A recently released internal report reveals that DEA agents accepted guns from Colombian paramilitary groups and participated in numerous sex parties funded by drug cartels, turning what once appeared to be an isolated case into an institution-wide scandal.
A summary of the internal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) report (pdf), which was discussed by the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on April 14, describes US agents participating in at least 15 to 20 sex parties involving prostitutes in Colombia's capital city Bogota. Previous reports indicated that the parties occurred between 2005 and 2008, but new information reveals that the sexual misconduct began as early as 2001.
For at least one of the parties, DEA agents used money from their operational budget to pay for prostitutes, according to one witness cited in the report.
The report also details how three DEA agents stationed in Bogota accepted an AK-47 rifle from a member of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a coalition of right-wing paramilitary groups that officially demobilized in 2006. An unidentified paramilitary organization also gave two DEA agents AK-47s after a meeting in the jungle, according to the report. The guns were later brought inside the US Embassy.
The gravity of these infractions stands in stark contrast to the weak sanctions offending DEA agents received. Ten agents were investigated, yet the maximum penalty imposed was just a 10-day suspension. Many of the agents reportedly received reduced penalties after stiffer sanctions had been recommended.
During the contentious April 14 hearing on the widening DEA scandal, many congressmen expressed incredulity over how DEA superiors handled the investigations and meted out discipline (see a clip of the hearing below). In an unusual display of bipartisan cooperation, the criticism came from both major political parties.
"You can sit here and cry a pretty picture about how deplorable it is, but your actions suggest otherwise, because there was not the consequence that should have happened. This person is posing a national security risk... It's an embarrassment that you don't fire that person," Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz told DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart.
"They are using taxpayer money to solicit and pay for prostitutes. And you are very disappointed, and you're not happy? I think we're at different levels here," added Congressman Stephen Lynch.
The congressional hearing came just weeks after the US Department of Justice released its own report finding that DEA agents had participated in sex parties funded by Colombian drug cartels. At the time, however, the misconduct appeared to be more limited in scope.
InSight Crime Analysis
The internal DEA report reveals that sexual misconduct by DEA agents in Colombia was not a case of a few bad apples, but rather a systemic issue that lasted for close to a decade. The investigation also illustrates the complicity of DEA officials seeking to cover up the infractions and protect offending agents. As Chairman Chaffetz stated during the hearing, "Adding to the concerns raised in this report is the fact the DEA and the FBI tried to hide these incidents from their own inspector general."
Repeated infractions that were essentially dismissed by higher-ups don't just reveal that DEA agents are fallible; they stain the reputation of the entire anti-drug agency. This could have important implications for the DEA, which relies on cooperation with Latin American governments to conduct counter-narcotic operations throughout the region. The report's findings could provide extra fuel to countries like Bolivia, which already see US presence in the region as intrusive.
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While the sex parties are perhaps receiving the most attention from US authorities and media, the fraternization between DEA agents and Colombian paramilitary organizations is even more troubling from a security perspective. The AUC committed grave human rights violations and was heavily involved in Colombia's illicit drug trade. The fact that AUC operatives were passing weapons to DEA agents suggests a disturbing level of cooperation.
While the full extent of the fallout from the DEA scandal remains uncertain, it is clear that the US anti-drug agency must reconsider how it takes steps to prevent and discipline agent misconduct. As Congressman Lynch stated during the hearing, "There is a mentality here that needs to be extricated root and branch from the DEA operation."