The Drug Enforcement Administration's International Operations (Redacted)
Audit Report 07-19
Office of the Inspector General
A crucial factor contributing to the success or failure of DEA investigative activity abroad is the relationships DEA foreign office personnel develop with counterpart agencies, including with: (1) other DEA offices – both foreign and domestic, (2) other U.S. law enforcement agencies abroad, and (3) foreign governments and their law enforcement components that combat illicit drug trafficking. Generally, we found that the DEA foreign offices maintained good relationships with their U.S. and foreign counterpart agencies.
Foreign Office Relationships with Other DEA Offices
An important responsibility of DEA foreign offices is to provide information and support to DEA investigations through communication and collaboration with other DEA offices, including other foreign offices, DEA domestic field offices, DEA headquarters, and specialty offices such as the Special Operations Division (SOD) and the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC). For example, DEA foreign offices gather and share intelligence on suspects in active DEA cases, arrange for confidential sources to travel into a country, or investigate organizations suspected of having ties to drug trafficking in the United States, among myriad other functions. DEA foreign office managers mentioned that supporting domestic case needs was a chief objective for their office.
DEA Domestic Offices
Initially, to evaluate the relationships DEA domestic offices had with foreign offices, we met with DEA management at three domestic field divisions: (1) the Chicago (Illinois) Division, (2) the El Paso (Texas) Division, and (3) the Washington (D.C.) Division.50 We discussed the quality and timeliness of responses on investigative requests and leads. Overall, the DEA domestic personnel with whom we spoke were pleased with the relationships they had with DEA foreign offices and with the support received from these offices. They believed their offices’ investigations benefited from the DEA’s foreign presence and contacts, and the information they received helped build their cases. Our analysis of DEA case data indicated that over 25 percent of DEA domestic investigative cases opened since FY 2000 had an international dimension.
However, a limited number of DEA personnel in Mexico and Colombia informed us that they believed DEA domestic offices do not utilize the foreign offices as often as they should. Some of these employees believed some DEA domestic personnel did not trust foreign law enforcement, and thus were reluctant to forward appropriate information and leads to DEA foreign offices, fearing foreign law enforcement counterparts would leak sensitive case information. It was believed that this distrust could ultimately hinder the success of DEA cases. Although only a small number of individuals raised this viewpoint with us, it was noted by individuals in two separate offices, each of which represents a significant component of the DEA’s international operations.
Mexico and Colombia DEA personnel also stated that domestic offices and DEA headquarters did not utilize agents who had subject matter expertise and were located in other countries. For example, DEA personnel in offices in Colombia had expertise related to the operations of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a dangerous narco‑terrorist organization in the region. However, we were informed by DEA personnel in Colombia that in certain instances DEA domestic agents did not consult with them on cases involving the FARC. Several individuals in Mexico expressed similar sentiments and said they believed that the lack of use of their subject matter expertise by domestic DEA officials stemmed from a lack of trust that domestic agents place in the Mexico DEA offices because of the systemic corruption among Mexican law enforcement. The DEA personnel in Mexico believed this interfered with the transfer of leads from DEA domestic offices to foreign offices in Mexico.
However, DEA personnel noted to us that as more DEA employees complete foreign assignments and return to domestic offices, the DEA’s overall understanding of how domestic offices can utilize its foreign offices will systemically improve. Yet, the examples of DEA domestic personnel not fully utilizing DEA foreign offices in Mexico and Colombia indicate a need for better understanding of the role of foreign offices. We believe the DEA should better emphasize the utility that its foreign offices can provide to domestic cases, such as presenting best practice examples during training courses and conferences.
Other DEA Foreign Offices
In many instances, a DEA foreign case will generate a connection to another country. Our discussions with DEA personnel in Colombia, Italy, Mexico, Thailand, and Turkey revealed that DEA foreign offices enjoy good relations with one another and that communication and cooperation was open and regular. For instance, DEA personnel in Mexico stated that they routinely contact the DEA offices in Colombia for information on Colombian drug trafficking organizations and their operatives in Mexico. Additionally, DEA personnel in Italy informed us of their coordination with DEA offices in Colombia, Spain, and Turkey. This information was corroborated by our review of the activity logs in the DEA’s Milan and Rome, Italy, offices, which demonstrated these offices’ contact and operational coordination with other DEA foreign offices. Again, however, the DEA’s lack of an agency-wide lead tracking system prevented us from objectively evaluating the DEA’s foreign office-to-foreign office coordination.
Special Operations Division
The DEA’s SOD is integral in the coordination of major DEA cases. According to DEA executive management, the most effective means of ascertaining the breadth of a drug trafficking operation is to track the communication between the parties involved. The SOD is a repository for phone numbers used or called by persons who are part of a DEA investigation. The SOD uses a database to collect these phone numbers and can connect cases with hits on the same phone numbers.51 This allows the DEA to link cases investigated by different offices across the country and throughout the world.
Routinely, the SOD will host coordination meetings on a case, either at its facility in Chantilly, Virginia, or other domestic and international locations. These meetings are usually held when it is discovered that several offices are investigating the same organization in various geographic locations. SOD officials provided us with examples of coordination meetings that discuss cases with an international scope. For example, we were provided evidence of one coordination meeting in Europe that involved the SOD, DOJ, two domestic DEA offices, five foreign DEA offices, and representatives from two foreign counterpart agencies.
According to DEA foreign and domestic personnel whom we interviewed, the SOD’s activities are critical to the DEA attacking the command and control structures of major drug trafficking organizations. Additionally, foreign counterpart officials commented on the benefit SOD provided international investigations.
