The DEA fires its director in Mexico for his ties to drug lawyers

Two DEA agents, during an operation in Central America.
Two DEA agents, during an operation in Central America.ORLANDO SIERRA (AFP)

The United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) fired its director in Mexico, Nicholas Palmeri, last year for his ties to several lawyers who defend drug traffickers. The dismissal occurred in March 2022, but had not been made public until now, the result of an investigation by Associated Press (AP) Y The Washington Post. Last week, the Justice Department had already announced another investigation by its internal affairs office against Palmieri for “use of anti-drug funds for improper purposes.” The dismissal of the director of one of the most important offices of the agency, which also covers Canada and Central America, also came at a particularly delicate moment in the relationship between the DEA and the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Palmieri, 52, came to the position at the beginning of 2020 after going through the New York police and the DEA office in Guadalajara. According to confidential reports cited by PA, the agent had contacts with several Miami drug lawyers who violated the agency’s internal codes. “A well-known lawyer hosted Palmeri and his Mexican-born wife for two days at his home in the Florida Keys, a trip the DEA said served no useful employment purpose and violated rules governing interactions with lawyers, which are designed to avoid even giving the appearance of wrongdoing”

Within the framework of the internal investigation, Palmeri would have acknowledged to the investigators the meeting with the lawyer in February 2021, justifying that his wife worked as a translator for another lawyer with the same profile. The purpose of the trip to Miami used by the agent would have been to “interrogate” a confidential source. Palmeri arrived with his wife and a bottle of wine, according to the internal report. “The meeting had the appearance of a social interaction with a confidential source,” is stated in the file cited by PA“and there was no official documentation from the DEA regarding the matter of the interrogation, both violations of internal policy.”

The file opened to the agent led to his transfer to Washington in May 2021, leaving the Mexico City office headless at a critical moment in the relationship with the Mexican government. Just a month earlier, López Obrador had decided to shut down the elite Mexican police drug investigation unit, which for more than 25 years worked hand-in-hand with his American counterpart. The shelving of the anti-narcotics group, which shared confidential information with the DEA and which participated in key operations such as the arrest of El Chapo Guzmán, became known at the end of April due to information from the agency Reuters but the decision was made more than a year ago. The Mexican president defended his decision, accusing the group that worked with the DEA of “fabricating crimes”, “being infiltrated by crime” and “doing what they wanted”.

The supposed freedom of movement in Mexican territory was the same argument used by López Obrador two years earlier to put a stop to the activity within the country of foreign intelligence services. A measure especially focused on US agents and which was one of the first sources of tension with the northern neighbor in full transition, then, with the Government of Joe Biden.

Scandals surround the DEA of late. In 2020, one of his agents was sentenced to 12 years in prison for money laundering for Colombian cartels. A federal judge also ruled that the agent diverted more than $9 million from the budget earmarked for undercover operations to the personal purchase of luxury cars, trips and parties.

In addition to the case with the lawyers, the second internal investigation into Palmeri also certified the diversion of funds for “inappropriate uses”, such as paying for trips and even his own birthday party. contacted by The Washington Post, the already former director of the DEA in Mexico declared that his departure was due to “a poorly executed narrative to remove me from office”, in addition to clarifying that he was not fired but “forced to retire”. The official position of the DEA, also obtained by the posthas focused on highlighting that “when a worker does not comply with internal codes and standards, the agency acts drastically, as in this step, removing the worker.”

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