A US Anti-Drug Probe in Ecuador Faces Scrutiny
Critics charge the US anti-drug agency gets Washington's support for international operations, but no supervision.
Ferdinand Chisoro may be a confessed drug-trafficker, but he's not sure.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Chisoro says that nine months ago, when he was picked up by the Ecuadoran police, he was forced to sign a statement in Spanish, a language he doesn't speak. He says that an American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent interrogated him, threatened to have his head blown off, and then repeatedly pushed his face down onto the Spanish statement until he signed it.
"I was crying. I asked him to give me paper and I would write in English, but he said I must sign," says Chisoro, a Nigerian in his 20s. He says he was in Ecuador as part of a circuitous journey toward the US or Canada, where he hoped to find work. Instead he finds himself in one of Quito's rougher prisons, where he has already lost several teeth in a fight.
Chisoro's case falls into a large category for human rights watchdogs, congressional staff, and even the US State Department: questions about the DEA for which there are no answers.
Charges of abuse by the DEA have surfaced among at least nine prisoners - all of them Africans like Chisoro - in three different Quito jails and reaching back two years. Prisoners say that one DEA agent conducted their interrogations and also acted as their translator.
Several echo Chisoro's charges that during the depositions this agent called them a "black monkey," said all Africans in Ecuador are drug-traffickers, and claimed he could put them away for a long time, even without any evidence.
A team including a DEA official and a Justice Department representative was sent to Quito to investigate the charges this June. According to a US Embassy official, they found nothing to substantiate the charges.
The investigation was made in response to a letter written by US church workers in Quito. Gene Braun, a church worker, says that the stories came out during routine visits to jails.
Ecuadoran constitutional-law professor Alberto Wray recalls a recent case in which a taxi carrying six unrelated passengers was stopped by the police. When one was found to have drugs, all the riders and the driver were taken to jail. "And they're still prisoners - who knows how long it will go on," says Mr. Wray.
Investigating the investigators
"If you start criticizing the DEA it looks like you're not a team player in the drug war," says a US government official. "Very few people look into what they do."
"It was like the proverbial pulling of teeth," says Jamie Felner of Human Rights Watch about getting information from the agency. Ms. Felner was investigating alleged abuses by DEA agents in Bolivia. Interviews were refused, documents not provided, a request under the Freedom of Information Act yielded scant results.
Unlike Bolivia, Ecuador is not a drug-producing country, but its location between Colombia and Peru has made it a perfect narcotics-transit country. Many "mules," small-quantity drug couriers, have been arrested here, including a large number of West Africans.
Looking across the border at Colombia's drug violence and corruption is enough incentive for Ecuador to have adopted some of the most aggressive drug laws in the region, which it has done with US encouragement and the technical assistance of the DEA.