Recent revelations that DEA agents attended "sex parties" hosted by the very drug traffickers they were supposed to be fighting fell like a bombshell.
Despite the shocking headlines, though, this scandal isn't really about sex -- and it's much bigger than the DEA. At its core, this sordid tale is about the futility and corruption of prohibition -- told through the lens of a rogue agency that represents everything wrong with the war on drugs.
According to a Justice Department report, several DEA agents (some with top secret clearances) allegedly participated in multiple orgies with hired sex workers "funded by the local drug cartels." Some also received money, gifts and weapons from these traffickers. The parties occurred at the agents' "government-leased quarters", where laptops and other equipment were accessible -- raising "the possibility that DEA equipment and information also may have been compromised as a result of the agents' conduct."
This story made national news because it's the DEA. But drug traffickers dishing out favors to local, state and federal law enforcement happens every day, both inside and outside of the U.S.
Moreover, the DEA wasn't the only federal agency with personnel recently implicated in drug war-related crimes in Colombia. Though less widely reported, a much more serious allegation emerged that U.S. soldiers and military contractors sexually abused at least 54 women and girls between 2003 and 2007 while deployed as part of Plan Colombia -- the nearly $10-billion U.S. drug war military aid package.
Not one of the perpetrators has faced justice. Committed during drug war operations, these heinous acts should be treated as war crimes.
These are just the latest horrors that the U.S. drug war has unleashed on Latin America -- with the DEA often at the center. In 2012, for example, DEA agents participated in a raid in Honduras that left four innocent people murdered, including a teenager and two pregnant women.
For years the agency has been spying on governments in the region, often for political purposes not related to drugs -- prompting Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador to kick the DEA out of their countries. Latin American counties are increasingly rejecting drug prohibition, and each fresh episode of war crimes and human rights abuses strikes a major blow to the U.S.'s failed global drug policy.
Then there's the DEA's long history of heavy-handed and shady actions at home: its rejection of science and obstruction of research; its promotion of militarization; its no-knock raids and airline passenger searches; its use of NSA data to spy on U.S. residents and to systematically fabricate evidence; its dehumanizing detention practices; its widespread and controversial reliance on confidential informants; and its role in creating and maintaining a system of mass incarceration.
Just days after the Colombia scandal broke, news surfaced that a DEA and Secret Service agent stole or extorted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bitcoins while investigating the Silk Road online drug market.
DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart herself has been at the center of several scandals, including the House of Death scandal in which the DEA appears to have turned a blind eye to torture and murder in Ciudad Juarez, and the Andrew Chambers scandal, in which the DEA rehired a confidential informant with a history of lying.
All told, the picture that emerges is an out-of-control agency, run amok, literally in bed with organized crime, a perfect symbol for the corruption and impunity inherent in the war on drugs.
The DEA must immediately be reined in and held accountable -- a small but crucial step in ending the disastrous drug war at home and abroad.
Daniel Robelo is the research coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.
This post originally ran on the Drug Policy Alliance blog