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APNewsBreak: DEA’s Colombia post jarred by misconduct probes

October 4, 2018
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This image shows a page of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Regional Director Richard Dobrich's portfolio. Dobrich, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's top official in Colombia is retiring amid an internal investigation of alleged misconduct. The probe includes an anonymous complaint obtained by The Associated Press that accused Dobrich of hiring prostitutes. (Courtesy of Dobrich via AP)

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — New turmoil has roiled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s high-profile office in Colombia, where at least three agents have left in recent months amid investigations into alleged misconduct, including accusations that one passed secrets to drug cartels and another used government resources to hire prostitutes.

The DEA’s top-ranking official in South America, who was brought in three years ago in the wake of a scandal involving agents participating in sex parties with prostitutes, is under investigation after the agency received an anonymous complaint saying he directed Colombian drivers working for the U.S. Embassy in Bogota “to procure sex workers,” according to a copy of the complaint obtained by The Associated Press and one current and one former law enforcement official. The officials spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation.

Richard Dobrich, a regional director who is retiring from the DEA next month to take a private sector job, said in a statement and interview with the AP that the complaint is without merit and he would have to be a “complete idiot” to have anything to do with prostitution given the office’s history. He also denied his departure has anything to do with the accusation.

“There is nothing to this — zero,” Dobrich said of the anonymous complaint, adding he wants another probe into how it got out. Dobrich said he believes this “attempted assassination on my reputation” is a setup, perhaps by a disgruntled former DEA employee.

Dobrich said investigators from the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General interviewed him at his office in Colombia last month and seized his phone as a matter of routine. Dobrich said he was later told by an investigator that no misconduct was found, but neither the OIG nor the investigator named by Dobrich would comment on the status of the investigation.

DEA spokeswoman Mary Brandenberger did not respond to emailed questions about Dobrich’s departure but wrote that the agency “takes very seriously any allegations of wrongdoing or misconduct by our employees.”

Prostitution is legal in Colombia, but Justice Department policy forbids DEA agents from engaging in such activity because it could lead them to be compromised by the very drug cartels they are pursuing.

Armando Ruiz, a retired Colombian police officer who has served as Dobrich’s driver for three years, said he never saw his boss interact with prostitutes or do anything unbecoming.

“Unfortunately, when you’re in a position like his, there’s a lot of people who act out of hatred,” Ruiz said.

The scrutiny comes at an already fraught time for the DEA’s Bogota office, which is critical to the U.S. efforts to control drug trafficking. Cocaine production — and seizures — in Colombia surged to a record high last year, a subject likely to come up when President Donald Trump visits the country in November as part of his first trip to Latin America.

Federal authorities are also investigating Jose Irizarry, a former DEA agent assigned to Colombia who has been accused of passing intelligence to cartels, according to several law enforcement officials familiar with the matter. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation. BuzzFeed News originally reported the allegations against Irizarry in April.

Irizarry was hired by the DEA in the U.S. despite indications that he didn’t answer truthfully a polygraph exam he took upon admission, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the case. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation into his alleged criminal activity is ongoing.

Irizarry abruptly quit the DEA this year after his tour in Cartagena, Colombia, was curtailed and he was sent to the United States. Attempts by the AP to reach Irizarry by phone were not successful and it was not clear whether he has a lawyer.

The DEA also received an anonymous complaint in recent months that accused Dobrich’s deputy, Jesse Garcia, of having a sexual relationship with a subordinate. That complaint, a copy of which was also obtained by the AP, said Dobrich had been made aware of the relationship — a claim Dobrich denies — and that “favoritism has created a low morale within the admin staff” in Bogota.

Garcia, who retired shortly after the complaint was filed, could not be reached for comment. Possible phone numbers for him in Bogota rang unanswered.

Dobrich’s tenure as the top executive in Colombia began in 2015, when he was brought in to restore order after a blistering Inspector General’s report found several DEA agents had participated in “sex parties” with prostitutes hired by Colombian cartels. That scandal prompted the suspension of several agents and the retirement of Michele Leonhart, the DEA’s administrator at the time.

Prior to Bogota, Dobrich oversaw the DEA’s military-style FAST teams that battled drug traffickers in Afghanistan and Latin America, and were criticized for a series of fatal shootings in Honduras in 2012, including one in the town of Ahuas that left four civilians dead.

The DEA disbanded the Foreign-Deployed Advisory and Support Team last year following a joint State and Justice Department inspectors general probe that found the DEA — and Dobrich — misrepresented significant aspects of the shooting to Congress and government investigators.

The DEA and Dobrich have maintained for years that the FAST squad in question had been fired upon by drug traffickers in a passenger boat who had been trying to recover narcotics seized during the operation.

But video of the shooting strongly suggested to outside experts that the antidrug unit opened fire first, according to the IGs’ report. The inspectors general found Dobrich’s accounting of the shooting to be “unsupportable” based on their own review of the footage.

Dobrich, in his statement to the AP, likened the anonymous prostitution complaint to the insurgents he encountered serving with the FAST team in Afghanistan, where he was shot in the line of duty in 2010, earning a Purple Heart.

“I am used to being able to detect where enemy fire is coming from in order to protect myself and teammates,” Dobrich said. “I am not accustomed to confronting the cowardice of anonymous and fictitious allegations.”

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Mustian reported from New York. AP News Editor James Martinez in New York contributed to this report.

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