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DEA: San Juan Office Inflated Arrest Figures

BY Lenny Savino

February 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON - Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchinson confirmed Wednesday that agents in the DEA's San Juan office had claimed credit for hundreds of arrests in which they had played no role, and he called their actions ``wrong and irresponsible.''

Hutchinson also confirmed that several DEA agents had been disciplined in connection with the miscounting.

''There is absolutely no excuse for that kind of reporting,'' he said of the inflated statistics. Citing privacy concerns, Hutchinson declined to spell out disciplinary action against the agents, except to say that it ranged from a 14-day suspension to a letter of reprimand.

The DEA's top official was responding to a new report from the General Accounting Office, auditors for Congress. It confirmed a February 2001 Herald Washington Bureau report that the DEA's Caribbean division, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, had inflated drug seizure and arrest figures to attest to its success.

An official informed about DEA's disciplinary proceedings said that Michael Vigil, now head of DEA's international division, was among those reprimanded. At the time of the miscounts, he headed San Juan's DEA office. Former agents who worked under Vigil, speaking anonymously, said he had for several years encouraged them to count arrests made solely by Puerto Rican police.

The San Juan DEA office's figures also included hundreds of routine street busts for marijuana made by Jamaican police without DEA participation, Jamaican authorities told The Herald's Washington Bureau. They occurred during a month-long DEA-led regional drug interdiction dragnet called ``Operation Libertador.''

Vigil declined to be interviewed. He has previously said that he relied on foreign authorities for the statistics and that their accuracy was not as important as the ``spirit of cooperation forged between the countries who participated in the operations.''

The Herald Washington Bureau's investigation focused on Operation Libertador, whose inflated statistics DEA agents offered at news conferences and on the agency's website. Several former DEA agents, on condition of anonymity, said the Caribbean region's reports of drug interdictions and arrests had been inflated for years.

DEA's Puerto Rico office, whose staffing grew in the era of exaggerated performance reports, oversees the 36-nation Caribbean region, including resident agents in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Curacao, and Trinidad and Tobago.

According to GAO auditors, it was DEA policy until October to claim credit for drug arrests made by foreign police within the Caribbean region.

The GAO, after reviewing a DEA audit of the San Juan office for 1999, found that of 2,058 claimed arrests, 331 involved either ''immigration violations with no connection to drug offenses,'' or drug arrests that DEA agents did not make.

Overall, DEA figures counted more than 2,400 foreign arrests from 1996 to 2000.

Until last August, DEA performance statistics were inspected only at random, the GAO reported. By order of then-DEA Administrator Donnie Marshall, all arrests are now subject to full inspection.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, requested the GAO investigation last year.

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