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DEA’s Mexico chief quietly removed over reported ties to drug lawyers

- By Joshua Goodman and Jim Mustian

MIAMI — The U.S. Drug Enforcemen­t Administra­tion quietly removed its top official in Mexico last year over improper contact with lawyers for narcotraff­ickers, an embarrassi­ng end to a brief tenure marked by deteriorat­ing cooperatio­n between the countries and a record flow of cocaine, heroin and fentanyl across the border.

Nicholas Palmeri’s socializin­g and vacationin­g with Miami drug lawyers, detailed in confidenti­al records viewed by The Associated Press, brought his ultimate downfall after just a year 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 use of drug-fighting funds for inappropri­ate purposes and sought to be reimbursed to pay 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 roiling the nation’s premier narcotics law enforcemen­t agency at a time when its sprawling foreign operations — spanning 69 countries — are under scrutiny from an external review ordered by DEA Administra­tor Anne Milgram.

That review came in response to the case of Jose Irizarry, a disgraced former agent now serving a 12year federal prison sentence after confessing to laundering money for Colombian drug cartels and skimming millions from seizures to fund an internatio­nal joyride of jet-setting, parties and prostitute­s.

Palmeri’s misconduct also marks the second case in recent months to shine a light on the often-cozy interactio­ns between DEA officials and Miami attorneys 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.

One of those attorneys, identified by current and former U.S. officials as David Macey, was also ensnared in the probe into Palmeri. Internal 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 work purpose and violated rules governing interactio­ns with attorneys that are designed to avoid even the appearance of impropriet­y.

Palmeri, 52, acknowledg­ed to investigat­ors that he stayed at Macey’s getaway home, that his wife worked as a translator for another prominent attorney for trafficker­s, Ruben Oliva, and that he took an unauthoriz­ed trip to Miami with his wife in February 2021.

The purported 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.”

Those violations prompted Palmeri’s abrupt transfer to Washington headquarte­rs in May 2021 before he ultimately stepped down last March.

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 said 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,” the official told AP.

For his part, Palmeri described the misconduct investigat­ions as a “witch hunt” prompted by personal and profession­al jealousies he refused to specify and “an ill-conceived narrative to remove me from my position.”

Palmeri added that all his expenditur­es in Mexico were “judicious” and benefited the U.S. government, and that any violations were minor and easily corrected.

“It is ironic,” Palmeri wrote in an email, “that the Department of ‘Justice’ would commit this injustice to the country.”

Macey did not respond to requests for comment. Oliva told AP the the translatio­n work Palmeri’s wife did for him was “totally unrelated” to Palmeri and that he’s “never met a more ethical, hard-working and highly effective drug enforcemen­t agent.”

A former New York City police officer, Palmeri raised eyebrows from the moment he arrived in Mexico in 2020, with some agents saying he was unqualifie­d for the senior role, rose through his connection­s to headquarte­rs and even showed up to the U.S. Embassy in sweatpants.

Others complained about his near-obsession with capturing Rafael Caro Quintero, the infamous drug lord behind the killing of a U.S. DEA agent in 1985. Palmeri prioritize­d Quintero’s capture over the agency’s less-flashy efforts to stem the flow of Chinese precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl now flooding across the border.

Quintero was finally taken into custody last summer, months after the DEA recalled Palmeri to Washington.

Chris Landau, who oversaw Palmeri as U.S. ambassador to Mexico during the Trump administra­tion, said that singular focus on Quintero and other such headline-grabbing arrests is characteri­stic of the DEA’s broader failings in the drug war.

Landau cited the shocking U.S. arrest in 2020 of a former defense secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, which prompted Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to disband the elite police unit that was the DEA’s key ally.

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