|English | Español||May 25, 2018 | Issue #40|
New Documents Shed More Light on Alleged DEA Corruption in Colombia
Names of Two of the Whistleblowers in the “Kent Memo” Are Revealed; DEA’s Former Bogotá Chief May Be Involved in Cover-Up
By Bill Conroy
Leo Arreguin inspecting coca crops during his time as chief of the DEA’s Bogotá office.
Photo: Hoy Online (Ecuador)
The new memo and related documents obtained by Narco News add yet another layer of intrigue to the corruption claims in the Kent memo.
The author of the memo, written in January 2000, is Leo Arreguin, who at the time was the chief of the DEA’s Bogotá office.
Arreguin’s memo, which is addressed to the DEA’s chief of international operations, questions the integrity of an informant under the watch of a DEA supervisor in the Miami field office. That DEA group supervisor is David Tinsley, one of the whistleblowers mentioned in the Kent memo.
The Arreguin memo prompted an internal agency investigation targeting Tinsley and one of the agents under his watch, who was the informant’s in-the-field handler.
However, according to the Kent memo and sources who spoke with Narco News, Arreguin wrote the memo months after Tinsley had reported that DEA agents in Bogotá were suspected of assisting narco-traffickers. That assertion is important, because the Kent memo claims that Tinsley was retaliated against after reporting suspected corruption in the DEA’s Bogotá office, which was overseen by Arreguin.
If Arreguin wrote his memo after becoming aware of Tinsley’s corruption charges, then that memo, and the investigation it spurred, could be seen as part of a strategy to silence and discredit Tinsley, which is precisely what Kent’s memo and Narco News sources allege is the case.
In the late 1990s, Tinsley had been assigned to oversee an investigation into a Colombian narco-trafficking operation. The suspects in that investigation began to cooperate with Tinsley’s agents, “and they made startling revelations concerning DEA agents in Bogotá,” the Kent memo contends.
“They alleged that they were assisted in their narcotics activities by the [Bogotá DEA] agents,” the Kent memo claims. “Specifically, they alleged that the agents provided them with information on investigations and other law enforcement activities in Colombia. The [suspects] were able to provide the DEA group in Florida [Tinsley’s group] with confidential reports they obtained from the agents in Bogotá (those documents were turned over to OPR and OIG).”
Kent’s memo goes onto to explain that after reporting this alleged corruption, “one of the reporting agents [Tinsley] was placed on administrative leave shortly thereafter.”
In fact, Tinsley was placed on administrative leave for nearly three years beginning in early 2000 and then fired in 2003 by the DEA as a direct result of the investigation launched against him due to Arreguin’s memo and other allegations coming out of the Bogotá DEA office.
Essentially, Arreguin alleged in his memo that an informant under supervisor Tinsley’s watch named Baruch Vega was extorting money from Colombian narco-traffickers by promising them that, with the help of supposedly corrupt federal agents and prosecutors, he could fix their cases and get them light sentences.
It is important to note, however, that Vega was involved in a sting operation that was separate, according to Narco News sources, from the narco-trafficking investigation that prompted the corruption allegations against the Bogotá DEA agents.
That is key, the sources claim, because any attention focused on the Vega allegations would draw attention away from the investigation that linked the Bogotá agents to corrupt activities. In fact, the sources claim that the allegations against Vega actually served to derail that case by putting Tinsley and the agents that worked with him under a cloud of suspicion for years.
However, Arreguin, in his memo, raises the concern that Vega’s supposed extortion scheme could jeopardize yet another ongoing DEA undercover operation known as Operation Millennium, which also focused on Colombia traffickers.
Arreguin also attempts to inoculate the Bogota DEA office against charges of corruption by pointing out in his memo that Vega’s scheme might lead to “false allegations of corruption being made against my agents here in Bogotá.”
Another memo was written less than two weeks after Arreguin’s memo. DEA’s OPR prepared that second memo, which was based on reports submitted by the Bogota office. That new document attempted to link Vega’s law enforcement handlers, including Tinsley, directly to Vega’s alleged extortion scheme.
