Trying Times for the DEA

(International Relations and Security Network, 26/01/2007)


Editor's note: This is the seventh in a series of in-depth stories on drug smuggling in the Americas. Each piece will focus on a specific city and the surrounding region, beginning with Buenaventura, Colombia and moving north through Central America and Mexico, to conclude with Washington, DC.


When US authorities took Osiel Cardenas, the leader of Mexico's notorious drug smuggling criminal organization known as the Gulf Cartel, into custody, US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales called the moment "unprecedented[…] in scope and importance." The 22 January extradition of Cardenas, three other top cartel leaders and 11 more members of the Mexican drug smuggling underworld is part of a long list of actions the Mexican government has taken against drug smuggling organizations since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in early December.


His tough stance on drug smuggling in Mexico extends to his public requests that the US match him with its own fervor and determination in the war on drugs. But budget cuts, hiring freezes and a long history of conflict between various US agencies appear to stand in the way of increased US assistance.


Since late 2001, federal attention has focused on terrorism and homeland security, the domestic component of President George W Bush's war on terror. Under the Department of Homeland Security, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been tasked with the interception of illegal aliens at US borders. On the US-Mexico border this task involves working directly the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to battle Mexican organized crime. Until 2003, this task appeared to be running smoothly.


'House of Ghosts'


According to a 3 December 2006 story in the UK daily The Observer, from February 2000 until January 2004, Guillermo Ramirez Peyro, also known as Lalo, worked in Juarez, Mexico as a paid informant for the ICE, the DEA and the FBI based in El Paso, Texas. He delivered information he gathered while working for the Juarez Cartel, a Mexican drug smuggling organization known to control the border crossing between Juarez and El Paso.


When the DEA arrested Lalo in New Mexico in June 2003 after crossing the border with some 109 pounds of marijuana, apparently none of the US agencies that Lalo had worked for, including the ICE and DEA, knew about the illegal cargo, The Observer reported. The DEA arrested Lalo and deactivated him as a government source.


This is where a major breakdown in communication between ICE and DEA agents began.


According to the report, the ICE needed Lalo to help them make a case on Heriberto Santillan-Tahares, a lieutenant in the Juarez Cartel. ICE agents took their case to an assistant attorney general who supported the ICE agents' position that Lalo was not a problem as long as he was closely monitored. The government dropped DEA charges against Lalo. He would become an ICE informant now.


On 3 August 2003, Santillan asked Lalo to meet him at a cartel safe house in Juarez, now famously known as the House of Ghosts. This would be the place where Lalo, along with his cartel connections, would commit a number of murders, the British daily claimed.


When Lalo reported that his bosses in the Juarez Cartel told him to purchase calcium oxide - a caustic agent also known as quicklime - to dissolve the body of Mexican lawyer Fernando Reyes before he helped kill the man, ICE agents did not take the news well. Lalo had assisted in first degree murder, and ICE agents were not sure of the legality of using an informant they knew had participated in killing a Mexican citizen. They sought approval from their superiors to continue to use Lalo as an informant. The agents' superiors took the question to the highest levels of US Department of Justice. They received word from Washington that the ICE agents were to proceed, according to The Observer.


By the time the attorney general had prepared its indictment against Santillan for drug trafficking in December 2003, Lalo had participated in at least 13 murders. The Observer stated that neither the DEA nor the Mexican government were told. ICE agents had kept both organizations in the dark about Lalo's activities in Juarez.


During the torture of one of Lalo's victims, the name of an undercover DEA agent working in Juarez surfaced. On 14 January, Juarez Cartel hit men and Mexican cops, employed by the cartel, stopped DEA agent Homer Glen McBrayer while in his car with his wife and children. Their intent was to kidnap and eventually kill McBrayer. McBrayer escaped by calling a fellow DEA agent who arrived in time to dissuade the cartel hit men from kidnapping two US federal agents in broad daylight on a busy street, The Observer reported.


The DEA learned that the ICE had kept information from them about Lalo's activities, disregarding agreements for inter-agency cooperation as well as a professional understanding that the DEA was the lead agency in drug trafficking investigations. As such, the agency should have received information about the ICE's ongoing investigation of members of the Juarez Cartel.


Information sharing


Sandalio Gonzalez, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA office in El Paso during the months that ICE agents allowed Lalo to continue killing for the Juarez Cartel, wrote a letter on 24 February 2004 to ICE Special Agent in Charge John Gaudioso, documenting the series of events that culminated in months of poor inter-agency cooperation between DEA and ICE that nearly led to the death of McBrayer.


