribbean nations. Top DEA officials use arrest figures to measure the performance of an office and its leadership, and higher numbers can lead to more resources for that office. In the San Juan office, for example, arrest numbers tripled in the late 1990s and the staff size doubled.
All the agents said that many of the arrests DEA agents claimed in San Juan involved only a few grams of cocaine or an ounce or two of marijuana. At the time, the San Juan office was supposed to pursue only cases involving more than 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of cocaine or more than 50 pounds of marijuana.
The five agents, who all spoke on the condition they not be identified, said they were reprimanded, demoted or transferred after they complained about inflated reports to their superiors at the San Juan office.
In a brief interview May 3, DEA administrator Donnie Marshall said an internal investigation of ``all the issues'' involving questionable arrests in San Juan was under way. He said it would be "inappropriate'' to comment until the review was completed.
President Bush has since nominated former Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., to succeed Marshall, a Clinton administration appointee.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee,
has asked the General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog arm, to investigate
DEA, Customs, Navy and Coast Guard personnel involved in the drug war have been routinely overcounting arrests and seizures.
Sessions, a former prosecutor, said that overcounting drug arrests ``gives a false sense of accomplishment'' to the nation's anti-drug campaign.
San Juan's dazzling but dubious numbers weren't hard to spot, present and former agents said. An eight-day eradication exercise held jointly with the U.S. Marine Corps in Bolivia in 1999, for example, claimed to have destroyed 672,577 mature marijuana plants and 4,540,203 seedlings. Agents said it was impossible to count that much marijuana with that kind of precision.
The agents who spoke to The Herald's Washington Bureau said veteran DEA agent Michael Vigil, who headed the San Juan office at the time they charge the statistics were being inflated, demanded more impressive arrest statistics. Vigil then argued that his office needed more resources to cope with a growing threat.
"Vigil's priority was arrests,'' said one agent. ``That's all he cared about. How many arrests have you made lately for me?'' The agent was among those who say they were reprimanded and transferred for not reporting enough arrests.
According to an internal DEA document reviewed by The Herald's Washington Bureau, the San Juan office reported 1,136 drug arrests in 1998, the year Vigil arrived, nearly double the 652 it reported in 1997. The number nearly doubled again to 2,042 in 1999.
Last May, when he was still assigned to San Juan, Vigil told a
subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee: ``The open use of the Caribbean
as a narcotics
transshipment center has created a public safety crisis in Puerto Rico.'' The trend, he told lawmakers, meant the ``DEA must assign resources to the island to address this threat.''
From 1997 through 2000, the authorized strength of the San Juan office grew from 153 people to 304. A budget breakdown for the DEA's Caribbean Field Office was not available.
In November 2000 Vigil moved to Washington to head the DEA's International Division, which oversees more than 500 agents in 56 countries.
DEA spokesman Michael Chapman demanded to be told in advance what questions a reporter intended to ask as a condition for interviews with Vigil or DEA administrator Marshall. After receiving the questions, Chapman said neither would comment.
In an interview after a February report on inaccurate figures for Operation Libertador, a 24-day drug-trafficking dragnet conducted last fall in the Caribbean and in Central and South America, Vigil brushed off questions about the numbers by saying the ``forging of coalitions'' between DEA and Caribbean drug police was more important than precise statistics.
Some of the present and former San Juan agents who spoke about
overcounting said they alerted the DEA's Office of Professional Responsibility,
internal corruption, or the agency's Inspection Unit, which internally audits agency reports and expenditures.
Internal investigators, they said, advised them to put their complaints
in writing to their supervisors. The supervisor of one unit -- out of six
that allegedly faked their
numbers -- was reprimanded.
Another supervisor who several former San Juan agents said pressed them to falsify arrests was later named an internal corruption investigator. Still another was promoted to a DEA internal audit unit.