The Complex

Transvestites, ‘Erotic Massages,’ and Metadata: DEA’s Colombia Scandal Deepens

A special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration attempted to solicit sex as many as 50 times using a government-issued cell phone. Another sent text messages to a transvestite prostitute he found on a Web site. And a third had a very curious definition of the word "sex."

Those are some of the eye-popping details found in a previously unreleased report from the Justice Department inspector general, obtained by Foreign Policy under the Freedom of Information Act. It shows that three DEA special agents in Colombia solicited sex from prostitutes on numerous occasions, arranged for encounters using their government-issued cell phones, and brought women back to their government-furnished apartments, putting themselves at risk for blackmail or coercion and jeopardizing national security information. The men were implicated by their cell phone call histories and contacts, which showed numerous communications with prostitutes. And when the agents were confronted with the evidence, they tried to conceal the extent of their activities, with two agents going so far as to erase numbers and other data in their cell phones before handing them over to investigators.

The incident stems from a raucous night in Cartagena, Colombia, in April 2012, when nine Secret Service agents providing security for President Obama's visit during the Summit of the Americas were found to have paid or solicited prostitutes. Two of the DEA agents arranged for a supervisor in the Secret Service's intelligence division, which investigates threats against the president, to receive an "erotic massage," which included oral sex, from a prostitute in one of the DEA agent's apartment.

The Secret Service prostitution scandal made national headlines and became fodder for late night talk show hosts, causing tremendous embarrassment for the White House and overshadowing any discussion of foreign policy during Obama's visit. But less has been reported about the DEA agents and their extensive history of solicitation in Colombia, where prostitutes are known to be used as spies by drug cartels. Those details are contained in the inspector general report.

Investigators were tipped to the DEA agents' behavior when the Secret Service supervisor stepped forward and admitted he'd been with a woman who was paid for an erotic massage. In interviews with the Justice Department inspector general's office, the agents, whose names are redacted in the report, initially denied any knowledge of DEA personnel being involved with prostitutes. But then investigators combed through the agents' government-issued cell phones and, looking at their call histories, found the men had been in touch with prostitutes on numerous occasions, and in different cities in Colombia.

One agent had attempted to solicit sex as many as 50 times. Another had contacted a prostitute he found on a Web site, who advertised herself as a "chica trans con apartamento privado," or a "transvestite girl with private apartment." The agent said he exchanged text messages with the prostitute and negotiated to pay 200,000 Colombian pesos for an encounter while he was on assignment in Medellin, but the two ended up not meeting. The agent admitted to deleting 37 contacts from his cell phone after he was told to surrender it to investigators. Some of his contacts were later linked to prostitutes or sex Web sites.

After they'd been caught, the agents tried to argue that they hadn't engaged in prostitution, because their relations with women consisted only of massages and "manual stimulation of their genitals by another person for their sexual gratification," which they said didn't qualify as sex, investigators wrote in the report. What's more, "all three subjects resisted the characterization of their engaging in sexual encounters in exchange for a form of payment as prostitution," which investigators said defied "common sense and legal definitions."

Prostitution is not illegal in Cartagena, but U.S. government personnel were prohibited from soliciting prostitutes under a long-standing policy. DEA supervisors provided no evidence that their briefings to new agents included information about the prostitution ban, investigators found. The supervisors said they had no knowledge of the three agents or any others paying for sexual services.

Aside from bringing embarrassment to the agency and misusing government property, the inspector general  "strongly believes" that relationships with prostitutes placed [the agents] at risk for blackmail and other potential breaches of national security." DEA special agents work on some of the most sensitive investigations of cartels and other organized crime groups and have access to top secret intelligence, including wiretap information. Information stored on their phones or in their apartments could provide clues about ongoing investigations. At least one of the agents was married, putting him at particular risk for blackmail.

That agent admitted to investigators that he had deleted contacts and records of calls from his phone prior to handing it over to investigators. Initially, he claimed that he'd been trying to delete some private emails of an "adult nature" between him and his wife, but that he'd "totally screwed up the phone" and accidentally erased more information than he'd intended, investigators found.

Upon forensic analysis of the phone, investigators learned that the agent had actually deleted all of its contents as well as the phone's memory chip, in what they described as a "security wipe." They also determined the the agent would have had to take several steps to delete the data, including responding to prompts that warned him he was about to permanently erase content. When confronted with this information, investigators said the agent offered no credible explanation for why he erased the entirety of the phone's contents instead of just some emails to his wife. They said that had they been able to review the phone numbers in his call history and his contacts, they likely would have found numbers linked to prostitutes, just like on the other agents' phones.

Investigators accused the agent of obstruction, because the phone data could have provided incriminating evidence against him or the other agents. The inspector general provided its findings to federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia, who declined to bring charges. The current employment status of the agents is unknown. A spokesperson for the DEA could not be reached for comment, but historically, the agency does not provide details on personnel matters.

One of the agent's also admitted to dating a woman who lived in another city, but whom he saw when she visited Cartagena. He said he financially supported the woman and her children, giving them the equivalent of $200 a month, but that he didn't know much about her background, whether she was a prostitute, or even where she stayed in Cartagena. Yet, investigators found the woman's name in the agent's cell phone, as well as her Colombian national identification number. Investigators said the agent's claims to have known little about a woman he claimed to date and to whom he was giving money weren't credible.

Investigators stopped short of accusing the three DEA agents of lying, calling their denials of involvement with prostitutes or knowledge about others arranging for sex a "lack of candor while under oath." But investigators were clearly perturbed that the men tried to cover up their indiscretions, how they split hairs over the whether certain erotic acts counted as sex, and that their stories shifted throughout questioning. The investigators singled out in particular an agent who changed his story of what happened the night of the Secret Service scandal multiple times. Eventually, the DEA agent claimed that he couldn't remember certain details about what happened in the apartment because he'd been drinking. The investigators accused the agent, whose phone showed "numerous" contacts with prostitutes, of trying to prevent investigators from "learning the full scope of his misconduct."

The Secret Service prostitution scandal revealed a permissive culture among agents towards adultery and paying women for sex. The slogan "wheels up, rings off" was used frequently on overseas trips, and agents had an unwritten pact not to disclose their dalliances to each other's wives and girlfriends. The actions of the DEA agents show that prostitution was similarly condoned and that supervisors, if not overtly aware of what their agents were up to, didn't go out of their way to tell them to avoid prostitutes, either.

Read the report here:

Dept. of Justice, Office of the Inspector General Report on DEA in Cartagena

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