This portion of a photo posted to Twitter by the DEA’s New York branch on August 30, 2019 shows Nicholas Palmeri. In 2022, the DEA quietly removed Palmeri from his position as head of the US anti-narcotics agency in Mexico for inappropriate contacts with lawyers for drug traffickers. (DEA via AP)
MIAMI (AP) — The DEA quietly fired its top official in Mexico last year for inappropriate contacts with drug lawyers, a shameful end to a brief tenure marked by deteriorating cooperation between the two countries and a record flow. of cocaine, heroin and fentanyl to the United States.
Nicholas Palmeri’s socializing and vacationing with Miami lawyers representing drug traffickers, activities detailed in confidential records reviewed by The Associated Press, ultimately led to his downfall after just 14 months as the agency’s powerful regional director. anti-narcotics, which oversees dozens of agents throughout Mexico, Central America and Canada.
But separate internal investigations raised other red flags, including complaints about lax handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a result of which two sick officers had to be flown out of Mexico. And another, released last week, found that Palmeri approved the use of anti-drug funds for inappropriate purposes and requested that they be reimbursed to pay for his own birthday party.
Photo: REUTERS/Marco Bello
“The Mexico regional director position is the most important of the DEA’s foreign operations, and when something like this happens, it’s problematic,” said Mike Vigil, the agency’s former head of international operations.
“It’s even more crucial because of the deteriorating situation with Mexico,” added Phil Jordan, former director of the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center. “If we don’t have a strong regional director or agent in charge there, that goes against the overall operations of the agency because everything transits through Mexico, whether it’s coming from Colombia or the fentanyl that’s flowing from China. It cannot be taken lightly.”
Palmeri’s case adds to growing instances of illegal conduct plaguing America’s top drug enforcement agency as its vast foreign operations — spanning 69 countries — are under scrutiny of a review. extern ordered by her administrator, Anne Milgram.
The decision to conduct that review was made in response to the case of José Irizarry, a disgraced former agent who is now serving a 12-year sentence in federal prison after confessing to laundering money for Colombian cartels and stealing millions of dollars in seizures with in order to finance luxury trips, parties and prostitutes.
FILE PHOTO: A Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent watches over more than 26,000 pounds of cocaine and 3,700 pounds of marijuana, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, seized from multiple interdictions before they are unloaded from the Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton at Port Everglades, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S. November 22, 2021. REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo
Palmeri’s is the second case in recent months to shed light on the often cordial interactions between DEA officials and Miami lawyers representing some of Latin America’s biggest drug traffickers and money launderers. Last year, federal prosecutors charged a DEA agent and a former supervisor with leaking confidential law enforcement information to two unnamed Miami defense attorneys in exchange for $70,000 in cash.
One of those lawyers, identified by current and former US officials as David Macey, also became involved in the Palmeri investigation. Internal investigative records show Macey 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 attorneys, which are designed to avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing.
Palmeri, 52, admitted to investigators that he stayed at Macey’s rest home, that his wife worked as a translator for another prominent attorney, Rubén Oliva, and that he made an unauthorized trip to Miami with his wife in February 2021.
The alleged purpose of the trip to Miami had been to “interrogate” a confidential source. But it took place in a private home where 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,” investigators wrote, “and there was no contemporaneous official documentation from the DEA regarding the matter of the questioning, both violations of DEA policy.”
Those violations led to Palmeri’s abrupt transfer to Washington headquarters in May 2021, before he finally left the post last March, records show. Palmeri told investigators that he had not displayed the “best judgment.”
The DEA would not discuss the details of Palmeri’s removal or why he was allowed to retire rather than fired. But an official told the AP that the agency “has zero tolerance for inappropriate contact between defense attorneys and DEA employees.”
“The DEA is vigorously investigating this serious misconduct and taking decisive action, including the removal of any employees involved in it,” said the official, who lacks public speaking clearance and asked not to be named.
For his part, Palmeri said that the investigations against him for improper conduct were a “witch hunt” sparked by personal and professional jealousy of which he refused to give details, and “a poorly planned story to remove me from my position.”
Palmeri added that all of his relationships with lawyers “have always been professional and ethical,” and that all of his spending in Mexico was “sensible” and benefited the United States government.
“It is ironic,” Palmeri wrote in an email, “that the Department of ‘Justice’ would do this injustice to the country.”
Macey did not respond to requests for comment. Oliva told the AP that the translation work that Palmeri’s wife did for him was “unrelated” to Palmeri and that she “has never met a more ethical, hard-working and highly effective drug enforcement agent.”
A former New York City police officer, Palmeri turned heads from the moment he arrived in Mexico in 2020.
Some agents complained that he was almost obsessed with capturing Rafael Caro Quintero, the notorious drug lord behind the murder of a DEA agent in 1985, saying Palmeri prioritized that over the agency’s less conspicuous attempts to stop the flow of Chinese precursor chemicals used to produce fentanyl. Finally Caro Quintero was arrested in the middle of last year, months after the DEA made Palmeri return to Washington.
A federal judge in Mexico stopped the extradition to the United States of veteran drug trafficker Rafael Caro Quintero.
Chris Landau, who supervised Palmeri when he was US ambassador to Mexico under President Donald Trump, said the intense focus on Caro Quintero and other similar headline-grabbing arrests is characteristic of the DEA’s broader failures in the war on drugs.
Landau cited the shocking arrest in the United States in 2020 of General Salvador Cienfuegos, Mexico’s former defense secretary, whereupon Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador dissolved the country’s elite police unit that was a crucial ally of the DEA. López Obrador also pushed through a national security law that keeps DEA agents at their desks instead of being allowed out to do field work. Overnight, police cooperation between neighboring countries went from tense and patchy to non-existent.
“Unfortunately, in the absence of a broader strategy, the DEA is driving America’s drug policy bus and it’s going down a very narrow lane,” Landau said. “It’s not going to make any appreciable difference in terms of stopping the flow of drugs into the United States, and it often has foreign policy consequences that are sometimes devastating.”
Palmeri also came under fire for his handling of pandemic proceedings in 2020, when federal agents were under orders to avoid unnecessary travel and in-person gatherings. Several agents under Palmeri’s command, including a regional deputy director, contracted COVID-19 after a meeting at the DEA office in the tourist port of Mazatlán, where some agents say they were reprimanded or ridiculed for wearing masks.
The condition of two officers deteriorated so badly that they had to be flown out of Mexico, according to two former US officials who were not authorized to comment on the controversy and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
A report from the Office of the Inspector General released last week also found that Palmeri misused government funds to pay for his own birthday party, and approved the purchase of “unpermitted items” on trips abroad. of the then interim administrator of the DEA. Tim Shea, who held that position during Palmeri’s tenure, did not respond to requests for comment.
The report, which did not detail specific items or amounts spent, also did not provide an explanation for the conclusion it reached: “Criminal charges against the regional director were declined.”
Mustian reported from New York.
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