Takeaways from AP report on the DEA’s secret spying program in Venezuela

MIAMI– It was a plan that the United States knew from the start would demonstrably violate international law.

The Associated Press has obtained a classified 2018 memo detailing a covert operation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that sent undercover agents into Venezuela to covertly capture and build drug trafficking cases against the country’s leaders.

The sting was part of a years-long investigation that targeted dozens of people, including Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

“We hate to say it publicly, but we are essentially the police of the world,” said Wes Tabor, a former DEA official who served as the agency’s country attache in Venezuela long before the investigation described in the memo was launched. executed. launched.

Here are some takeaways from the AP’s exclusive report on the secret memo:

The 15-page memo details a secret DEA scheme that orders confidential informants to capture Venezuelan officials suspected of turning the South American country into a narco-state. The targets included both the country’s electricity minister and Jose Vielma, an early acolyte of the late Hugo Chávez who held several top positions, including trade minister and head of Venezuela’s IRS.

The DEA memo authorized three informants to secretly record undercover meetings with the targets, who were eventually indicted on money laundering charges but remain in Venezuela today. Among those carrying a wire was a DEA informant accused of stealing $800 million from Venezuela’s currency system through a fraudulent import scheme.

“It is necessary to carry out this operation unilaterally and without informing Venezuelan officials,” officials wrote in the memo.

The AP is not publishing the actual memo or identifying the informants to avoid endangering them.

“There is a special risk that the (confidential sources) would be compromised if their cooperation with the DEA came into contact with host country officials,” the memo said. “Possible penalties include imprisonment.”

The US never intended to make the memo public.

It was inadvertently uploaded among dozens of government documents to a file-sharing website by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan during the bribery conspiracy trial late last year of two former DEA supervisors who helped lead the agency’s offensive against the Maduro government .

The document was subsequently deleted hours after an AP reporter began asking about it. A few days later, over the AP’s objections, the federal judge presiding over the bribery trial took the highly unusual step of closing the courtroom while the document was discussed, saying in open court that this would have “serious diplomatic consequences.” would have.

Neither he nor prosecutors have explained what those might be. Both the DEA and the Justice Department declined to answer questions about how often and where the US engages in unilateral activities.

“This type of information should never leave government servers,” Michael Nadler, a former federal prosecutor in Miami who also helped coordinate the overseas sting, testified behind closed doors, according to a redacted transcript. “It contains information that provides identifying information about people who have agreed to cooperate with the United States in quite dangerous situations.”

The revelation comes at a fraught time in relations between the United States and Maduro’s socialist government and threatens to deepen resentment across Latin America over alleged U.S. interference. It also offers a rare insight into the lengths the DEA was willing to go to fight the drug war in a country that banned U.S. drug agents nearly two decades ago.

Some of Maduro’s closest allies were caught up in the investigation, including Alex Saab, the businessman recently freed in a prisoner swap for 10 Americans and a fugitive defense contractor.

None of the indictments against Venezuelan officials before or after the 2018 memo made any mention of U.S. spying.

The Venezuelan Ministry of Communications did not respond to requests for comment. But in recent days, Maduro has accused the DEA and the CIA – a regular target he uses to rally supporters – of attempting to destabilize the country. The CIA declined to comment.

“I don’t think President Biden is involved,” he said on television this month. “But the CIA and the DEA operate independently as imperialist criminal organizations.”

Notably, legal experts say that no international court or tribunal has jurisdiction to hold the United States or its agents responsible for covert law enforcement actions in other countries, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld arrests and evidence collected during such missions.

Evan Criddle, professor of law at William & Mary in Virginia said international law prohibits undercover operations, such as those described in the memo, that take place without authorization on the territory of another country. He expects the memo’s release “will embarrass the United States, prompt Venezuelan diplomats to voice their objections and possibly hinder future cooperation.”


Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/