Colombian corruption case latest overseas stain for DEA

A Colombian national police officer who was part of an elite unit that worked closely with U.S. anti-narcotics agents has been extradited to Miami to stand trial on charges he betrayed the Drug Enforcement Administration to the same traffickers they were jointly fighting

Via AP news wire
Friday 08 October 2021 13:12
Colombia US DEA Misconduct
Colombia US DEA Misconduct

For years, Capt. Juan Pablo Mosquera rose through the ranks of Colombia’s national police, earning accolades from his bosses on his way to becoming the trusted supervisor of a unit that worked hand-in-glove with U.S. anti-narcotics agents.

Now he’s facing up to 20 years in a U.S. prison for allegedly betraying the Drug Enforcement Administration to the same drug traffickers they were jointly fighting.

His 2018 arrest and subsequent extradition to the U.S., which has not been previously reported, is another black eye for an elite DEA program to train and support foreign law enforcement that has been repeatedly subverted by corrupt cops and deadly leaks.

The rare prosecution of a once-standout U.S. ally follows a report this summer from a U.S. government watchdog that blasted the DEA’s leadership in Washington for failing to oversee its foreign law enforcement partners even in the aftermath of a string of well-publicized scandals.

“The DEA needs to be more vigilant of the operations that it’s conducting in foreign countries because the corruption is so rampant,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former Chief of International Operations.

Mosquera goes on trial Oct. 13 in Miami federal court on two counts of obstructing justice for allegedly selling evidence and information gathered by the vetted unit he oversaw to key targets of U.S. investigators.

It’s not clear what led the DEA to doubt the 37-year-old Mosquera — the three-page indictment says almost nothing about his alleged crimes.

But Juan Carlos Dávila, a co-defendant with a long history in Colombia’s criminal underworld, testified as part of a plea agreement that Mosquera enlisted him to try to sell information to a target of a DEA investigation: an American who was living in Colombia under a false identity.

The American, who was identified in court papers only by his initials P.L., is described as someone who ditched probation in Arkansas in the 1990s and remains a fugitive. That matches the criminal history of Patrick Liljebeck, who was indicted in Miami shortly after Mosquera’s arrest for conspiring to smuggle 50 kilograms of cocaine aboard a sailboat.

Unbeknownst to Dávila, a man he thought was the unnamed American’s associate was a confidential source working at the direction of the DEA.

“Mosquera corruptly used his position ... to access investigative information regarding DEA investigations and targets with the intent to make money from that information,” Dávila said in a proffer accompanying his plea agreement.

Dávila, who was reportedly arrested in 2013 on an Italian warrant for ties to the Sicilian mafia, agreed to testify against Mosquera in exchange for a reduced sentence. Others who may take the stand include five DEA agents and an unnamed Colombian law enforcement officer, according to court papers filed by prosecutors.

Prosecutors also intend to rely on extensive audio and video recordings of meetings between Dávila and DEA informants — none of which Mosquera himself appears to have attended.

Daniel Hentschel, an attorney for Mosquera, declined to comment on the case, as did the U.S. attorney's office and the DEA.

Mosquera, before his arrest, led a police squad in the city of Cali overseen by what's known as the DEA’s “Sensitive Investigative Unit,” or SIU, the gold standard for its partnerships abroad. The program of vetted units was set up to help the DEA conduct investigations in foreign countries where the drug business begins but where its agents are guests and face more restrictions.

The DEA credits the vetted units with some of the world's biggest busts and the arrest of hundreds of capos. Selected agents receive five weeks of special training at the DEA Academy in Virginia and frequently leverage the Americans’ mentorship into top positions inside their country’s security forces. Since its start in the late 1990s, the program has expanded to more than 20 countries, including Thailand and Kenya.

To mitigate risks and prevent corruption, foreign agents are supposed to go through extensive vetting that includes drug tests and polygraphs.

But a scathing Inspector General report this summer found that the DEA’s oversight of its SIU partners is insufficient and faults the agency for failing to learn lessons from a decade-long string of well-publicized scandals.

In Mexico, an SIU unit was the subject of U.S. congressional inquiries following reports that a drug cartel in 2011 carried out a savage massacre of dozens of civilians after receiving a leak from the vetted unit. A commander of the same unit was charged by American prosecutors in 2020 with taking bribes from drug traffickers in exchange for protection.

In Honduras, a vetted unit was implicated in the killing of four civilians during a botched raid, while in Haiti a police officer was promoted to the commander of a vetted unit despite having previously failed a DEA-administered lie detector test.

In Colombia, a former DEA agent who worked with the vetted units pleaded guilty last year to 19 counts of conspiring to launder millions of dollars from DEA-controlled accounts and spending the proceeds lavishly on luxury sports cars and Tiffany jewelry. The Inspector General found that two SIU members also accompanied DEA agents in cartel-organized “sex parties” with prostitutes — a scandal that forced DEA Chief Michele Leonhart to resign in 2015.

In the wake of each well-publicized incident, the DEA made little effort to investigate the leaks, often deferring to local authorities, the audit found. Meanwhile, the Inspector General said it was “troubling” to learn that the DEA had scaled back the frequency of its lie-detector testing — from every two years to three.

Vigil said polygraphs should ideally be taken every quarter or six months.

“The temptations are very great,” he said. “The police officers got paid a little more for belonging to a vetted unit but it’s never going to compete with the amount of money the cartels will pay to compromise information.”

New DEA Administrator Anne Milgram called for a top-to-bottom review of the agency’s 91 foreign field offices following publication of the report. She said the review would identify areas for improvement to ensure effectiveness, integrity and accountability.


Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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