“Socalj” for Borderland Beat
|Nicholas Palmeri had been in charge of the Regional Office for Mexico, Central America, and Canada for just over a year.
Nicholas Palmeri’s socializing and vacationing with Miami drug lawyers, detailed in confidential records viewed by The Associated Press, brought his ultimate downfall following just a 14-month stint as DEA’s powerful regional director supervising dozens of agents across Mexico, Central America, and Canada.
But separate internal probes raised other red flags, including complaints of lax handling of the coronavirus pandemic that resulted in two sickened agents having to be airlifted out of the country. And another disclosed this past week found Palmeri approved the use of drug-fighting funds for inappropriate purposes and sought to be reimbursed for paying for his own birthday party.
“The post of regional director in Mexico is the most important one in DEA’s foreign operations, and when something like this happens, it’s disruptive,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations.
“It’s even more critical because of the deteriorating situation with Mexico,” added Phil Jordan, a former director of the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center. “If we don’t have a strong regional director or agent in charge there, it works against the agency’s overall operations because everything transits through Mexico, whether it’s coming from Colombia or the fentanyl that flows in through China. It cannot be taken lightly.”
Palmeri’s case adds to a growing litany of misconduct of the DEA under scrutiny from an external review ordered by DEA Administrator Anne Milgram.
An external review ordered by DEA Administrator Anne Milgram came in response to the case of Jose Irizarry, a disgraced former agent now serving a 12-year federal prison sentence after confessing to laundering money for Colombian drug cartels and skimming millions from seizures to fund his lifestyle of jet-setting, parties, and prostitutes.
Palmeri’s is the second case in recent months to show interactions between DEA officials and Miami lawyers representing some of Latin America’s biggest narcotraffickers 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.
Current and former US law enforcement officials now suspect Irizarry was using his DEA status to arrest Marin’s rivals. Diego Marin’s attorney is David Macey who had invited Palmeri to his vacation home in Florida.
|Miami Defense Attorney, David Macey (left) has represented several drug defendants including a money launderer in Colombia, Diego Marin.|
Miami Narco Lawyer Trip
One of those attorneys, David Macey, was also implicated in the probe into Palmeri. Internal investigative records show Macey hosted Palmeri and his wife for two days at his home in the Florida Keys, a trip that investigators said served no useful work purpose and violated rules governing interactions with attorneys that are designed to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
The purpose of the Miami trip had been to “debrief” a confidential source. But it took place at a private home where Palmeri showed up 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,” the investigators wrote, “and there was no contemporaneous official DEA documentation concerning the substance of the debrief, both of which violate DEA policy.”
Violating DEA Policy
Those violations prompted Palmeri’s abrupt transfer to Washington, D.C. in May 2021 before he ultimately stepped down last March, the records show. Palmeri told investigators he had shown “not the best judgment.”
The DEA wouldn’t discuss the specifics of Palmeri’s ouster or why he was allowed to retire instead of being fired. But an official stated the agency “has zero tolerance for improper contacts between defense attorneys and DEA employees.” “The DEA aggressively investigates this serious misconduct and takes decisive action, including removal, against employees who engage in it,” said the official.
“It is ironic,” Palmeri wrote in an email, “that the Department of ‘Justice’ would commit this injustice to the country.”
|Caro-Quintero was captured 2 months following Palmeri’s departure.|
Obsession with Capturing Rafael Caro Quintero
Chris Landau, who oversaw Palmeri as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico during the Trump administration, said that singular focus on Caro Quintero and other such headline-grabbing arrests is characteristic of the DEA’s broader failings in the drug war.
Landau cited the US arrest in 2020 of a Former Defense Secretary, General Salvador Cienfuegos, which prompted Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to disband the elite police unit that was the DEA’s key ally. López Obrador also kept DEA agents at their desks instead of out in the field. Their DEA plane was essentially grounded. After negotiations and Mexico looking to prosecute the General in their country; he was released and flown back to Mexico. After a short period of time, no charges were filed as Mexican officials cited not enough evidence.
Sources AP News, Syracuse News, La Silla Rota