By SOFÍA SÁNCHEZ and PENILEY RAMÍREZ, Futuro Investigates
Keith McNichols is haunted by investigations that have gone nowhere. As a former agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), he launched them. Once he came forward as a whistleblower, he was targeted.
He believes the worst day of his life was when his daughter was diagnosed with cancer. The second was when he reported misconduct and corruption from his former DEA coworkers to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
“The funding for drug enforcement was basically a slush fund for corruption in the DEA,” said Tom Devine, McNichols’ attorney. “When a whistleblower threatens the organization, it leads to pretty almost standardized tactics of retaliation.”
Devine is the legal director of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. dedicated to empowering whistleblowers.
Like McNichols, other former agents have declared that they witnessed DEA officers and local agents in Latin America receiving bribes. Then, the witnesses were pressured to keep quiet.
Even after denouncing it, McNichols said he faced consequences.
“I’m still blacklisted. And these people were able to cover it up and lied on the record. And they’re still existing today, unaccountable,” McNichols said.
In the last three years, more than 900 Customs and Border Protection agents have been arrested. In contrast, since 1991, only 14 DEA agents have been charged with different crimes, from bribery and theft to drug trafficking, according to a database compiled by Futuro Investigates.
One of those 14 former agents is Jose Irizarry. In December 2021, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to launder $9 million from a Colombian cartel.
“Drug war is a game. It is a very fun game that we were playing,” Irizarry told the AP.
Irizarry was “schooled in how to be corrupt,” his lawyer María Dominguez said during his trial. “In this alternate universe, it became easier and less suspect to accept money and gifts.”
The scandals haven’t only exposed corruption from DEA agents.
The DEA operates on U.S. soil and abroad with over 4,000 special agents and has an annual budget of over $3.2 billion.
Since 1997, the agency has also instituted the Sensitive Investigative Unit (SIU) Program in more than 15 countries. These elite police units vet local agents and train them at the DEA academy in Virginia. After the special training, the foreign agents are trusted with sensitive information from the U.S. government.
However, some of them now face criminal accusations.
In 2021, Iván Reyes Arzate, once the head of the DEA’s SIU Program in Mexico, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in the U.S. for drug trafficking.
“He found it very easy to start selling that information for a lot of money,” said Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the DEA.
This upcoming January 17, Genaro García Luna, former Mexican secretary of public security —a man who was once also trusted and vetted by the DEA— will be on trial in New York on charges of cocaine trafficking. He is accused of conspiring with the Sinaloa Cartel and its former head, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, to smuggle more than 50 tons of cocaine from Mexico to the U.S.
“There are pockets where corruption is unrestrained, like Mexico or Haiti. DEA circles the wagon and covers up all that corruption rather than holding people accountable,” Devine, the attorney who represents the whistleblowers, said.
A Smoking Gun in Haiti
McNichols started working for the DEA in 1998. After training in Quantico, Virginia, he worked first in New Jersey and then was assigned overseas to Jamaica. He was responsible for confiscating $1.3 million in cash, one of the largest money seizures on the island. As a result, he was promoted and assigned to Haiti.
There, he was immediately suspicious of how the organization was operating. He said that the agents submitted expenses without receipts for sums like $25,000 and $30,000.
“There were a significant amount of payments to the informants in that particular office. I mean, huge amounts of dollars, which kind of were red flags, and there was no justification,” he said.
McNichols reported the payments to his superiors, according to documents obtained by Futuro Investigates. He said he was told to look the other way.
Then, he spoke to the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), a section of the DOJ created after Watergate to investigate internal misconduct.
After a four-hour interview, McNichols said the OPR officials told him he was lying. He would be facing charges, and his job was in jeopardy. The DEA opened an investigation against him.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I am coming forward and reporting wrongdoing, and the same people in OPR turn around, make a case against me, and disregard everything that I said.”
The DEA denied Futuro Investigates a request for an interview.
McNichols knew he needed support and contacted GAP, the nonprofit dedicated to empowering whistleblowers.
After his allegations, OPR ordered an audit of the Haitian office. McNichols agreed to help his colleagues with the investigation.
Then he found what he calls the “smoking gun”: two metal file cabinets with documents and receipts. The agents were making payments in the office and later retrieving the money.
McNichols notified his supervisors to review the documents. He said they believed it was “definitely theft, misconduct or wrongdoing,” and they would contact the head of the DEA’s Caribbean Division. He believed he was on his way to having his initial reports redeemed.
“But instead, they didn’t do that. They covered it up,” he said.
The Manzanares Case
A few months later, in April 2015, a Panamanian ship named the MV Manzanares docked in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to offload what was expected to be bags of sugar. Instead, a ripped bag spilled kilos of heroin and cocaine onto the Haitian seaport.
Before McNichols arrived, officials say stevedores had stolen what they could of the drugs. Instead of making arrests, men wearing presidential guard and police uniforms packed 1,100 kilos of drugs into cars and sped away.
McNichols began an investigation and a search operation for the missing drugs. He claims that Joris Mergelus, head of Haiti’s U.S.-vetted anti-drug unit, was paid to play down the case.
“I reported (about Mergelus) to management, and (my supervisor) said, ‘Hey, we don’t want to get them (the Haitian government) nervous and ruin the relationship,'” McNichols added. “(OPR) knew what was going on, and they gave me and my legal team hell, basically trying to discredit me, trying to get me moved off the island.”
Mergelus denied any links to drug traffickers. In 2017, he was removed from his post.
A year later, the DEA’s Office of Special Counsel requested the attorney general to investigate allegations from McNichols and George Greco, a second former agent. They were accused of failing to properly conduct their investigation in what was alleged to be the only significant drug seizure in Port-au-Prince in the past decade.
In July 2021, the OSC reprimanded the Haitian office of the DEA for its handling of the Manzanares case, deeming it was not corruption, but “mismanagement.”
One official was convicted. No other suspects have been brought to justice in connection to the Manzanares case, according to the Miami Herald.
In 2019, the DEA assigned McNichols to a desk job in Colombia. On his first day there, he found a whistle in his desk drawer. He said he was pressured to leave the agency and retired in 2020.
Maria Hinojosa and Roxana Aguirre contributed to this investigation.
Futuro Investigates is the investigative and special projects division of the Pulitzer-award-winning organization Futuro Media, led by Maria Hinojosa & Peniley Ramírez. Twitter: @fuhinvestigates