On Friday, January 21, 2000, (DEA) Bogotá Country Office Group Supervisor (GS) Chris Feistle, Special Agent (SA) Nicholas Kolen and SA Paul Craine met with two U.S. based defense attorneys, a U.S. based private investigator and a Colombian defense attorney to discuss the possible cooperation of several defendants and fugitives in the Operation Millennium investigation, as well as defendants in other investigations conducted by the Bogotá Country Office.
During the meeting the attorneys raised the issue that Miami Cooperating Source (CS) Baruch Vega continues to have contact with indicted defendants in the Operation Millennium investigation.
One of the attorneys also advised that he was meeting on Tuesday, January 25, 2000, in Miami, Florida, with AUSA Richard Skruggs, the Chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Public Corruption Unit. The attorney stated the purpose of the meeting was to report information of possible law enforcement corruption involving Miami CS Vega. The attorney stated that the alleged corruption he was reporting to AUSA [Assistant U.S. Attorney] Skruggs would also possibly be fatal to the Operation Millennium prosecution.
GS Feistl [who is now an assistant special agent in charge in the Bogotá DEA office] asked the attorney if what he was reporting to AUSA Skruggs were allegations of law enforcement corruption; the attorney stated he would also provide AUSA Skruggs with other evidence which would help corroborate the allegations. The attorney would not give any more specifics and asked that his name be protected for fear of reprisals against him.
With the flurry of memos and allegations, the wheels had been set in motion and DEA supervisor Tinsley and the agent under him, Lawrence Castillo, who was dealing directly with the informant Vega, found themselves the targets of a Department of Justice criminal investigation as well as an internal investigation launched by DEA’s OPR.
In the meantime, according to law enforcement sources, the Colombian case Tinsley was working — which uncovered the alleged corruption in the Bogotá DEA office — was derailed. In addition, according to the Kent memo, the OIG and OPR investigations into that suspected corruption also were subsequently derailed and whitewashed.
From Kent’s memo:
As discussed in my (prior) memorandum dated December 13, 2004, several unrelated investigations, including Operation Snowplow, identified corrupt agents within DEA. As further discussed in my memorandum, OPR’s handling of the investigations into those allegations has come into question and the OIG investigator who was actively looking into the allegations has been removed from the investigation. As discussed in my email, dated December 17, 2004, I want to speak directly with the [DOJ] Public Integrity Section because I want to ensure that the allegations are fully investigated and acted upon if true.
But there is a twist to this tale that is continuing to unfold and which seems to dovetail with the cover-up allegations raised in the Kent memo.
The criminal investigation into Tinsley and Castillo led nowhere, and it was soon dropped. In other words, there was no evidence to show that either Tinsley or Castillo engaged in any criminal conduct, despite the concerns raised by the Bogotá DEA office.
However, the DEA’s OPR continued to pursue Tinsley and Castillo on charges that they violated internal agency policies with respect to their handling of the informant Vega.
Both agents were placed on administrative leave for nearly three years, culminating in their termination from DEA in 2003.
The following is from a June 2004 Associated Press story dealing with the investigation into Tinsley and Castillo:
The arrests of 114 Colombian drug suspects were attributed to the informant, South Beach fashion photographer Baruch Vega, who took somewhere between $6 million and $100 million from the Colombians while promising great deals with a corrupt prosecutor and agents.
Repeated review by the agency and courts of the corruption claim concluded Vega’s boast was nothing more than a lucrative cover story, but Tinsley and a subordinate, Lawrence Castillo, an agent who worked in the field with Vega, were tossed out.
The two agents decided to fight to get their jobs back and filed claims with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), an administrative court that handles cases involving federal employment issues, including cases of alleged retaliation against whistleblowers.
In Tinsley’s case, he brought his claim of wrongful termination before a MSPB judge, who, in June 2004, ruled in his favor and ordered the DEA to reinstate him — with back pay, plus interest. Castillo reached a settlement with the DEA prior to his MSPB hearing, and also was reinstated as an agent the same year.
