Authorities in El Salvador have arrested two men for allegedly impersonating Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents in an extortion scheme, in a case that reflects the shady image that often plagues the US agency in Latin America.
On December 20, the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office announced the capture of Rafael Alcides Flores Mendoza and Santos Edgardo Guzmán Ayala, who they accused of extorting politicians and government officials.
According to prosecutors, the pair told their victims they were DEA agents and they would use their clout to damage their victim’s image and cause them legal problems if they did not make payoffs totaling thousands of dollars.
Police and prosecutors seized the pair during a sting operation in which their intended victim, a local mayor, made a controlled handover of $15,000 in a San Salvador hotel before the authorities swooped. At the time of their arrest, the two had badges identifying them as DEA agents.
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According to prosecutors, preliminary investigations suggest the two men had been in direct communication with and maintained links to a former DEA agent in Central America, Danny Dalton, although they made no suggestion that Dalton had been aware of or involved in the scheme.
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Despite prosecutors throwing out the name of Danny Dalton — who is well-known for his outspoken criticism of state corruption in El Salvador, including of the Attorney General’s Office — there is so far little to suggest that actual former or current members of the DEA were actively involved in the alleged extortion carried out in their name. However, the mere fact that Flores and Guzmán’s threats seemed credible to their victims speaks to the agency’s serious image problem in much of Latin America.
The character of a DEA agent that is either corrupt or willing to break the rules or take part in criminal behavior “to get the job done” has become a trope of underworld fiction, seen in in everything from hit TV series Narcos to the drug war thrillers of novelists such as Don Winslow. These cultural representations, which could well themselves be feeding perceptions about the DEA in the region, may be bordering on clichés, but they have their roots in a wide range of very real cases and investigations that illustrate why many in Latin America are fearful or suspicious of the DEA.
The DEA was founded in 1973, but it was in the cocaine boom years of the 1980s when corruption in the agency first began to be publically exposed. By the end of the decade, several agents were standing trial on charges of stealing seized drugs and money, trafficking and selling drugs, laundering money and providing protection to transnational and national traffickers — in some cases allegedly doing it all while living the high life on the DEA expense account.
More recent cases — many of which have had considerable play in the Latin American media — shows how some agents’ activities continue to undermine the DEA’s operations and reputation today. In 2015, an internal DEA report emerged detailing how agents in Colombia threw sex parties using agency funds to pay for prostitutes between 2001 and 2008. Even more troublingly, the reports also included details of meetings between DEA agents and the drug trafficking death squads of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia — AUC) at which AUC commanders presented the agents with AK47s as gifts.
The report not only sparked a scandal over the behavior of the DEA agents involved, but also wider consternation about the agency itself after it then emerged that the agents later continued in their positions. Not only this, but it also became evident this was part of a broader pattern in disciplinary matters, with agents continuing to work after being found falsifying records, associating with criminals and even distributing drugs.
The DEA’s actions away from the media eye could also be contributing to the suspicions around the agency among Latin Americans, especially to state insiders such as the alleged extortion victims in El Salvador.
The agency’s handling of intelligence assets in particular has become a point of concern. In 2015 both the US Government Accountability Office (pdf) and the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General (pdf) released reports detailing the DEA’s failures in its use of confidential informants. Both reports highlighted a lack of accountability, especially over the illegal activities committed by DEA sources. In addition, the DEA’s meetings with top cartel contacts, who supply information on their rivals, has fueled conspiracy theories in the region that the US favors or even directly cooperates with certain criminal organizations.
As well as the wrongdoing by the DEA and its sources, Latin America political figures have further reason to be suspicious of the agency — its history of overstepping its boundaries for political reasons.
Allegations of such behavior also date back as far as the 1980s, when there were numerous accusations, such as those levied by former undercover DEA agent Michael Levine, of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) hijacking Latin American anti-narcotics operations for political ends. Levine later accused a fellow DEA agent of making veiled death threats in an attempt to silence him on the issue.
More recently, governments in Bolivia and Venezuela both threw the DEA out of their countries alleging political interference and spying. While both countries have their own political and possibly criminal reasons for wanting the DEA out of their affairs and have launched wild accusations against the agency, there is also evidence to suggest the accusations of the DEA participating in politically motivated intelligence gathering were not baseless.
Given this history of the corrupt and criminal behavior of some DEA agents, reinforced by cultural representations and the accusations of former agents and antagonistic governments, it is little wonder that Salvadoran officials could be convinced they were being blackmailed by the United States’ main representatives in the war on drugs.
However, this image problem not only creates a space for such opportunistic crimes. It also undermines the DEA’s efforts to combat organized crime in the region by generating mistrust with the agency’s legitimate partners and creating a convenient excuse that corrupt elements of foreign states or political enemies can deploy to distract from their own activities.