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Justice Probing DEA Program Linked To Mexico Massacres

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

The Justice Department’s inspector general announced on Tuesday that his office would investigate a Drug Enforcement Administration program linked to violent drug cartel attacks in Mexico that have left dozens, possibly hundreds, of people dead or missing.

In a letter to senior congressional Democrats, Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz said that an internal review had flagged the DEA’s Sensitive Investigative Units program as “an area of high risk.” His office, he wrote, would examine the drug agency’s management of the program and whether internal controls are in place to ensure that “DEA operations, information and personnel are protected from compromise.”

Under the program, the DEA vets and trains teams of Mexican federal police officers, known as SIUs, that conduct DEA-led operations in Mexico. Last year, ProPublica and National Geographic reported that at least two such operations were compromised and triggered deadly spasms of violence, including one that occurred less than an hour’s drive away from the Mexican border with Texas. A June 2017 story revealed that an attack on the small ranching town of Allende in the Mexican state of Coahuila in 2011 was unleashed after sensitive information obtained during a DEA operation wound up in the hands of cartel leaders, who ordered a wave of retaliation against suspected traitors.

A second story in December investigated a 2010 cartel attack on a Holiday Inn in Monterrey, Mexico, and found that it, too, was linked to a DEA surveillance operation. Four hotel guests and a hotel clerk, none of whom were involved with the drug trade, were kidnapped and never seen again.

Both operations involved the DEA’s Mexican SIU. ProPublica’s reporting detailed that the Mexican SIU had a yearslong, documented record of leaking information to violent and powerful drug traffickers. Since 2000, at least two supervisors have been assassinated after their identities and locations were leaked to drug traffickers by SIU members, according to allegations by current and former DEA agents who worked in Mexico.

Last year, another SIU supervisor, Iván Reyes Arzate, flew to Chicago and surrendered to U.S. authorities, who charged him with collaborating with drug traffickers. Arzate pleaded no contest to the charges in May and faces 25 years in prison. He is scheduled for sentencing this year.

The DEA, ProPublica found, had long been aware of this corruption and failed to address it, even when innocent lives were lost. In an email, a DEA spokeswoman, Katherine M. Pfaff, said the agency declined to comment on the inspector general’s investigation. The DEA considers the SIU program an “effective international program,” she wrote.

The agency has similar units in at least 12 other countries.

The Justice Department’s decision to investigate the SIUs marks the culmination of a campaign started by several leading Democrats in Congress after the publication of ProPublica’s stories. In a series of letters, the ranking members of three powerful committees — judiciary, appropriations and foreign affairs — began pushing for the Justice Department and the DEA to investigate. “These operations raise serious questions about the practices of DEA-trained and funded SIUs,” the legislators wrote in February, “and point to the need for greater accountability for these vetted units.”

That letter was signed by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who has long pursued accountability for the DEA’s operations abroad, as well as Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the country’s leading authorities on national security matters, Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the leading Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. The two representatives are from New York, and their committees oversee the State and Justice departments.

“In light of these incidents,” the legislators wrote, referring to Allende and Monterrey, “we believe that a thorough investigation into the practices of the DEA’s vetted units is essential.”

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Audiotape Immigrant Girl, 6, Still Separated From Mother

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

The 6-Year-Old Heard on Border Facility Audiotape Is Still Separated From Her Mother, Who Must Parent From 1,000 Miles Away

The last time Cindy Madrid Henriquez, a Salvadoran immigrant, spoke to her 6-year-old daughter Jimena on the telephone, the little girl, who is in an Arizona shelter, began by complaining about having to wash her hair with bar soap instead of shampoo. Her scalp was dry and itchy. She had dandruff. Then her questions grew into fears: What if her hair started to fall out? What if her scalp became infected? When, she finally wailed, was her mother going to come and save her?

Madrid, who is in a detention facility 1,000 miles away in south Texas, said most phone calls with her daughter go that way: a relatively mundane dilemma spirals into a crisis. And there’s not much that Madrid can do, except to stay calm and talk her daughter off her emotional ledges.

“She says over and over, ‘Mommy, I want to be with you,’” said Madrid, who is 29. “I tell her, ‘I know. We’ll be together soon. Until then, you have to be strong.’”

Those phone calls, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, are what have kept her strong, she said, in the three weeks since immigration authorities separated her from her only child as part of the Trump administration’s zero tolerance enforcement policy, which called for criminal prosecutions of all people caught illegally crossing the border — including those, like Madrid, who subsequently request asylum. The pair’s plight captivated people around the world when ProPublica released a recording that was secretly made inside a Border Patrol detention facility and captured Jimena’s distraught cries for help after agents separated her from her mother.

Her pleas gave voice to the impact the Trump administration’s crackdown was having on the more than 2,300 children who were separated from their parents since the policy was officially launched in March — though recent reports indicate that hundreds more families were swept up in a test pilot of the program conducted last year. Mounting political pressure forced the administration to announce that it would stop separating immigrants from their children and reunify those who had already been affected. Still, there’s been no relief for those like Madrid and her daughter. On the contrary, her case shows that the retreat from zero tolerance could be as messy and painful as the launch, as she and other immigrant families seek to be reunited with their children, while pursuing separate claims for asylum.

The administration’s moves — or lack of them — indicate that it doesn’t want asylum seekers to have it both ways, despite court rulings ordering them to do so. In scathing terms last week, a federal judge in San Diego issued an injunction against the family separations and instructed the administration to reunite immigrant children with their parents by July 26. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have repeatedly asserted that they have a “well-coordinated process,” for fulfilling that order, but so far there’s been little sign of it.

Instead the administration remains committed to the goals that inspired zero tolerance in the first place, deterring people from seeking asylum, which it considers a “loophole” that undeserving immigrants use to gain legal entry into the country. The administration has sought to overturn a decades-old ruling that prohibits immigrant children from being detained more than 20 days. Immigrants already living in the United States who are related to the children being held in shelters and express a willingness to care for them are required to assume exorbitant travel costs, and submit to DNA tests, fingerprinting and other background checks without assurances that the information won’t be used for other purposes. Border Patrol agents have physically turned away people who present themselves for asylum at ports of entry, saying there isn’t enough room to process new petitioners. Meanwhile, immigration judges are setting bonds so high that detainees cannot afford to pay them.

“Their bottom line is they want people to be detained through the asylum process,” said Joan Friedland, a veteran immigration lawyer in New Mexico. “It’s the most punitive. It’s where people are least likely to have access to a lawyer and prevail. It makes people want to give up their claims and return to their home countries.”

Outside of carefully scripted press calls, officials at ICE, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Health and Human Services rarely answer even the most basic questions from the media about the fate of the parents who have been separated from their children, including how many are still being detained, how many have been deported and how many have been reunified. And when they do answer questions, they offer shifting statistics and rationales.

In a media call Thursday, led by HHS Secretary Alex M. Azar, the administration said that it had some 3,000 children in its care — a much larger number than the 2,057 he reported to Congress last week. Authorities, he said, had not determined how many of those children had been separated as a result of zero tolerance and how many had simply gotten separated from their parents during their journeys. His agency has brought on an additional 230 people in order to comply with the San Diego court’s reunification deadline, he said, although he could not say how many children had been reunited with their parents so far. Last week, Azar told Congress that 500 children had been reunited.

By following Madrid and Jimena, I hoped to track the process and its impact on those going through it. But even that’s come up against arbitrary rules and resistance. Over the past week, I have made several attempts to visit Madrid. After agreeing to meet with me over the phone, Madrid declined my official request. She subsequently wrote and signed two letters saying she had made a mistake and expressing an interest in seeing me. But when I shared those letters with ICE officials in Texas, they refused to process a new request. In an email, spokesman Carl Rusnok accused me of “badgering” Madrid, and wrote, “For our already EXTREMELY busy ICE officers to repeatedly ask the same individual about a request from the same media outlet might be construed as coercive.”

As a result, I’ve only been able to speak with Madrid by telephone, which as anyone who has had to rely on detention center phones knows, is a flawed and stressful alternative. For unclear reasons, the sound quality of the calls is terrible: Madrid sounds as if she’s speaking from space — with a blanket muffling random words. I know I miss key phrases and must constantly ask her to repeat herself. I can’t read her body language. She can’t read mine. And the human connection that allows a journalist to gain an understanding of a person’s background and outlook is impossible. It’s a deeply frustrating experience for both of us. Worse, I imagine, are Madrid’s calls with Jimena.

Madrid says she’s been an emotional wreck since the moment her daughter was taken away from her. Her agony only increases as days pass without answers about if and when she and Jimena will be reunited, or even updates on how her daughter is doing. Is she eating well? How’s she sleeping? She hasn’t slept alone her entire life. She’s always slept in a bed with her mother or grandmother.

“In six years, I had only been away from her for two nights,” Madrid said. “And each time, she made me promise never to be away from her again. She hated it. We are incredibly close.”

Would she have made the trip if she had known she’d be separated from her daughter? “No,” she said, “I wouldn’t have come.”

But Madrid said staying in El Salvador wasn’t an option either. In an affidavit that is part of her asylum petition, she wrote that earlier this year a Salvadoran gang leader shot and killed her boyfriend while she was walking hand-in-hand with him. The gang member threatened to kill Madrid too unless she kept quiet, she said. She said she reported the murder to police anyway, but the gang member was never arrested.

The affidavit said that Madrid observed police officers and the gang members “talking and hanging out like old friends.”

Weeks after the murder, Madrid said, the gang member responsible approached her and Jimena in a market. She said he threatened to kidnap her daughter if he ever saw them again.

“We didn’t leave the house after that,” Madrid said. “When a gang member says something like that, they are not playing around. We were terrified.”

Madrid decided to take Jimena to the United States, where Madrid has two sisters, and Jimena has four beloved cousins. On their first try in April, they made it all the way to northern Mexico, where there is rampant cartel violence. She and Jimena were intercepted by Mexican authorities and deported back to El Salvador. They set out again in May and rafted across the Rio Grande into Texas in mid-June.

“It was a long, hard trip,” Madrid said. “But Jimena behaved really well. All her cousins are in the United States. She was really happy about coming to live with them.”

Madrid said they had no idea they were walking into zero tolerance. One of her sisters had immigrated to the United States a couple of years ago, also fleeing gang violence. That sister was only separated from her daughter for a few hours, while she pleaded her case in court. And then mother and daughter were released on bond. Madrid told her attorney, Thelma O. Garcia, that she thought that’s what was happening when a Border Patrol agent took Jimena away.

“Jimena was screaming for her mother,” Garcia said Madrid told her. “When Cindy asked what was happening, the agent told her not to worry. He was only taking Jimena while Cindy went to court. They would only be separated a few hours. Now we know that was a lie.”

Garcia said that authorities have begun reviewing Madrid’s asylum claim to determine whether her fears of persecution are credible. The attorney said that when she first met with Madrid, it was hard getting her to focus on the incidents that drove her to flee El Salvador. “Her only concern was her daughter, and what needed to do be done to reunite them as quickly as possible,” Garcia said. “The rest didn’t seem to matter.”

Weakening Madrid’s case further, Garcia says, is that her and Jimena’s asylum claims are moving along on separate tracks before separate judges who will decide whether their claims merit a full hearing. Madrid has heard about numerous other parents whose claims have been denied and who have been deported without their children. She’s worried the same could happen to her.

“I don’t want to leave without my daughter,” she said.

While their claims are under review, however, Madrid wants her daughter released from the shelter into her sister’s care in Houston. Her attorney said authorities are reviewing the request, but have not indicated when that might happen.

In the meantime, Madrid takes comfort from the dozens of other mothers in the same situation in the Port Isabel Detention Center. There are 75 women in her barracks, she said. And she’s grown close to some of them. They trade advice they’ve gotten from their lawyers to prepare for the so-called “credible fear” interviews that are part of asylum cases. They share cakes and fruit that come in occasional care packages. And they talk about their phone calls with their children. “At night you can hear many of us crying ourselves to sleep,” she said.

Madrid says she tries not to cry when she speaks with Jimena. And she’s come up with a trick to keep Jimena from crying, too: coloring books. Madrid said she told Jimena she’s begun coloring pictures that she’ll either send to her daughter in the mail, or hold onto until they see one another. She asked Jimena to do the same. On the phone, they talk about their latest works of art.

Madrid says she’s working on a picture of a doll with brown skin. She’s wearing a pink dress with yellow trim, and a crown of orange flowers. Jimena is coloring a picture of two bears embracing one another, surrounded by a heart.

“It makes her happy to feel we’re working on a project together,” Madrid said of her daughter. “It keeps us connected, for now.”