This letter was obtained by ISN Security Watch.


"I'm writing to express my frustration and outrage at the mishandling of the[…]investigation that has resulted in the unnecessary loss of human life in the Republic of Mexico, and endangered the lives of [s]pecial [a]gents of the Drug Enforcement Administration and their immediate families assigned to the DEA office in[…]Mexico," the letter begins.


In a phone conversation with ISN Security Watch, Gonzalez said the real problem with the House of Ghosts incident was not with ICE but with the US attorney's office in the Justice Department.


Commenting on the nature of information sharing between the ICE and DEA, Gonzalez said DEA agents were not trusted with information because US authorities worried it would be shared with the Mexicans. "What happens a lot is that certain agencies, when they have real sensitive information, they ask us not to share it with our foreign counterparts, and we honor that," Gonzalez admitted.


"But some of these people are of the mind that we shouldn't share anything," he added.


He was careful to make clear that this information was not classified but sensitive to investigations. In the case of the ICE investigation into the Juarez Cartel in 2003 and 2004, "[The ICE agents'] position was they couldn't trust the DEA because the DEA worked too closely with Mexican authorities," Gonzalez said, adding, "and that we couldn't be trusted with information - not me personally or my people, but DEA agents working in Mexico."


Inter-agency friction


The DEA was created in 1973 by an Executive Order that combined the US Customs section that focused on drug interdiction and a Department of Justice agency called the US Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The DEA was to do away with the constant bickering between agents working in the two units.


The Executive Order made the DEA the country's lead agency for drug enforcement, "but Customs has never accepted that," Gonzalez said, adding, "[The DEA] has always had issues with non-cooperation [from Customs]."


This was not a new phenomenon with the Juarez case, Gonzalez said.


In fact, it is a continuing problem, according to University of Texas-El Paso professor Bill Weaver, who has followed the House of Ghosts story as well as the relationship between the DEA and the ICE in El Paso.


"[The ICE and the DEA] are fundamentally in competition," Weaver told ISN Security Watch in a phone call. "There is a duplication of resources and a duplication of effort," he added, suggesting that the US government had not managed the ICE and the DEA in a way that improved law enforcement.


"You might want some redundancy in the system for various reasons, but I think they haven't thought it through […] when to employ, when not to employ, so it causes lots of inefficiencies such as lack of communication between agents," Weaver explained. "[Agents] clam up, keep their own information to themselves, and report back to their own agencies, especially in a place like El Paso, where there's a tremendous amount of drugs crossing the border and hence a tremendous opportunity for career enhancement."


Human and financial resources


When Sandy Gonzalez arrived in El Paso in April 2001, there were more ICE and FBI agents than DEA agents working the border there. "The reality is that from the DEA perspective, the southwest border has never been properly staffed, never been given sufficient resources to address the problem," Gonzalez said.


He said there was a lack of concern for the southwest area of the US. "DEA has never [properly staffed] the southwest border for whatever reason, partially because it's the southwest border and even our own citizens there are mostly Mexican-Americans, and the attitude is, who cares about Mexico and Mexicans."


In the myriad challenges threatening the country's security, the war on terror is the number one focus of federal attention, and the DEA's funding has suffered.


"It's really not a fair contest to tell you the truth - unlimited resources to accomplish a goal against an entity with very limited resources," Weaver said, referring to the battle between the DEA and Mexican organized crime.


For fiscal year 2007, the DEA requested US$1.74 billion, according to DEA headquarters, but Congress did not pass the 2007 budget last year. Instead, it approved a continuing resolution that gives the DEA the same amount of money for 2007 that it received in 2006, not adjusted for inflation.


"The result is that the DEA has less funding now than it did in 2006," DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney told ISN Security Watch from DEA headquarters in Washington. Courtney said the DEA's attrition rate was some 168 agents a year, meaning without the necessary increase in funding, the DEA could neither hire new agents nor replace those who have left the agency. The DEA has instituted a hiring "slowdown" according to Courtney.


In the meantime, the DEA has taken to hiring local police officers, called drug task officers, to help fill the gap, Courtney says.


Apart from not having the money to hire new agents, the DEA's operational budget goes to paying informants that form a wide network of human intelligence.


"The DEA has been known throughout the years to have an excellent network of [human intelligence] sources, and we've helped other agencies with vital information many times, including in the intelligence community," Gonzalez explained.


"If that network of informants diminishes, it's bad for the country […] if the DEA doesn't have the money to pay informants, it's going to lose them."