In this column and my writing on security issues in Mexico and other parts of the world, I have often explored the quality of law enforcement. I have delved into the challenges police and other law enforcement agencies face, including corruption and violence, whether perpetrated by law enforcement officers or against them. Law enforcement agencies around the world face these problems; none are immune. But there is wide difference in how diligent and effective they are in addressing them. In today’s column, I discuss two recent shocks to U.S. law enforcement agencies – a recent violent attack by traffickers on a U.S. maritime interdiction team and a series of corruption scandals in the U.S. premier counternarcotics agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
On November 17, people aboard a suspected drug trafficking vessel off the coast of Puerto Rico opened fired on an approaching maritime interdiction boat of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency. During the ensuing gun battle, three CBP agents sustained gunshot injuries, and one ultimately died from the wounds. One of the suspected traffickers also died; the other was arrested. The violent encounter took place on a day that CBP seized some 200 pounds of cocaine off a northwest beach of Puerto Rico the day before.
For several U.S. officers involved in U.S. maritime operations across a number of U.S. agencies with whom I discussed the violent reaction of the traffickers, the traffickers’ attack was most worrisome, potentially a gamechanger. U.S. law enforcement officers, of course, face very large risks of violence from criminals, including because of the prevalence of weapons in the United States. Nonetheless, large drug trafficking organizations, such as the Sinaloa Cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (JCNG), very violent in Mexico and across Latin America, have acted with minimal levels of violence in the United States. Rarely has either group confronted U.S. law enforcement officials with violence.
Indeed, as I have argued, a key function of law enforcement is to shape criminal behavior in transactional crimes toward their least dangerous manifestations, such as not resorting to extensive violence or violence against law enforcement officials. When violence against law enforcement officials remains unpunished and becomes systematic, intimidation sets in and law enforcement weakens. For decades, Mexico has suffered from very extensive violence against law enforcement officials, with entire municipal police forces and segments of state police intimidated by criminals and no longer countering their crimes.
To prevent such deleterious dynamics from developing, it is vital to strongly deter violence against law enforcement. Any violence of such kind needs to be prioritized in investigations, with convicted offenders given maximum penalties. But it is also important to strongly prioritize dismantling and arresting as much of the criminal group that would authorize or encourage violence against law enforcement officials – in Mexico, it is frequently blatantly and brazenly CJNG.
In the case of the CBP November 17 attack, it is important that interrogations of the surviving smuggler establish what organization he or she was working for, what prompted them to resort to violence, what directives to use violence against law enforcement officials came from those for whom the boat smuggled contraband, and to seek to arrest and prosecute with stiff sentences as many of the leadership of the group as possible.
The second pervasive challenge law enforcement agencies around the world encounter is corruption. Corruption, cooptation, and infiltration are a second tool, in addition to intimidation, that criminal groups have to attempt their own shaping of law enforcement, much as law enforcement should seek to shape them. Corruption within law enforcement agencies can also be internally generated, due to inadequate procedures and policies, loose oversight and supervisory culture, and the actual weakness of internal investigative branches, which are known as internal affairs units. In some parts of the world, insufficient salaries drive corruption, sometimes combined with officers often paying large bribes to get a police job, with the expectation that they would then collect enough money from bribes to cover the “down payment” for the position and more. Such buying of law enforcement positions was a pervasive problem in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2021 and also in Kenya, for example, over the past 20 years. Often such officials instruct their underlings to collect bribes as well as to fire them if they refuse or fail to do so. There are various other sources of police corruption, the discussion of which is beyond the scope of this column.
The bottom line, however, is that many a criminal around the world has figured that the best way to be a drug trafficker is to be the minister of counternarcotics or interior or a chief of intelligence. Conversely, special interdiction units and the heads of law enforcement agencies have similarly figured out that they are in a uniquely opportune position to become the top criminal on the block. Examples abound – from Mexico’s former Secretary of Public Security Genaro García Luna and former Secretary of Defense Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, to Peru’s former chief of intelligence Vladimiro Montesinos to the probably most powerful and accomplished drug trafficker ever, Du Yusheng, who rose from being a gangster on the streets of Shanghai to being a world drug trafficker and also simultaneously Cheng Kai-Shenk’s minister of counternarcotics.
So, what are the recent cases of corruption scandals that have rocked the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, with its 4,600-agent force? None of them rise to anywhere near such top levels of the DEA, but the number of corruption incidents has been accumulating over the past two years.
In May 2022, a five-count indictment in New York charged an active DEA agent John Costanzo Jr. in the Miami office with taking bribes in exchange for leaking sensitive information about ongoing investigations to his former colleague, Manny Recio, who until his retirement headed the DEA’s field investigations in the premier Miami office. After retiring from the DEA, Recio opened a private investigation agency and legal support business called “Global Legal Consulting” to provide private investigation services, anti-money laundering solutions and other legal services. The information that Costanzo allegedly leaked tipped off criminal and their legal presentation about the nature of investigations and coming charges and about deleting incriminating information from their cell phones.
Also in May of this year, a former DEA agent Nathan Koen, who was a DEA agent for two decades since 2002 and whose field postings spanned Jacksonville, FL and Little Rock, AR, was sentenced to 135 months, or more than 11 years, in prison and two years of supervised release for accepting thousands of dollars in bribes from a drug trafficker. The information Koen provided allowed the drug trafficker to run his operations while evading U.S. law enforcement. The trafficker ultimately provided the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with information about Koen, in his own effort to negotiate a lesser sentence.
Another long-time DEA agent, Chad Scott, apparently known among drug traffickers as the White Devil, was sentenced in 2021 to 13 years imprisonment for “stealing money from suspects, falsifying government records , and committing perjury during a federal trial.”
In February 2020, a former U.S. Marine, Fernando Gómez, was accused of infiltrating the DEA in 2021 to assist the drug trafficking group La Organización de Narcotraficantes Unidos operating in Chicago in evading U.S. law enforcement and selling firearms to a high-volume cocaine trafficker in Chicago. He was sentenced to four years behind bars, a very lenient sentence suggesting that he cooperated with prosecutors in other ongoing cases.
Perhaps the most explosive recent case of corruption within the DEA is that of José Irizarry. For years, Irizarry skimmed millions of dollars from DEA funds used for undercover sting anti-moneylaundering investigations for his personal life of luxury and opulence.
Most dramatically, however, Irizarry suggested that his criminal behavior was part and parcel of the illegal operations of other DEA agents and prosecutors involved in anti-money laundering operations. Irizarry became inappropriately close to informants in the criminal world, strictly forbidden under federal guidelines, and served their and his own financial interests as much as he used the informants for legitimate DEA investigations. Irizarry was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Worrisomely, his allegations suggest not just individual corruption but very poor DEA institutional controls over how money used in sting AML operations was used, accounted for, and monitored. Allegedly, only nominal concern was given by some agents involved in the AML operations for building cases and making indictments leading to successful prosecutions. A 2020 Justice Department Inspector General’s report criticized the DEA for loose controls of the AML stings, including a failure to file annual reports to the U.S. Congress about them at least since 2006.
Following Irizarry’s allegations, officials of the Justice Department in recent months questioned over 20 current and former DEA agents as well as prosecutors with links to Irizarry. The DEA’s Administrator Anne Milgram ordered an outside review of the agency’s foreign operations, which is ongoing.
Two large themes run across these cases. First, what many of them have in common is that the law enforcement agency running the cases and helping prosecutors make the indictments against the corrupt DEA agents was the FBI.
Indeed, in the United States law enforcement system, with its tens of thousands of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, it has often been precisely the FBI investigating and prosecuting cases of corruption in other law enforcement agency. The FBI and the Department of Justice during the years of Robert F. Kennedy as Attorney General (1961-1964) began an era of FBI investigations into and cleansing of U.S. police departments many of which were notoriously corrupt. Indictments and revelations that followed led to a strengthening of internal affairs units cross U.S. law enforcement agencies and a general sense that corruption levels went dramatically down. Which is not to say that the FBI is immune from corruption: Just in October 2022, a FBI special agent Babak Broumand was convicted of accepting bribes from an organized crime group.
The point is that for countering corruption within law enforcement agencies, having either powerful external investigators or powerful internal affairs units or ideally both is essential.
Similarly, the Justice Department has dealt with highly corrupt and abusive police departments by placing them into receivership of the Justice Department until sufficient reforms took place. When internal affairs units are lacking, inadequate, or themselves corrupt, powerful external investigators from other agencies, special task forces, or special interdiction units are critical.
Second is the distinction between individual-level corruption and institutional capture and corruption. That individual law enforcement agents will become corrupt is almost inevitable in large agencies. However, it is important to conduct enough effective investigations to detect and punish such individual cases of corruption to prevent a wholesale culture of malfeasance. A belief that one can get away with corruption spreads misbehavior like a virus, with corrupt officers frequently encouraging others to join in. When in such a context, police departments or law enforcement agencies also face intense violence from criminal groups, the takeoff and spread of corruption becomes even more intense.
A third point pertains specifically to allegations made by Irizarry and the Justice Department Inspector General report. Strengthening effective controls on string operations, in this case, in money-laundering cases is crucial.
But undercover operations, controlled delivery operations, and cultivating informants will need to remain the bread-and-butter approach of law enforcement efforts against illegal economies and organized crime. They are essential and highly effective tools. It could be easy to overreact and either institute a culture too non-permissive or to mount sting operations or feel self-deterred from resorting to these standard and proven tools in politically-charged environments. Officers of various law enforcement agencies with whom I talked about sting operations felt, for example, that for a long time after the Fast and Furious scandal of poor monitoring of controlled delivery of weapons by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to Mexico in an effort to detect gun smuggling networks, officers felt self-deterred from launching the sting and controlled delivery operations.
In closing, as I write this column on the U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving, I want to thank the honest, dedicated, and hard-working corruption- and violence-resisting law enforcement officials in the United States and around the world. They work often in very difficult conditions, risking their and their family’s lives for wages far smaller than those of crime, and yet their work is so crucial for the well-being of each of us and our communities and countries.
* Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at The Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. Twitter: @VFelbabBrown