The DEA Gets Its Groove Back

A month ago the Drug Enforcement Administration seemingly managed to reassert its relevance by demonstrating the role it can play in the name of the endless U.S. War on Terror. After last week's bust of international arms dealer Viktor Bout, despite shoving legality and morality to the wayside, the DEA likely thinks it has found its groove.

suzanna.reiss 11/10/2011

A month ago, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seemingly managed to reassert its relevance by demonstrating the role it can play in the name of the endless U.S. War on Terror. Initial reports suggested an Iranian-American had approached a member of the Mexican Zeta cartel who was working undercover for the DEA in an attempt to solicit the assassination of the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States. Many, including myself, were skeptical of these claims and fearful of at least one intended consequence of these accusations: the escalation of confrontation with Iran.546[Handcuff Key Tag w/ DEA Badge Imprint, DEA Gift Shop]

In a subsequent U.S. Congressional hearing titled, “Emerging Threats and Security in the Western Hemisphere,” Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, carefully clarified that there was, in fact, no proven connection between Iran and the Zetas. “Those were our guys posing as members of drug cartels,” she said. The alleged bust was supposed to reveal the nefarious terroristic goals of the Iranian regime. It was staged by an undercover DEA agent impersonating a representative of the Mexican cartel. Ros-Lehtinen adamantly drew the conclusion that “it seems that our sworn enemy Iran sees a potential kindred spirit in the drug cartels in Mexico.”

Maybe the DEA thinks that it has found its political groove. A week ago, the State Department reported that international arms dealer Viktor Bout (famously depicted in the Hollywood movie Lord of War), was “found guilty . . . of conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).” Attorney General Eric Holder extolled the “extraordinary efforts of the Drug Enforcement Administration agents” involved in the case. Apparently the DEA once again successfully staged a fake, but nevertheless damning, operation to nab a villain. And, once again, the threat of global terror gaining an American foothold through Latin American drug syndicates reared its ugly head.

Ronan Graham of InSight explains how Bout, better known for supplying weapons to groups in Afghanistan, Africa, and the Middle East, “fell for the DEA’s FARC Trap.” Whatever the honey, in this case the undercover DEA agent, Carlos Sagastume, was a former drug trafficker turned undercover informant who has managed to become a favored recipient of U.S. government bounty money. It is the agent's apparently chilling past that the U.S. government cynically deploys in the present. After serving the notoriously murderous Guatemalan army as an intelligence officer targeting "subversives" in a war of genocide against the Mayan population, he went on to drug trafficking for various organizations, and ultimately turned informant to the DEA, which made him a millionaire. Literally. His extraordinary efforts earned the so-called agent “more than $9 million over 15 years by convincing drug dealers and a weapons merchant that he was as bad—if not worse—than they.”

It is not pleasant to contemplate what means were employed to justify these dubious ends. And, it is hard to imagine, given the fact that the United States remains the largest weapons trafficker in the world, that people are any safer as a consequence. In fact, I think this new groove is ominous. These scenarios are not merely about raising tension with places like Iran or those identified as international terrorists. It seems they also reflect an effort to reconfigure U.S.-Latin American relations as the next front in the "war on terror." Ros-Lehtinen opened the hearings on emerging threats in the hemisphere by remarking: “We must stop looking at the drug cartels today only from a law enforcement perspective and consider designating these narco-trafficking members as 'foreign terrorists organizations' and their leaders as 'specially-designated nationals.' "

Last week’s round of celebration over the DEA bust of Bout, another “specially-designated national,” speaks to the hardening of a violent and confrontational stance that prominent members of the U.S. government seem to be taking in relation to U.S. policies in Latin America. Legality and morality fall by the wayside as shady dealings fuel weaponized confrontation.

Surreally, when the House Foreign Affairs Committee held these hearings on terror in the Western Hemisphere, they did so after welcoming a visiting delegation from the Afghan National Assembly. The chair’s words of welcome speak for themselves:

It is an honor for us to have you visit our committee, learn from our mistakes and get a new democracy going there in Afghanistan. We so appreciate your efforts and your hard work. Thank you so much for honoring us with your presence.

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