Ferdinand Chisoro may be a confessed drug-trafficker, but he's not sure.
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.
US DEA agents acting abroad are not subject to US law but are liable to a host country's regulations. According to a DEA spokesman in Washington, there is no clear procedure regarding agents who become involved in a host country's violation of human rights. Ecuador's drug laws allow police to detain suspects without bail. Once detained, the suspect is often in jail two to four years before trial.
"The laws completely break the norms of due process," says Wray. "This sort of procedure in the United States would be completely inadmissible."
"It's extremely difficult if not impossible to get information from the DEA on their overseas operations, and there is nobody in Washington playing an effective oversight role," says Colletta Youngers of the Washington Office on Latin America, a policy and human rights group.
The DEA is a well-funded agency, with a billion-dollar budget that is more, says Ms. Youngers, than the agency requested from Congress last year. Lawmakers find it politically beneficial to support the agency but not to supervise it, says Youngers. This year's budget request from the agency is $1.2 billion.
"The GAO [General Accounting Office] office staff that we interviewed said that in their office there's a joke that DEA stands for 'Don't even ask' - because they aren't even able to get information from the DEA," says Youngers.
The US government official said that those who request information from the agency are often required to hand-copy documents at the DEA office, or even take notes from master copies, even if the documents are not classified.
The source also confirmed that most congressional oversight committees are afraid to challenge the agency. Congressional aides who asked to remain anonymous concurred.
Furthermore, Wray says there is such a stigma put on drug cases in Ecuador that no reputable lawyers will take drug cases. One common perception is that lawyers who defend such cases or judges who acquit them will be punished by the US Embassy with the cancellation of their visas.
"That's nonsense," says US Ambassador Leslie Alexander. "In the two years that I've been here, we have taken away one visa from one judge ... we don't have to. Ecuadoran judges have been consistently in favor of moving to keep Ecuador from becoming a Colombia."
But the embassy would not confirm in how many cases it has used the threat of visa cancellation. In fact, Ecuador's former Attorney General Francisco Cucalon says he was pushed out of office by US Embassy threats last year.
"They wanted someone who would be ... a puppet who would say 'yes sir' to everything. With me they didn't have that," says Mr. Cucalon. The US Embassy called him in and told him he would lose his visa if he didn't quit, he says. The threat worked; Cucalon has family in the US.
US Embassy spokesman Mark Krischik confirmed that the embassy brought about Cucalon's resignation, and said that the US could not effectively fight drugs in Ecuador with him in office.
Regarding charges that the drug policy is facilitating human rights abuses, Mr. Alexander was doubtful.
"I don't have the sense that human rights in Ecuador are under assault by the narcotics authorities," says Alexander. "As long as I'm here we will do whatever it takes to make sure that we don't sacrifice human rights on the altar of our drug considerations."