Life is tough for American drug enforcement agents in Latin America. After billions of dollars and decades spent fighting the drug war from Mexico to Patagonia, more drugs than ever are flowing north. According to a bombshell report by the Department of Justice, agents in Colombia found a novel solution to their problems: if they couldn't beat the cartels, they would take part in cartel-funded "sex parties" with prostitutes and pay regular visits to brothels while stationed in the country.
The report, released on Thursday by the DOJ's Office of the Inspector General, found that four US agencies involved in the drug war in Colombia — the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the US Marshals Services — did not properly address allegations of sexual misconduct committed by their agents in the country. Among the four, the DEA was found to have engaged in some of the most inappropriate behavior, including sexual bacchanals, and then failed to comply with the Justice Department's inquiries.
Investigators looked at conduct between 2009 and 2012, but highlighted incidents that took place as early as 2005. Among their most noteworthy findings are allegations that 10 DEA agents stationed in Colombia "solicited prostitutes and engaged in other serious misconduct." A Colombian police officer allegedly used funds from "local drug cartels" to arrange sex romps for the agents that were held "at their government-leased headquarters" over several years.
The orgies gave new meaning to the phrase 'high-risk sexual behavior.'
DEA supervisors in Colombia were reportedly aware of the parties and received complaints from building managers about the noise they emitted. According to the report, the agency's regional director "justified the failure to report the allegations by stating that the matter was a management issue." Visits that DEA agents allegedly paid to local brothels were also not reported.
Some of the agents implicated in the debauchery claimed to have been unaware of the fact that drug lords had subsidized their recreational activities, but the Justice Department's investigation determined that they "should have known the prostitutes in attendance were paid with cartel funds."
In addition to soliciting prostitutes and having their sexual encounters paid for, three DEA supervisory special agents allegedly received "money, expensive gifts, and weapons from drug cartel members." Seven of the ten agents eventually admitted that they were present at the parties. The DEA handed out suspensions of 2 to 10 days.
"The DEA Inspector told us that prostitution is considered a part of the local culture and is tolerated in certain areas called 'tolerance zones,' " the report says. "According to the Inspector, it is common for prostitutes to be present at business meetings involving cartel members and foreign officers. The DEA Inspector also stated that the acceptability of this type of behavior affects the way in which federal law enforcement employees conduct themselves in this particular country."
'Of all the different drug war agencies, the DEA has been the most obstinate and the most obnoxious.'
The DOJ report warns that in addition to being a breach of US policy, the orgies gave new meaning to the phrase "high-risk sexual behavior."
"The fact that most of the 'sex parties' occurred in government-leased quarters where agents' laptops, BlackBerry devices, and other government-issued equipment were present created potential security risks for the DEA and for the agents who participated in the parties, potentially exposing them to extortion, blackmail, or coercion," it says.
Inspectors were not reassured that a Colombian officer claimed that he had protected their weapons and other property while the agents engaged with the sex workers.
"Prostitutes in agents' quarters could easily have had access to sensitive DEA equipment and information," it states.
Across the four agencies reviewed by the inspector general, investigators found "relatively few reported allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct." That's the good news.
Now the bad news: Of the 258 allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment committed by FBI agents reviewed by the DOJ, the Department of Justice found that in 32 cases "FBI supervisors failed to report allegations" to the agency's Inspection Division. The report concludes that "the handling of these allegations revealed some significant systemic issues with the components' processes that we believe require prompt corrective action."
The report points out that both the FBI and the DEA were not forthcoming when investigators requested information from the agencies.
"Therefore, we cannot be completely confident that the FBI and DEA provided us with all information relevant to this review," the report says.
DOJ spokesperson Patrick Rodenbush gave a statement to VICE News saying that the department "is already working with the law enforcement components to ensure a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment and misconduct is enforced and that incidents are properly reported."
The allegations in the DOJ report follows a separate investigation by the Department of Homeland Security and the US military into reports that Secret Service agents and members of the armed forces purchased the services of sex workers while preparing for a presidential visit to Colombia in 2012.
The American government has had a heavy drug enforcement presence in Colombia since the introduction of Plan Colombia, a $9 billion military aid package intended to bolster the fight against drug cartels in the country, in 2000.
"There's a long history of sexual abuse illegal activity — not just by the DEA, but by the military and contractors," Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, told VICE News. "I think of all the different drug war agencies, the DEA has been the most obstinate and the most obnoxious."
In 2000, the State Department estimated that around 90 percent of all cocaine in the US originated from Colombia. Critics of America's drug war effort point out that after fifteen years of interdiction and crop destruction, that figure remains roughly the same.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford