Pubdate: Tue, 15 May 2001 Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA) Copyright: 2001 Union-Tribune Publishing Co. Contact: Website: Author: Lenny Savino, Knight Ridder News Service


WASHINGTON -- The Drug Enforcement Administration's Caribbean office routinely falsified its claims of drug arrests and seizures for at least three years, according to five present and former agents who worked there.

Agents in the DEA's office in San Juan, Puerto Rico, claimed credit for hundreds of arrests that were in fact made by local police, the agents told Knight Ridder. A former supervisor estimated that 70 percent of the arrests the DEA claimed from 1998 through 2000 were phony.

"It got so bad," said the former supervisor, "that agents were checking the newspapers every day to see who was arrested so they could go get the information and transfer it onto DEA arrest cards."

The office investigates substantial drug cases in Puerto Rico and supervises DEA agents who provide information about drug activity in other Caribbean nations.

Top DEA officials use arrest figures to measure the performance of an office and its leadership, and higher numbers can lead to more resources for that office. In the San Juan office, for example, arrest numbers tripled in the late 1990s and the staff size doubled.

The agents said many of the arrests DEA agents claimed in San Juan involved only a few grams of cocaine or an ounce or two of marijuana. At the time, the San Juan office was supposed to pursue only cases involving more than five kilograms ( 11 pounds ) of cocaine or more than 50 pounds of marijuana.

The five agents, who spoke on the condition they not be identified, said they were reprimanded, demoted or transferred after they complained about inflated reports to their superiors at the San Juan office.

In a brief interview May 3 in a congressional hallway, DEA Administrator Donnie Marshall said an internal investigation of "all the issues" involving questionable arrests in San Juan was under way. He said it would be "inappropriate" to comment until the review was completed.

President Bush has since nominated former Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., to succeed Marshall, a Clinton administration appointee.

Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has asked the General Accounting Office to investigate whether DEA, Customs, Navy and Coast Guard personnel involved in the drug war have been routinely overcounting arrests and seizures.

Sessions, a former prosecutor, said overcounting drug arrests "gives a false sense of accomplishment" to the nation's anti-drug campaign.

The agents said veteran DEA agent Michael Vigil, who headed the San Juan office at the time they charge the statistics were being inflated, demanded more impressive arrest statistics. Vigil then argued that his office needed more resources to cope with a growing threat.

DEA spokesman Michael Chapman demanded to be told in advance what questions a reporter intended to ask as a condition for interviews with Vigil or Marshall. After receiving the questions, Chapman said neither Vigil nor Marshall would comment.