Pubdate: Thu, 01 Feb 2001
Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
Copyright: 2001 Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas
Contact:  400 W. Seventh Street, Fort Worth, Texas 76102
Author: Lenny Savino, Knight-Ridder News Service


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The Drug Enforcement Administration used inflated 
figures to tout the success of a 36-nation "major takedown" of drug 
traffickers in the Caribbean and Latin America last fall, a Knight Ridder 
investigation shows.

The DEA's score card on Operation Libertador reported 2,876 arrests, but 
the 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 the DEA said $30.2 
million in criminal assets was seized during Libertador, $30 million of 
that was confiscated four weeks before the operation began.

The DEA official who directed the exercise -- since promoted to head the 
DEA's international operations -- acknowledges some discrepancies but says 
the international cooperation that Libertador promoted is what counts.

It's difficult to assess exactly what happened during Libertador, described 
as a "tremendous success" by its leader, Michael S. Vigil, then head of the 
DEA's regional office in San Juan.

Libertador, the fourth U.S.- led regional drug crackdown since 1998, was 
intended to engage American, Caribbean and Latin drug authorities 
simultaneously in what the DEA called "an attempt to dismantle top-echelon 
traffickers in the region."

However, internal DEA 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 numbers 
participating countries reported.

* The largest number of arrests, 996, was 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.

* The DEA did not, as a rule, ask for the names of those arrested, the 
outcome of their cases or what happened to their drugs and cash.

DEA spokesman Michael Chapman said his agency sees no problems with 
Libertador or its accounting system.

"Everything was done properly and aboveboard," he said after discussing 
Knight Ridder's findings with DEA Administrator Donnie Marshall. Marshall 
declined to be interviewed about Libertador, Chapman said.

Although he couldn't confirm the arrest figures he offered initially, 
Chapman said his agency will "stick by the reported arrests, because those 
were the numbers that were called in" by foreign law- enforcement officials.

Vigil, the overseer of Libertador and three previous regional anti-drug 
initiatives in the Caribbean, said in an interview that the names and 
numbers are not very important.

"The key here is that we have 36 countries that put aside cultural, 
political and economic differences to come together," he said. "You can't 
argue with the success of these operations, and the fact that we're 
developing international coalitions, I think, speaks for itself."

Obtaining accurate arrest and seizure records is difficult, said Rafael 
Perl, a drug policy analyst for the Congressional Research Service.

"It's hard enough to get U.S. anti-drug agencies to share information," 
said Perl. "When dealing with foreign countries the problem is magnified 

A former DEA senior official who ran similar operations in Central and 
South America said Libertador's tactics were seriously flawed.

"It's ridiculous if the names aren't included," he said, on condition that 
he not be identified.

Inflated figures are to be expected, said Eric E. Sterling, a former 
counsel on drug policy to the House Judiciary Committee.

"I'm not surprised at all that the statistics reported are unverifiable," 
said Sterling, now president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in 
Washington, which advocates prevention and treatment measures to combat the 
drug problem. "Distortions in the government's reporting of drug operations 
are commonplace." One reason, he said, is that "Congress and agency 
managers hunger for success stories to brag about."

Vigil has twice testified before Congress about the accomplishments of 
previous multinational drug operations he led, including figures on arrests 
and seizures. He was recently promoted to head the DEA's international 
enforcement division, which is active in 56 countries worldwide.

Last year, after directing "Operation Columbus," a 15- nation predecessor 
of Libertador that reported nearly 1,300 arrests in 12 days, Vigil was 
named Puerto Rico's "Top Cop" by the National Association of Police 

Libertador ran from Oct. 27 to Nov. 19. Nearly every nation in the 
Caribbean participated, along with major Latin American cocaine-trafficking 
countries such as Colombia, Bolivia and Mexico.

The biggest arrest credited by Vigil and DEA documents to Libertador was 
that of Martires Paulino Castro on allegations of being a trafficker. 
Paulino was arrested by Dominican police along with 23 associates. Seized 
in the process were $30 million in Paulino's assets and 360 kilograms of 

But Vigil's DEA office in San Juan first reported Paulino's arrest Sept. 
29, nearly a month before Libertador began. Vigil said Paulino's inclusion 
was justified because he had been identified in a "targeting package" -- a 
list of suspected drug traffickers -- that was provided to Dominican 
officials in the planning stages of Libertador.

The DEA's Libertador reports also take credit for cutting down and burning 
900,183 marijuana plants, many in Jamaica.

But Carl Williams, head of Jamaica's narcotics squad, said in a Knight 
Ridder interview that the eradication campaign, which has been under way in 
rural agricultural areas of the island since 1982, is mainly sponsored by 
the U.S. State Department, which calls it Operation Buccaneer. The DEA 
bought into the effort, he said, by contributing $5,000 to Jamaica's 
anti-drug efforts.
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