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What DEA 'sex party' report means for US credibility in Latin America

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Fernando Vergara/AP

(Read caption) An aerial view of the port city of Cartagena, Colombia, taken April 12, 2012.

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• Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Elyssa Pachico’s work here.

A recent report by the US Department of Justice on the sexual misconduct of four law enforcement agencies is full of smutty details that may yet seriously impact their credibility in Latin America.

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The report found that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) – in an unidentified country that The Washington Post confirmed was Colombia – held sex parties with "prostitutes funded by the local drug cartels [...] at their government-leased quarters, over a period of several years." Three DEA officers who attended these parties also allegedly received "money, expensive gifts, and weapons from drug cartel members," according to the report.

Prostitution is legal in designated zones in Colombia, so long as no intermediaries are involved, and the coastal city of Cartagena – where a 2012 scandal involving the US Secret Service prompted the Justice Department's probe – is a well-known hub for the sex trade. 

Aside from the DEA, the report looked at sexual misconduct allegations within the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the United States Marshals Service (USMS) between 2009 and 2012. The report found that the FBI had committed the greatest number of alleged offenses, although when taking the number of employees into account, the USMS had the highest offense rate. 

The most common type of alleged sexual misconduct was inappropriate relationships between supervisors and their subordinates, followed by sexting. The report also found that there were 33 total incidents of "improper association with a criminal element," with the DEA responsible for the largest number. There were also a total of 26 alleged incidents involving the solicitation of prostitutes overseas, 11 alleged incidents involving child pornography, and 16 alleged incidents of sexual abuse involving a minor.  

A systemic problem?

Given the strong relationship between Colombian authorities and US law enforcement, the report's revelations are unlikely to impact binational cooperation in any significant way, although they are certainly embarrassing. The US also deserves credit for shining a light on sexual misconduct – Latin American law enforcement bodies have yet to apply the same degree of scrutiny when it comes to these types of offenses. 

In addition, the report gives little indication that sexual misconduct by the DEA and other agencies overseas is a systemic issue. While the numbers will certainly raise some eyebrows, the report itself states that the number of allegations is "relatively few."

The DEA, FBI, and ATF are all major partners in supporting Latin America's fight against organized crime, and the revelation that a few DEA agents fraternized with Colombian criminal groups – in the interest of having a fun party – does not help the agency's image. These are all agencies that, to some degree, are present in countries across Latin America in order to train up and professionalize local security bodies, and to support them in criminal investigations. Even if the Colombia sex parties involving DEA agents accepting lavish gifts and the services of women paid for by criminal groups was a case of a few bad apples, it is still a textbook example of how the actions of a few can damage the credibility of many.

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Loren Riesenfeld contributed to this article.