Why the DEA Should, and Shouldn’t, Train More Local Drug Agents

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Special units backed by the U.S.’s anti-drug agency DEA are touted by some as the answer for Central America’s crime wave, but these bodies are by no means a one-stop solution to take down criminal networks.

After two days of hearings on drug trafficking and terrorism in the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, one policy recommendation worth considering is the expansion of the number of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) offices across the globe. In the words of Michael Braun, former Chief of Operations and Chief of Intelligence for the agency:

I happen to believe that the DEA needs additional extra-territorial teams … and the logistical and support resources required to field them in the most remote and dangerous areas of the world. That’s where our Nation’s most threatening adversaries now operate, and the DEA should be there as well building cases with trusted counterparts against the thugs who want to do us harm.

One suggestion especially relevant for Latin America, though not explicitly voiced by Braun, is that the DEA should increase the number of Special Investigative Units (SIUs) in the region. These units, described by the U.S. government as the “gold standard” in policing, consist of local anti-drug officers, trained and vetted in the U.S., then sent back to their respective countries. As of 2007, there were seven such units in Colombia and two in Mexico, with a combined total of 387 members.

In the last two years, the SIUs reportedly assisted with the capture or killing of some of Mexico’s most high-profile crime lords. These include Beltran Leyva enforcer Edgar Valdez Villareal, alias “La Barbie;” La Familia leaders Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, alias “El Chayo” and Jose Jesus Mendez Vargas, alias “El Chango;” and La Linea hitman Jose Antonio Acosta Hernandez, alias “El Diego.” In Colombia, the SIUs are credited with heading operations that resulted in hundreds of arrests, and the seizure of millions of dollars and multi-ton cocaine shipments.

Such apparent success explains why two Senate reports this year recommended that the DEA expand the SIU program across the hemisphere. Currently, Panama and Guatemala are the only two countries in Central America where the elite units are based; the Dominican Republic has the only unit in the Caribbean. Even small SIU units are capable of achieving big results, the U.S. Senate has argued. More importantly, because team members are carefully selected, undergoing polygraph tests as part of their training, the SIUs are supposed to provide regional DEA offices with a law enforcement team they can trust, without fear that corrupt local officers will leak intelligence to criminal gangs.

Nevertheless, the relationship between the U.S.-vetted SIUs and the DEA creates other problems. Critics could be justified in complaining that the emphasis on such offices undermines sovereignty in the host country. As Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) former associate Rachel Nelid points out, this impression could be reinforced if SIU units share information with U.S. agencies, like the DEA or the Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) of the U.S. Embassy, before reporting to local political or law enforcement authorities.

The SIUs were designed to have minimal contact with their potentially corrupt counterparts, and thus increase the chance of anti-crime operations being carried out successfully. But as Nelid argues, their emphasis on building relationships with U.S. agencies comes with drawbacks:

By undermining local control and the chain of command, the U.S.strategy reduces the support and real cooperation of local authorities, who have no say in policymaking or implementation. This lack of official engagement in turn means that these units are often neglected or disbanded once U.S. support is reduced or ends, with the result that the U.S.-created counterdrug police capabilities and operations are rapidly lost.

In Mexico, where questions of national sovereignty are so politically sensitive that foreign agents are banned from making arrests or carrying weapons, this could explain why the SIU program is younger and more limited than the one in Colombia.

If the DEA is to expand the SIU progam, it’s also worth questioning the validity of what these units’ operating strategies. The SIUs are basically trained to carry out DEA-style law enforcement. This includes an emphasis on “buy-bust” sting operations, in which undercover agents pose as criminals looking to buy drug shipments. It also emphasizes “Kingpin” operations, which focus on capturing or killing cartel leaders.

Both these tactics create their own set of problems. Buy-bust operations are an easy way for law enforcement to achieve impressive-sounding numbers — X amount of cocaine seized, Y number of people arrested. Such statistics can create the appearance of progress in the “drug war” when in fact there may be very little.

The buy-bust strategy is also a way agencies can convince policymakers and funders — in the case of SIUs, the U.S. government — that they are achieving results. The risk is that this strategy only impacts low-level operatives in the drug trafficking chain. If the emphasis is on achieving a yearly quota, then there is little incentive to carry out large-scale, complex investigations that really disrupt criminal investigations. Instead, the priority is creating a good set of statistics. The DEA has long suffered from this problem. If SIUs are trained and equipped to carry out the same kind of law enforcement practices, it may be worth asking whether their goal is to dismantle criminal networks, or to justify their existence by carrying out low-resource, numbers-oriented buy-bust operations.

The same critique could apply to the Kingpin strategy; a tactic, practiced and preached by the DEA, which appears to achieve big results: the removal of a drug cartel leader, and the subsequent dismantling of his organization. But this apparent success can masks the fact that the business of drug trafficking often goes on unabated, but with a new set of faces.

U.S. policymakers may have good reason to recommend that SIUs be deployed elsewhere in Central and Latin America. Especially in states with weak and incompetent law enforcement institutions, the DEA-backed unit is a practical option. But in no way do the “gold standard” SIUs represent a golden ticket solution to the drug war.

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