Both agents continue to work for the agency to this day.
As it turns out, Vega’s narco-trafficker “extortion” scheme was apparently sanctioned by the government at levels far above Tinsley’s pay grade. In fact, according to a DEA Powerpoint presentation obtained by Narco News, the FBI had actually used Vega as an informant previously and allowed him to operate with the same “extortion” cover story in an operation known as “Gambit.”
As a result, DEA was forced to eat crow and put Tinsley back on the job.
But Vega — who previously worked as an informant for the FBI and CIA — messed up by pocketing the pay-off money he took in through his scheme and failing to pay taxes on the bounty. Ironically, that act of deceit, cheating the IRS, cost him several months in jail on charges of tax evasion.
From a March 2004 Miami Herald story on Vega’s sentencing:
Vega was charged in July with the misdemeanor count of failing to file a tax return in 1998 when he reportedly earned $239,000 in income. He said some of that money included payments he received from Colombian traffickers. The government, he claims, has taken his Miami Beach penthouse, most of his photography equipment, and $1.5 million in his bank accounts. ‘‘They left me with nothing — after all I did for them,’’ he said.
Despite being cleared of the charges prompted by Arreguin’s memo, the damage was done. Tinsley’s three-year ordeal essentially facilitated a cover-up of the alleged corruption involving the Bogotá DEA office, according to Kent’s memo.
“While he [Tinsley] was out, agents in Bogotá arranged to have a meeting with one of the informants [who played a critical role in uncovering the alleged corruption in the Bogotá DEA office],” Kent claims in his memo. “As the informant left that meeting, he was murdered. Other informants, unrelated to the above-described investigation, but who also worked with the DEA group in Florida were also murdered. Each murder was preceded by a request for their identity by an agent in Bogotá.”
Tinsley apparently is not the only Miami DEA agent mentioned in the Kent memo who had a run-in with Arreguin.
A recent article in El Nuevo Herald, a Spanish-language affiliate of the Miami Herald, brings to light the identity of that other agent, Ed Fields, who is the whistleblower behind two additional corruption allegations outlined in the Kent memo.
Narco News sources claim that Fields’ run-ins with the Bogotá DEA office played out months after Tinsley had reported his suspicions about the DEA’s operations in that country.
However, Arreguin, in both the Fields and Tinsley cases, according to his January 2000 memo and in the recent Nuevo Herald story, claims to have been acting to protect the agency’s interests in Colombia from potentially damaging activities being carried out by DEA agents in Miami.
In one of the cases involving Fields, he and other DEA agents in Miami were working to cultivate an informant, a major narco-trafficker, who was in prison in Colombia. This informant had offered to work with DEA agents in Miami after being approached in jail by guerillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, the largest leftist insurgent group in Colombia’s civil war) interested in purchasing communications equipment. Fields was assigned to get the informant out of jail so he could assist the DEA with setting up a sting, according to the Kent memo and the Nuevo Herald story.
The recent Nuevo Herald story reveals that the informant being wooed by the DEA agents in Miami was Jose Nelson Urrego, a major player in the “North Valley Cartel” narco-trafficking organization in Colombia. Urrego might be considered a techno-geek of the narco-trafficking world. He was responsible for assembling an extremely sophisticated information technology network that was used by smugglers to coordinate drug trafficking runs and to evade government surveillance.
A story published in a 2002 issue of the magazine Business 2.0, provides some insight into Urrego’s talents:
The Technology Secrets of Cocaine Inc.
Colombian cartels have spent billions of dollars to build one of the world’s most sophisticated IT infrastructures. It’s helping them smuggle more dope than ever before.
… Archangel Henao is the man whom authorities credit with much of the
drug runners’ recent technological progress. According to Colombian
and U.S. narcotics officials, Henao heads the North Valley Cartel, the
largest and most feared criminal organization to emerge from the chaos
that gripped Colombia’s underworld after the old Medellin and Cali
cartels were broken up in the 1990s by the country’s military.
