DEA uses phony figures about interdiction campaign

According to Knight Ridder Newspapers and other wire service reports from early-February, The Drug Enforcement Administration used phony figures to tout the success of a 36-nation "major takedown" of drug traffickers in the Caribbean and Latin America last fall.

DEA's scorecard on "Operation Liberator" or "Libertador" reported 2,876 arrests, but a Knight Ridder investigation found that agency officials have no evidence to support hundreds of them. Hundreds more were routine busts for marijuana possession, and some drug eradication figures are double-counts of a State Department program to burn marijuana plants. And while DEA said $30.2 million in criminal assets was seized during the operation, $30 million of that was confiscated four weeks before the operation began.

The DEA official who masterminded the exercise - since promoted to head DEA's international operations - admits some discrepancies but says the international cooperation that Liberator promoted is what counts. If the DEA's official tallies are generally as unreliable as Libertador's, however, the public is likely either to overestimate the drug war's progress or grow cynical about America's very difficult multibillion-dollar narcotics enforcement enterprise.

Certainly, it's difficult to tell what happened during the operation, described as a "tremendous success" by its leader, Michael S. Vigil, then head of DEA's regional office in San Juan. Operation Liberator, the fourth U.S.-led regional drug crackdown since 1998, intended to engage U.S., Caribbean and Latin drug authorities simultaneously in what DEA called "an attempt to dismantle top-echelon traffickers in the region."

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

  • The DEA could not account for 375 of the 2,876 arrests attributed to Libertador. For most of the rest, it simply accepted whatever number participating countries reported.
  • The largest number of arrests - 996 - were in Jamaica, where authorities said most of them were for misdemeanor marijuana possession.
  • 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.
  • No one cared much about drug-intelligence gathering. 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 reportedly said that his agency saw no problems with Libertador or its operations accounting system. "Everything was done properly and above board," he said after discussing Knight Ridder's findings with DEA Administrator Donnie Marshall. 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.

Now there's a novel idea certainly applicable for figuring annual income taxes: just ask taxpayers to mail in some good-sounding numbers, and then relax. Don't worry, be happy, the DEA and IRS are on the way.

Source: various wire service reports including Knight Ridder