How the DEA let one of Haiti’s biggest drug busts slip through its fingers

The MV Manzanares with a Panamanian flag was seized by Haitian authorities after it was found to be carrying loads of cocaine and heroin in 2015. It is pictured here at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.
The MV Manzanares with a Panamanian flag was seized by Haitian authorities after it was found to be carrying loads of cocaine and heroin in 2015. It is pictured here at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. Marine Traffic

The Panamanian-flagged cargo ship pulled into a privately owned Haitian port in broad daylight with a secret buried under a mountain of imported sugar: 700 to 800 kilos of cocaine and 300 kilos of heroin with an estimated U.S. street value of $100 million.

When longshoremen started unloading the bags of sugar, they stumbled across the hidden stash — and a lawless free-for-all unfolded. Bags of drugs were grabbed by a host of people, including police officers who sped up to the docks in cars with tinted windows, according to a Haiti police report obtained by the Miami Herald and confirmed by an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

By the time a squad of Haiti narcotics police officers arrived at the dock two hours later, most of the drugs were gone.

A man walks past the government port in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where graffiti on the walls calls for the DEA to arrest someone for drug dealing. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

The sugar boat haul in April 2015 should have been exactly the kind of smuggling operation that DEA agents and Haiti’s narcotics police were prepared to take down. But today, more than three years after the MV Manzanares docked at the Terminal Varreux port in Cité Soleil, the only person behind bars is a low-level longshoreman, awaiting trial on drug smuggling charges. No one in authority — neither Haiti’s anti-drug police nor the DEA — has been held accountable for the missing drugs on the sugar boat.

The bungling of the investigation in Haiti didn’t even come to light until two veteran DEA agents filed whistle-blower complaints that have triggered a U.S. Justice Department investigation into the effectiveness of the DEA’s drug-fighting efforts in the impoverished country. An initial review by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent government agency, took two years and recently found “a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” in the DEA’s Haiti Country Office. That resulted in an automatic referral to Attorney General Jeff Sessions for an investigation by the Justice Department.

There are other inquiries into the DEA office in Haiti, too.

The DEA agents’ complaints, filed in 2016, have attracted the attention of the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who called the allegations “substantial.” Both requested a Justice Department probe. In addition, two separate criminal investigations into the Manzanares smuggling case are also under way — one by Haitian authorities, the other by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami.

In the whistle-blower complaints, the two agents lay out a list of allegations, blaming their own office along with Haiti’s narcotics police for security failures at Haiti’s ports that they said have allowed drugs to flow through the country long before the Manzanares incident. They say thousands of kilos of cocaine and other drugs had been passing through Haiti undetected for years, en route to the United States. They also accuse DEA supervisors in the Haiti office of corruption, misconduct and even collusion with the former head of the country’s anti-drug unit, which is called the Brigade in the Fight Against Narcotics Trafficking, or BLTS.

Haiti’s anti-drug brigade, known as the BLTS, prepares to destroy loads of marijuana and cocaine in 2017. Haiti National Police Facebook page

Their scathing accusations suggest that the U.S. government has wasted U.S. taxpayers’ money with little to show for it. The U.S. pays for the DEA’s operations in Port-au-Prince and has invested more than $250 million in Haiti’s roughly 15,000-member police force in the past eight years. About $18.7 million of that amount has gone for training and other resources for the Haitian police 300-member narcotics unit but nothing for seaport security in Port-au-Prince.

Both longtime DEA agents — the Miami Herald is not naming them because whistle-blower laws protect the identities of federal workers who disclose government wrongdoing — said they see the Varreux port incident as a missed opportunity and part of a larger failure of the U.S. war on drugs in Haiti.

“The vessel was a demonstration of the corruption of BLTS, apathy of the U.S. government and exploitation by the drug traffickers,” one of the agents told the Herald.

The DEA’s recently appointed special agent in charge of the Caribbean division, A.J. Collazo, insisted in an interview last month that the eight-person office in Port-au-Prince has collaborated effectively with Haiti’s anti-drug officers to slow the flow of cocaine and other narcotics into the U.S.

“We’re there to fight narcotics trafficking,” he said. “We’re not there to allow it to happen or to sit back and not do anything about it.”

He laid responsibility for the Manzanares case on Haiti alone. He said of the DEA: “I don’t know if it was a case that we were looking to make.”

That viewpoint isn’t shared by at least one other U.S. law enforcement agency. The Herald has learned that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami is considering whether to file drug-trafficking charges in connection with the Manzanares smuggling operation based on evidence gathered by one of the whistle-blower DEA agents, who believes the drugs were destined for Florida. The U.S. Attorney’s Office wouldn’t confirm that, or say whether there is a U.S. investigation into the Manzanares at all.