... The last clear view inside the organization’s technical operations was provided in 1998, when a small army of Colombian police arrested Henao’s top IT consultant, [Jose] Nelson Urrego. That bust soon led to the discovery of an elaborate communications network that allowed Urrego to coordinate fleets of North Valley Cartel planes and ships that were smuggling 10 to 15 tons of cocaine each month.
The network’s command center was hidden in a Bogotá warehouse outfitted with a retractable German-made Rhode & Schwarz transmission antenna about 40 feet high, and 15 to 20 computers networked with servers and a small mainframe. The same kind of state-of-the-art setup existed in communications centers at Urrego’s ranch in Medellín, at an island resort he owned, and at a hideout in Cali. Seized invoices and letters show that Urrego or his associates had recently bought roughly $100,000 worth of Motorola (MOT) gear: 12 base stations, 16 mobile stations installed in trucks and cars, 50 radio phones, and eight repeaters, which boost radio signals over long distances….
So the Miami DEA agents’ interest in using Urrego to set up a sting on the FARC makes a lot of sense in light of his background and connections. Fields and his fellow Miami DEA agents were interested in working with Urrego on the communications-equipment sting because it promised to give the law enforcers inroads into mapping the FARC’s alleged narco-trafficking connections, according to the Nuevo Herald.
However, despite numerous attempts to cultivate Urrego as a source, including working with the Bogotá DEA office to secure his release from prison for that purpose, in the end, the efforts failed, Kent’s memo claims.
Among the reasons for the failure, Arreguin told the Nuevo Herald, is that the Miami DEA agents had pursued the Urrego connection without coordinating with DEA’s Bogotá office or the Colombian government.
The Kent memo, though, paints a radically different picture, indicating that Fields and the Miami agents worked closely with Bogotá’s DEA agents in attempting to cultivate Urrego, but that certain agents in Bogotá went to great lengths to undermine those efforts — even accusing Urrego of being a pedophile at one point yet producing no evidence to substantiate the charge.
Arreguin told the Nuevo Herald that he eventually interceded in the Urrego affair out of deference to the Colombian government. However, the two Colombia government officials whom Arreguin claims voiced concerns about the operation didn’t seem to recall the details of the Urrgeo case when the Herald spoke to them.
Those individuals were Alfonso Gomez Mendez, then the attorney general of Colombia; and Rosso Jose Serrano, then director general of the Colombian National Police and now Colombia’s ambassador to Austria.
When interviewed by the Nuevo Herald, Gomez Mendes said he could not recall precisely the role of the Colombian government in opposing the Miami DEA agents’ efforts to enlist Urrego as an informant — though he said he suspected any such opposition would likely be related to protecting Colombia’s sovereignty. Serrano told the newspaper that he did not even remember the case.
That is a bit odd, in that both men certainly must be familiar with Urrego and his past involvement with Colombian politics.
Urrego became a well-known name in political circles in Colombia in the mid-1990s when he was linked to allegedly providing drug money to Ernesto Samper’s presidential election campaign. Samper survived the scandal and served as president of Colombia until August of 1998. In fact, the Colombian attorney general who made the accusation against Samper was replaced by Gomez Mendez, a Samper crony, the Nuevo Herald reported.
So, if the Colombian government, led by the efforts of Gomez Mendez, was in fact seeking to prevent Fields from cultivating Urrego as an informant, the political calculations become quite intricate indeed.
Not only was Urrego in a position to reveal intimate details about the operations of Colombian drug traffickers, including possibly any links they might have to the allegedly corrupt DEA agents in Colombia, but he also could have opened up a can of worms with respect to narco-financing of Colombian political candidates.
In any event, the efforts by Fields and his fellow DEA agents in Miami to bring Urrego in-house as an informant came to an abrupt end, according to the Kent memo, when someone sent a document to Urrego containing confidential DEA information that revealed he was cooperating with the DEA. Whoever sent this document to Urrego was essentially threatening Urrego’s life, as being pointed out as a DEA collaborator can be a death sentence in the drug underworld.
