DEA Commandos Wage Shady Worldwide War

By Tony O'Neill 11/07/11

The DEA is accused of murky ops and even assassinations in the global theater of the War on Drugs.

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DEA agents in Afghanistan Photo via

Some of the shadowiest recesses of the War On Drugs™ have been exposed in a New York Times article by Charlie Savage. It depicts the Drug Enforcement Agency as an out-of-control, secretive outfit, running commando-style units that are notably adept at slipping across borders, executing suspected traffickers without trial, and disrupting drug distribution lines using violence and targeted assassinations. It's a playbook that seems more suited to the Sinaloa Cartel than a legitimate branch of the US government. The article explores the murky world of FAST (the Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team), a section of five commando units within the DEA, created under President George W. Bush. Savage writes: "The evolution of the program into a global enforcement arm reflects the United States’ growing reach in combating drug cartels and how policy makers increasingly are blurring the line between law enforcement and military activities, fusing elements of the 'War on Drugs' with the 'War on Terrorism.'” Secrecy's the name of the game here. Fearing a backlash from their angry citizens, nations often refuse to acknowledge that they've invited US troops onto their shores to fight a proxy war with drug cartels. Even Mexico, which has openly taken its 30 pieces of silver from the US, refuses to let the DEA’s commandos run loose south of the border. But mounting evidence suggests other countries have no such qualms.

An operation in March this year to intercept a half-ton of cocaine touching down in Honduras ended in a firefight that left two alleged drug traffickers dead and a Honduran customs officer injured.   The 20-minute shoot-out was witnessed by Honduras's then-Minister for Public Security, Oscar Alvarez, who said, “I don’t want to say it was Vietnam-style, but it was typical of war action.” Tellingly, he declined to say whether the Americans took part in the actual shooting, but according to the Times, another person familiar with the episode confirmed it. There's good reason for denial: federal law expressly prohibits the DEA from carrying out arrests overseas—they may only “accompany” their foreign counterparts on operations. Only in “exigent circumstances” may they open fire. Rule-bending is nothing new when it comes to the War on Drugs, but the idea that the US government—which poses as some kind of benchmark for democracy and liberty—exports secret commando units to perform targeted assassinations and "in-all-but-name" military operations, sanctioned neither by congress nor the people, is deeply unsavory. In truth, it makes the DEA seem as dirty and underhanded as the drug cartels. Of course, admitting that the drug war has been an expensive, bloody folly and reacting accordingly would leave no need for such shady deals and covert violence.

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.