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Top Democrats Demand Inquiry Into Deadly DEA-Led Operations

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

 

Top Democrats on both the House foreign affairs and judiciary committees called Thursday for an inquiry into Drug Enforcement Administration-led operations in Honduras and Mexico that resulted in the deaths of dozens, possibly hundreds, of people who had nothing to do with the drug trade.

The letter, addressed to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, drew on a scathing Justice Department inspector general investigationinto a 2012 DEA operation in Honduras — known as “Operation Anvil” — that had targeted drug trafficking networks operating along that country’s Caribbean coast. During one botched operation, members of the agency’s vetted Honduran federal police unit — acting on the DEA’s orders — fired on a water taxi carrying people who were apparently unarmed and not connected to the drug trade. Four people were killed and another four were injured.

The letter also refers to a ProPublica investigation into a 2011 massacre by the Zetas cartel in the Mexican state of Coahuila that was triggered after sensitive information shared by the DEA with its Mexican vetted police unit wound up in the hands of cartel leaders, who ordered a wave of retaliation against suspected traitors.

The massacre left dozens and potentially hundreds of people dead and missing in and around a small, quiet ranching town called Allende, which is a 40-minute drive from the Texas border. The story was published in partnership with National Geographic in June.

“We believe these and other troubling issues merit further inquiry,” read the letter, written by Rep. Henry C. “Hank” Johnson, Jr., of Georgia, and signed by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking member of the judiciary committee, New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking member of the foreign affairs committee, and 11 other representatives.

“Given that both the (IG) review and a recent ProPublica report have revealed deficiencies in U.S.-vetted police units in Honduras and Mexico, are you carrying out a thorough review of our government’s system of vetted units to ensure that improvements are made?” Johnson asked in the letter.

For two decades, the so-called “Sensitive Investigative Unit Program” has been the DEA’s workaround method of battling drugs with a foreign partner it doesn’t trust. The agency sets up a unit under its supervision, culling members from the host country’s police forces. Then it trains these foreign officers — often in the U.S. — polygraphs them, and, in some cases, works alongside them in the field.

The agency has established SIUs in some 13 countries around the world. Administrators at the agency have hailed them as the “bread and butter” of the DEA’s activities abroad.

In Mexico, however, the SIU has been plagued by corruption from the start. Since 2000, at least two supervisors have been assassinated after their identities and locations were leaked to drug traffickers by SIU members, according to allegations by current and former DEA agents who worked in Mexico. Earlier this year, another SIU supervisor, Ivan Reyes Azarte, flew to Chicago and surrendered to U.S. authorities who charged him with collaborating with drug traffickers.

The DEA doesn’t dispute the corruption within their Mexican unit’s ranks. In interviews, several agents said that part of “the game” of working in Mexico involves understanding that the vetted unit — and every other Mexican law enforcement agency — might leak to a specific cartel and reliably help pursue another. The trick, they said, was figuring out which cartel the vetted unit was helping, and then using the unit to pursue that cartel’s rivals.

But the investigations by ProPublica and the inspector general made clear that sometimes there are tragic consequences to the game. And while the DEA is quick to take credit for the times it helps its foreign partners capture drug cartel kingpins, it remains silent or claims innocence when lives are lost as a result of its operations.

In the case of the Mexican massacre, DEA officials failed to conduct an internal review of the agency’s role in the attack, and did not either suspend its relationship with the vetted unit or offer to provide assistance to those victimized by the leak. And in Honduras, Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz found that the DEA not only failed to conduct a review of the gunfight, but knowingly misled Congress in an attempt to cover up its role.

Among the revelations in the IG’s report: DEA and state department officials told Congress that their Honduran law enforcement partners fired on a water taxi because passengers on the taxi had fired first, but there was “no credible evidence that the individuals in the passenger boat fired first.” Available evidence “places into serious question whether there was gunfire from the passenger boat at any time,” the report said.

Although the DEA has insisted that it played only a supporting role in the Honduran operation, the inspector general found that it was a DEA agent who ordered a helicopter gunner to open fire on the water taxi.

In a press release, Johnson wrote that the IG report “confirms our worst fears,” and leaves many questions unanswered. “The biggest question of all is: what is our government doing to fix this and make sure that, going forward, any U.S. agent involved in the loss of innocent life abroad is held accountable?”

Ginger Thompson is a senior reporter at ProPublica who writes about the drug war.