The Drug Enforcement Administration quietly removed its top official in Mexico last year over improper contact with lawyers for narcotraffickers, an embarrassing end to a brief tenure marked by deteriorating cooperation between the countries and a record flow of cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl across the border. Nicholas Palmeri's socializing and vacationing with Miami drug lawyers, detailed in confidential records viewed by the AP, brought his downfall after just a year as regional director supervising dozens of agents across Mexico, Central America, and Canada. Separate probes raised other red flags, including complaints of lax handling of the coronavirus pandemic that resulted in two sickened agents having to be airlifted out of the country.
And another disclosed this past week found Palmeri approved use of drug-fighting funds for inappropriate purposes and sought to be reimbursed to pay for his own birthday party. The position is critical to US efforts, partly "because of the deteriorating situation with Mexico," said Phil Jordan, a former director of the DEA's El Paso Intelligence Center. "If we don’t have a strong regional director or agent in charge there, it works against the agency's overall operations because everything transits through Mexico, whether it's coming from Colombia or the fentanyl that flows in through China. It cannot be taken lightly."
Palmeri's case adds to the misconduct cases roiling the agency at a time when its sprawling foreign operations—spanning 69 countries—are under scrutiny from an external review ordered by DEA Administrator Anne Milgram. That review came in response to the case of Jose Irizarry, a former agent now serving a 12-year prison sentence after confessing to laundering money for Colombian drug cartels and skimming millions from seizures to fund an international joyride of jet-setting, parties, and prostitutes. Palmeri was transferred to Washington in May 2021 before he stepped down last March. The DEA wouldn't discuss his removal or why he was allowed to retire instead of being fired. But an official said the agency "has zero tolerance for improper contacts between defense attorneys and DEA employees."
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