The DEA agents in Florida looked further into the source of that information leak and followed the trail to several other DEA informants, according to the Kent memo. The Florida agents then set up a wiretap and recorded conversations between their own informants and the other DEA informants who were tied to the leaked DEA information. The recordings revealed that a narco-trafficker had obtained the internal DEA information that was used to expose Urrego.
“That person [the narco-trafficker who obtained the DEA secrets] is also a DEA informant,” the Kent memo claims, “and is believed to have been controlled by the Bogotá Country [DEA] Office. Among other things, it was alleged that the informant [the narco-trafficker] had several agents on his payroll who provided him with classified information. The agents were believed to work in Colombia and Washington, D.C.”
Urrego’s whereabouts today are not known, according to the Nuevo Herald.
(In addition to detailing the FARC sting fiasco, Kent alleges in his memo that one of the corrupt agents from Bogotá was caught on a wiretap some time in 2004 discussing criminal activity related to Colombia’s huge right-wing paramilitary group known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia — AUC in its Spanish initials. The group is widely recognized to be involved in narco-trafficking and arms dealing at the highest levels. Working closely with various sectors of the Colombian military, it has fielded death squads responsible for murdering thousands of Colombians.)
Fields also is the DEA agent mentioned (but not named) in the Kent memo as the whistleblower who reported suspected corruption in yet another case involving the Bogotá DEA office.
While investigating a Colombian narco-trafficking operation, informants tipped off the Florida agents that that this drug ring had developed an ingenious method for smuggling cocaine into the United States.
“Specifically, the narcotics traffickers in Colombia were infusing acrylic with cocaine and shaping it into any number of commercial goods,” Kent states in his memo. “The acrylic was then shipped to the United States and Europe where, during processing, the cocaine was extracted from the acrylic.”
Informants working for the Florida agents sent samples of the cocaine-laced acrylic to the DEA, but the agency’s chemists couldn’t figure out how to extract the cocaine. As a result, the Florida agents decided to have the informants come to the United States with a sample of the acrylic, so they could walk DEA’s chemists through the extraction process.
“Agents contacted the Bogotá [DEA] Country Office to discuss the informants’ planned travel and their bringing cocaine out of Colombia infused in acrylic,” writes Kent. “They were advised that the best tact was for the informants to carry it out themselves.”
But when the informants got to the airport to leave for the U.S., they were arrested. A DEA agent in Bogotá, it turns out, had told Colombian officials to “lock them [the informants] up and throw away the key,” according to Kent. The Bogotá agent then claimed that he had no idea the Florida agents had given the informants permission to transport the cocaine.
“His misrepresentations were backed by another agent in Bogotá,” Kent states in his memo. “The informants were imprisoned for nine months while the accusations flew back and forth. Once it was determined that the agents in Bogotá were lying, the informants were released. One of the informants was kidnapped and murdered in Bogotá where he had gone into hiding.”
In an effort to back up his claims about being deceived by the Bogotá agents, Fields agreed to take a polygraph test to prove that he was telling the truth.
“He (Fields) took a polygraph test and passed,” Kent claims in his memo. “A representative of the Department of Justice reviewed the allegations and found that the reporting agent (Fields) had been telling the truth and the two corrupt agents in Bogotá had been lying all along to the Colombian and U.S. governments.”
As a payback for Fields’ efforts in both the Urrego and acrylic cases, according to the Kent memo, he, like Tinsley, was targeted for retaliation. “One of the agents [Fields] who reported the corruption found himself the target of numerous OPR investigations,” the Kent memo states.
Fields, who recently retired from the DEA, currently has a case pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C. That case stems from an MSPB whistleblower complaint he filed that claims the DEA retaliated against him, in part, for his efforts to expose the allegedly corrupt activities in the Bogotá DEA office.