El Paso Intelligence Center
EPIC was established in 1974 to improve coordination among agencies addressing law enforcement matters related to the Southwest Border. EPIC brings together representatives from many agencies including the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), and the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who work together on various matters related to drug-trafficking and immigration. DEA foreign offices support EPIC by submitting case information to EPIC, which enables analysts at EPIC to access the information for identification of related cases. Several foreign DEA officials interviewed indicated EPIC was useful in their investigative activity, particularly in providing intelligence on drug trafficker movements and in maritime interdiction efforts.
Other U.S. Law Enforcement Agencies
Other U.S. law enforcement agencies that maintain an overseas presence include the FBI; the USMS; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); ICE; and the U.S. Secret Service.52 The DEA coordinates with other U.S. law enforcement representatives in international cases and may jointly work with these other law enforcement agencies to investigate the same target. We spoke with representatives from the various U.S. law enforcement agencies who work with the DEA in the countries we visited and, except for one instance identified below, found the DEA to have good working relationships with them.
The one exception was the relationship between the DEA and ICE offices in Colombia, both of which acknowledged that there was a contentious relationship between the two agencies and that coordination needed much improvement. ICE officials in Colombia did not believe the DEA coordinated any of its activities with them, and the DEA Regional Director also voiced discontent with the relationship between the two agencies. We were informed of instances in which the safety of DEA, ICE, and Colombian law enforcement personnel was put at risk due to the lack of coordination.
At our audit close-out meeting, the DEA told us that its relationship with ICE in Colombia changed since we conducted our fieldwork in April 2006. Subsequently, we discussed the matter with the DEA Regional Director and ICE Country Attaché in Colombia and both stated that the relationship between the agencies has improved. Additionally, we were provided evidence of DEA efforts to enhance coordination with ICE in Colombia.
Foreign Counterpart Agencies
The DEA’s relationships with its foreign counterparts rely heavily on individual personalities, cultural traditions, and the openness to communication between the parties. We were told that as a result of cultural attitudes in many countries, personal bonds first need to be developed and are significant in fostering a professional working relationship. In the countries we visited, DEA personnel commented that the social culture makes it very important for a foreign counterpart representative to accept and trust an individual on a personal basis. Once this connection is established, a positive professional partnership can develop that will assist the DEA in obtaining the information it requires. Further, DEA personnel commented that a good relationship with their foreign counterparts often resulted in more timely cooperation in response to DEA requests for information. DEA officials told us that they spend a great deal of effort developing relationships with their counterparts.
During our fieldwork, we met with 31 individuals from foreign counterpart agencies (shown in the following exhibit) to discuss their relationships with the DEA.
List of Foreign Agencies Consulted During Review
Direzione Centrale Servizi Anti-Droga
Agencia Federal de Investigaciones
Royal Thai Police
|OIG interviews with Drug Enforcement Administration foreign counterparts
The consensus of the foreign officials we interviewed was that the DEA aided their law enforcement efforts, particularly in building international partnerships, providing training opportunities, and supplying useful investigative equipment. For instance, an Italian law enforcement manager commented that the DEA’s international partnerships provided the international law enforcement community with the capability to coordinate multi-nation investigative operations against international drug trafficking organizations. Similarly, a Colombian law enforcement representative told us that the DEA makes the cooperation between the investigative and prosecutorial components of the Colombian government more effective. According to this representative, the communication between these two entities would be deficient without the DEA acting as a facilitator.
An official from one law enforcement agency in Thailand attributed its current level of professionalism and specialization to the assistance received from the DEA. A representative from another Thai agency stated that working with the DEA provides a greater opportunity for obtaining drug-related intelligence that will help to combat illegal drug activities in their country.
During our fieldwork in Turkey, a foreign official told us that DEA-provided intelligence helps to speed up local investigations. Turkish officials also told us about recent operations for which the DEA had provided invaluable assistance. For example, a foreign official spoke of a case in which a DEA-paid informant provided information about a heroin shipment, resulting in the seizure of several tons of heroin. In another instance, foreign officials in Turkey were aware of a Turkish shipment of 41 kilograms of cocaine from Bolivia to Iran, but the smugglers were not going to take the narcotics through Turkey. The vessel used for the shipment was from Denmark, and the DEA assisted in the seizure of the narcotics by facilitating communication between Turkey and Denmark officials.
The DEA’s partnership with agencies abroad has also resulted in other agencies sending officials to DEA offices in the United States. For example, the United Kingdom has personnel from Her Majesty’s Custom and Excise National Investigative Service working in the DEA’s SOD. Also, Italy’s Direzione Centrale Servizi Anti-Droga has an agent stationed in the DEA Miami office.
We observed the interaction between the DEA and foreign counterpart personnel during our fieldwork, and we generally perceived these relationships to be positive. For example, we observed DEA agents in Guadalajara, Mexico, having frequent contact with foreign counterpart personnel regarding local law enforcement matters. In our interviews with them, several foreign officials in Guadalajara spoke appreciatively about their personal and professional relationships with two particular DEA Special Agents and in a large part attributed the success of the interaction between the two agencies to these relations. Similarly, personnel from Colombian counterpart agencies with whom we met in Bogotá and Cartagena expressed satisfaction regarding the interaction between their agencies and the DEA.
The relationships the DEA maintains with all its counterparts – both domestic and foreign – are essential to its mission abroad. We found that the DEA has established effective partnerships with its foreign counterparts.
At these locations we met with Special Agents in Charge (SAC), Assistant Special Agents in Charge (ASACs), and/or group supervisors of DEA investigative squads.
A hit refers to a number entered in the system that is found to match a number already existing in the database.
For a complete listing of the agencies with which we met during this review, see Appendix V.
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