Ex-Prosecutors Now Defend Drug Traffickers

By McCarton Ackerman 02/28/13

Some former officials have switched sides and now defend traffickers against US drug policy.

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Leo Arreguin is a former DEA agent who
now represents traffickers in court.
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Several US prosecutors, including former DEA agents, have decided the "war on drugs" is guiltier than the Colombian drug traffickers they once fought to take down. They are now using years of experience prosecuting accused narcos to help them defend some of these traffickers in court against the wrongs of US drug policy. "I'm not embarrassed about the fact that I changed sides," says Robert Feitel, a Washington-based attorney who used to pursue traffickers and money launderers at the Department of Justice. "I don't think I could ever be a prosecutor again. The human drama that I see on this side is sometimes more than I can bear." Others who have switched sides include Leo Arreguin, who formerly headed the DEA's office in Bogota, and Bonnie Klapper, who was responsible for taking down the Norte del Valle cartel. Feitel says the US system punishes traffickers not according to their threat level, but by the quantity of drugs—so a truck driver nabbed with a big consignment could face a harsher penalty than a capo caught with a lesser amount. He also points out that drug criminals are often extradited to the US for punishment, where they may face inhumane trauma in foreign prisons. "There is a lot of human anguish that I had not previously seen," says Feitel. "I've had clients whose parents have died while they've been in jail. It's a pretty terrible fate to be extradited. While it might be defensible to do it to the leaders I don't think it's defensible to do it to the rank and file traffickers in Colombia."

Feitel says most of his clients have no history of violence, but even those involved in kidnapping and murder deserve a defense. "I don't represent people I don't like," he says, "So I like all my clients." Despite being relatively green in his new role, he has already had some success; Ramiro Anturi, a Colombian prosecutor accused of leaking information to traffickers, was given an unexpectedly light 55-month sentence. In general prosecutors who have switched sides say their decisions have largely been met with support by former colleagues. "I don't see that I have moved from one side of the fence to the other," said Kapler in e-mail. "I always felt that my mission was to see that justice was done." She adds: "the system only works when there are hard-working, honest people with integrity on both the government and the defense side."

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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