Fields and Tinsley, along with Kent, have maintained low profiles and are not talking with the media in the wake of all the recent publicity over Kent’s memo.
The DEA, which is part of the Department of Justice, however, is engaging the media — though its spin on the Kent memo seems a bit scrambled.
The agency issued a press statement on Jan. 13 in the wake of Narco News’ initial story about the Kent memo. That statement read, in part, as follows:
… The allegations that are reported in the Narco News Bulletin are extremely serious. DEA’s Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating the allegations that have been made. DEA will continue to ensure the fair and impartial administration of justice and uphold the integrity and reputation of our outstanding workforce.
Garrison K. Courtney, DEA Public Affairs
About nine days after its initial press statement on the Kent memo, DEA issued another press statement, which appeared as a letter to the editor in the Jan. 22 issue of the Colombian magazine Semana. The Colombian publication followed Narco News’ exclusive story about the Kent memo with a story of its own about a week later, without crediting Narco News.
When Narco News contacted the DEA last week seeking an update on the status of the agency’s investigation into the allegations in the Kent memo, DEA spokesman Courtney responded by providing the same statement that appeared under his name in Semana.
From the new DEA statement:
The allegations made in the Kent memorandum pertaining to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) were reviewed in 2004 when DEA received notification of the alleged misconduct, and reviewed again after the very same, unfounded allegations were reported by the Narco News Bulletin.
These investigations were conducted by DEA’s Office of Professional Responsibility [OPR], our internal investigators, and the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General [OIG] with the utmost impartiality, independence and professionalism. At no time during these reviews was any evidence uncovered to substantiate the claims made. …
In a matter of less than nine days, then, the allegations of corruption brought forth in the Kent memo, in the eyes of the DEA, went from being “extremely serious” to “unfounded.”
Narco News contacted the OIG in order to verify the claims concerning its agency that appear in the DEA’s second press statement. Cynthia Schneder, spokesperson for the Justice Department’s OIG, would only respond with “no comment.”
But there’s more to the mystery over the OIG’s “no comment” and the speedy nine-day turnaround of a DEA investigation into the charges of massive corruption in its Bogotá Colombia office.
Sandalio Gonzalez held one of the top leadership posts in DEA’s Miami field division when the Bogotá-related DEA corruption charges first surfaced. He is already on the record confirming that the key whistleblowers involved in the Kent-memo corruption allegations have not been re-interviewed by OPR or OIG since Kent wrote his memo in December 2004.
That means both so-called “reviews” that Courtney contends were carried out — the one after Kent’s 2004 memo was written and the one after Narco News published its initial story on Jan. 9 — occurred without OIG or OPR talking to key witnesses in the investigations.
It also means that we are to believe that the very same agencies accused of whitewashing the pre-Kent memo investigation into the alleged Bogotá DEA corruption (OPR and the OIG, both under the Department of Justice) undertook the post-Kent memo reviews with the “utmost impartiality, independence and professionalism.”
Narco News did make a phone call to former DEA Bogotá top gun Arreguin to see if he could shed some light on the various twists and turns of this puzzling chain of events.
Arreguin retired from DEA in 2003 and now serves as a director of a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program in Lake County, Indiana. HIDTA, which operates offices across the United States, is administered by the Office of National Drug Control Policy in close cooperation with DEA and is tasked with working to reduce drug trafficking in key areas of the United States.
Narco News contacted Arreguin to see, among other things, if he was aware that DEA agent Tinsley had reported to his superiors sometime in 1999 the suspected corruption in the Bogotá DEA operations. Specifically, Narco News wanted to ask Arreguin if he was aware of Tinsley’s report prior to writing the memo in 2000 that led to Tinsley’s suspension and subsequent three-year ordeal to clear his name.
Kent, in his memo, as well as other sources, contend that both Tinsley and Fields became targets for retaliation precisely because they did blow the whistle on the alleged DEA corruption in Bogotá.
Unfortunately, Arreguin refused to speak with Narco News. Through one of his office workers, he suggested that we “contact the Department of Justice.”
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism