Border Trouble: Key Drug Enforcement Office Understaffed

Justice Department issues tough report on Texas center.

Washington, June 15, 2010 -- A Justice Department review has found that a multi-agency drug intelligence center in El Paso, Texas, assigned to monitor illegal drug trafficking, suffered from "several significant weaknesses" -- including unstaffed key offices and important information that agencies never shared.

In one instance the failure to staff a maritime interdiction office may have prevented monitoring of drug traffickers into the United States. The Justice Department's Inspector General examined the El Paso Intelligence Center, known as EPIC, which is led and funded by the Drug Enforcement Agency but is made up of 21 different agencies and stationed near one of the flashpoints on the U.S.-Mexican border.

The review comes as issues of illegal immigration and violence on the southwest border grow in importance, fueled by Mexican drug trafficking organizations fighting for control of drug transshipment routes into the United States. EPIC was established in 1974 and provides information on drug smugglers, illegal immigration and weapons trafficking to law enforcement agencies across the United States.

The Inspector General review found EPIC to be "highly valued" by its partner agencies, including the DEA, FBI, ATF, Customs and Border Protection and the National Guard. But it said, "we identified several significant weaknesses that have prevented EPIC's operations and programs from being as effective as they could be."

According to the review, EPIC had key interdiction offices unstaffed at times for over 9 months. The report issued on Tuesday said that "lack of agency participation caused EPIC's Fraudulent Document Unit to be unstaffed and therefore unable to serve users from December 2007 to January 2009, and EPIC's Air Watch program was unstaffed for approximately 9 months of 2007. In addition, EPIC did not maintain a consistent level of staffing and support to sustain its participation in a maritime intelligence group."

The review said, "Because EPIC is the agency with the strongest information gathering capability for certain maritime drug smuggling corridors to the United States, the failure to fully staff and support this group likely hindered drug trafficking interdiction efforts."

The Inspector General found that the Center was unable to provide specialized support for tracking suspected drug trafficking flights. "During the time when the Air Watch was unstaffed, EPIC continued to provide investigators with information from EPIC's databases, including the FAA's Aircraft Registration System, when requested, but could not provide specialized support such as information on suspect aircraft movements or additional analysis. Customs and Border Protection's Air Marine Operations Center, located in San Diego, California, provided this specialized support while EPIC could not."

The Inspector General concluded, "Such analyses would be more accurate if the National Seizure System provided a complete picture of drug trafficking in the United States and of law enforcement's efforts to address trafficking."

In response to the report, the DEA said it currently collects seizure data if the amounts of drugs are above certain levels. In a letter, Kevin Foley, the Acting Deputy Chief Inspector at DEA, said, "EPIC users reported high satisfaction with the products and services that EPIC provides. Those users also reported the products to be timely and valuable to their operations." The DEA concurred with many recommendations made in the report and have started to review and implement some program changes.

In a statement DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine said, "It is critical that law enforcement agencies have effective intelligence to combat criminal activity along the Southwest border. While EPIC has provided valuable services and products, our report highlights areas where it could improve in its important mission."