Two top police commanders in Colombia and Mexico have recently admitted to filtering sensitive information to drug traffickers while working with the US Drug Enforcement Administration -- another black eye for the agency amid growing calls for scrutiny of its actions in Latin America.
Former Mexican federal police officer Iván Reyes Arzate pleaded guilty October 19 to one cocaine trafficking conspiracy charge related to a $290,000 bribe he accepted in exchange for helping the operations of an alliance of drug trafficking groups known as El Seguimiento 39, the US Justice Department announced in a press release.
Reyes Arzate wasn’t just any police officer. In 2008, he became head of the federal police’s Sensitive Investigative Unit (SIU), which was specially vetted and trained by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). This made him the “highest-ranking officer and principal point of contact for information sharing between US and Mexican law enforcement personnel” assigned to that unit.
The former top cop was first charged in 2017 with leaking confidential information to Mexico’s Beltrán Leyva Organization, which led to one DEA informant being kidnapped and murdered, according to court documents. He was also bribed to arrest Edgar Valdez Villareal, alias “La Barbie,” a one-time Beltrán Leyva ally-turned-rival who was eventually extradited to the United States.
SIU commanders have also come under fire in Colombia. In early October, the Associated Press first reported on the previously sealed 2018 indictment, arrest and extradition of National Police Captain Juan Pablo Mosquera. He allegedly sold evidence and other key information to targets of US investigations while atop the DEA-vetted unit he oversaw in the city of Cali.
Specifically, Mosquera employed Juan Carlos Davila Bonilla, a known Colombian drug trafficker with ties to the Italian mafia, to pass classified information to at least one target of an ongoing DEA investigation, warning that he was “hot,” according to a factual proffer filed October 13 in support of his guilty plea.
Both Mosquera and Reyes Arzate face a maximum 40 years in prison, and they will be sentenced in early January 2022.
InSight Crime Analysis
The admissions by two high-level police officials are damning evidence that DEA partners in Latin America must be vetted and tracked better, and raises further questions about what US officials knew and when.
Their actions fit a pattern of corruption within the agency’s Sensitive Investigative Units that have led to kidnappings, murders and civilians being killed in the region. In August 2021, the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General released a scathing report criticizing the DEA’s failures to enhance its oversight of the foreign law enforcement units it supports, especially in Latin America.
The report raised concerns that “even following significant, well-publicized incidents, the DEA has not effectively improved its process for reporting, tracking, and evaluating incidents.”
Among the incidents highlighted were three anti-drug missions carried out in 2012 by DEA-vetted units in Honduras in which four civilians were killed. The Inspector General report also cited the promotion of a police officer to command a “trusted police unit” in Haiti despite knowing that the official had failed a polygraph test, among others, according to the audit.
Despite these and other failures, "the DEA has not strategically or programmatically evaluated these incidents involving foreign law enforcement units to identify lessons learned and enhance oversight,” the report added.
Indeed, in September of last year, a DEA agent in Colombia who worked alongside these vetted units pleaded guilty to “participating in a seven-year scheme to divert over $9 million in drug proceeds from undercover money laundering investigations.”
Following the Inspector General report, the DEA announced in August of this year a "comprehensive review of [its] international operations and foreign footprint." And in late-October, former DEA Administrator Jack Lawn and Boyd Johnson of the law firm WilmerHale were assigned to the review team.
In some cases, the alleged misconduct extended beyond the DEA's partner units. Prosecutors have tied Reyes Arzate's case, for example, to "the same criminal schemes, transactions and events" alleged in the bribery case involving Genaro García Luna, former Mexican President Felipe Calderón's secretary of public security between 2006 and 2012.
García Luna worked closely with the DEA in that role for years after the Mexican government launched the US-backed "war on drugs" in 2006. He is accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes from Sinaloa Cartel members in exchange for protection, but he has denied those charges.