US drug case reveals DEA paid Colombia police

US prosecutors last month suffered a humiliating reversal in a Miami drug case involving two Colombian men amid accusations that evidence was improperly withheld from the defense. Defendants José Salazar Buitrago and John Finkelstein Winer, facing life in prison as their trial got underway, instead got a quick plea deal and terms of three years—with credit for nearly two years already spent in custody. The case turned suddenly after testimony that prosecutors knew about payments the Drug Enforcement Administration made to Colombian police in the case. Prosecutors said they didn’t know about the payments—a claim dismissed as implausible by District Judge Marcia Cooke. The DEA payments, about $200 a month to at least 11 agents over some three years, apparently came from funds approved by the US under the Plan Colombia aid package. A tip about the payments was confirmed in cross-examination of the government’s first witness, a Colombian National Police officer.  

Cooke said she was “personally frustrated and disappointed” at Assistant US Attorney Andrea Hoffman. “I think the United States was aware that Colombian police officers, in the course and scope of their duties, received payment,” Cooke said at a May 22 hearing. “I think they were aware of it and for whatever reason, did not disclose that to defense counsel.”

“If you don’t consider this outrageous governmental misconduct, then I don’t know what is,” said public defender Kashyap Patel, who represented Salazar. Patel and fellow defense attorney José Quinon said withholding the information constituted a violation of due process for their clients. Quinon said the DEA’s involvement was of critical importance to the defense. When the issue was raised, prosecution witnesses from the DEA and Colombian police contradicted Hoffman, who gave the judge different times for when she learned of the payments.

Hoffman also had to dismiss charges last year against a co-defendant who had been misidentified by the government from wiretaps. Carlos Ortega Bonilla, who served as the head of Colombia’s national aviation agency, was held for more than a year in Colombian prisons before being extradited. (National Law Journal, AP, May 30)