Over unlawful contact with narcotrafficker lawyers, the Drug Enforcement Administration discreetly fired its top officer in Mexico last year. It was an embarrassing finish to a brief term defined by declining bilateral collaboration and a record flow of cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl across the border.
After only a year as regional director overseeing scores of agents spanning Mexico, Central America, and Canada, Nicholas Palmeri’s networking and vacationing with Miami drug lawyers, as described in secret records acquired by the AP, led to his demise. Other inquiries revealed concerns about the management of the coronavirus epidemic, which led to the need for two sick agents to be flown out of the country.
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And in another case that was just made public, Palmeri was discovered to have allowed the inappropriate use of money meant for drug-fighting efforts and had asked to be repaid for the cost of his personal birthday celebration. According to Phil Jordan, a former head of the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center, the job is crucial to US operations in part “because of the deteriorating situation with Mexico.”
“Because everything transits via Mexico, whether it’s coming from Colombia or the fentanyl that flows in from China, it works against the agency’s overall operations if we don’t have a strong regional director or agent in control there. It must not be treated casually.”
Palmeri’s case adds to the agency’s growing list of misbehavior allegations at a time when DEA Administrator Anne Milgram’s external review is scrutinizing the agency’s extensive international operations, which span 69 nations. That assessment was made in response to the case of Jose Irizarry, a former agent who is currently serving a 12-year prison term after confessing to launder money for Colombian drug gangs and siphon millions from confiscations to fund a world tour of jet-setting, parties, and prostitution.
Palmeri moved to Washington in May 2021 and left his position there in March of last year. The DEA refused to comment on his dismissal or the reason he was permitted to retire rather than being dismissed. The agency, however, “has zero tolerance for illegal communications between defense counsel and DEA officials,” according to a senior official.
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