But a spokeswoman for the U.S. Coast Guard, which helped Haitian police search for the drugs, said the sugar boat case “is still an open [federal] investigation.”

Blowing the whistle

The whistle-blowers’ allegations, coupled with interviews and documents obtained by the Herald, paint a picture of a DEA office in Haiti operating with little oversight as supervisory agents allowed what might have been the biggest drug bust in Haiti in a decade to slip through their fingers.

The agents, who have a combined 40 years with the DEA, say their agency should have done a thorough investigation into drugs on the Manzanares but those efforts were stymied by their supervisors — even though one of the agents says he had collected evidence showing that the ship’s cocaine and heroin loads were destined for the U.S.

When they tried to reduce the flow of drugs from Haiti by improving seaport security, the two DEA agents say they also suffered from retaliation. One said he was placed on bathroom escort duty at the U.S. Embassy; the other said he was harassed so badly by his immediate commander that he suffered severe health problems. Their lawyers said the agents want to force the agency to change what they called a lax approach to fighting drug smuggling in Haiti.

The whistle-blower complaints, meanwhile, have been winding through a web of government regulation. The Office of Special Counsel’s referral to Sessions happened in May. It’s unclear whether the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General or the DEA’s internal affairs office would handle the resulting probe. Neither agency would comment on the status of the case.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection, along with the Coast Guard, found 2,000 pounds of cocaine hidden on a Haitian freighter on the Miami River, the biggest drug bust in more than a decade, on Wednesday, June 1, 2016. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@elnuevoherald.com

Lawyer Tom Devine, legal director for the nonprofit Government Accountability Project in Washington, D.C., that represents federal employees with whistle-blower complaints, said his group is encouraged by the special counsel’s referral of the complaints to the Justice Department.

“It means … [the special counsel] agrees the concerns likely are a serious breach of the public trust, which must be investigated and acted on,” Devine said.

This spring, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and Rubio also had asked for a DOJ investigation. House members had expressed their disappointment with the DEA’s internal handling of the complaints, and wanted an independent agency to review the allegations.

Rubio, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said he is concerned about what he says is a “substantial amount” of cocaine bound for Florida that’s moving through Haiti with impunity as South American traffickers look for routes beyond Central America and Mexico.

“Traffickers are always looking for new routes,” he said. “And if word gets out that routes have been established because key individuals are compromised, it’s going to attract more people to jump on that route.”

‘Sugar boat’ bust

When the Manzanares docked in Haiti on April 5, 2015, it had already spent three days anchored off the bay of Port-au-Prince, according to the Haiti National Police investigative report. The 371-foot freighter was coming from Buenaventura, Colombia, with a 13-member crew and pulled into Terminal Varreux. More than 24 hours passed before Haitian customs arrived to clear the ship.

Routine cargo unloading began — until the discovery of the hidden packages of cocaine and heroin. Arguments over the drugs started in the cargo hold, then spread to the docks. Witnesses later told Haitian police they saw bags of drugs whisked away in vehicles — specifically, a white Toyota Land Cruiser with tinted windows driven by what witnesses said was a Haitian police officer assigned to the National Palace and a yellow Nissan XTerra driven by a special tactical police officer who was accompanied by another officer. One of the whistle-blowers also said some of the drugs were even stolen by a judge.

One of the DEA agents described the scene: “You have all of these folks running in there trying to get their fill.”

For two hours, though, no Haiti police officers were on the scene. It wasn’t until 5:30 p.m. that Haiti’s anti-drug unit — alerted by a Varreux port manager to the frenzy — showed up and then notified the DEA in Port-au-Prince, according to Haitian officials. For several days, the Haitian narcotics officers were unable to find the drugs, even with the help of two K-9 dogs.

“It was just a bunch of guys standing around not knowing what to do,” said the DEA agent, who was at the port the day after the fight broke out. He noted that the Haitian officers didn’t even know how to board the boat, much less search it: “[They] had never done it.”

The Haitian police investigative report acknowledged that “there probably was a quantity of drugs that was removed during the first hours” of the unloading of the ship on the afternoon of April 6. A source familiar with the case also said that at least some of the drugs were diverted from the boat, beginning the night before when the Manzanares was docked.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection, along with the Coast Guard, found 2,000 pounds of cocaine hidden on a Haitian freighter on the Miami River, the biggest drug bust in more than a decade, on Wednesday, June 1, 2016. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@elnuevoherald.com

The DEA and Haiti investigators believe that the Manzanares held as much as 800 kilos of cocaine and 300 kilos of heroin, based on intelligence and the capacity of the ship’s secret hold.

“We are talking about a well-planned set-up intended to recover the drugs as quickly as possible,” the Haiti police report said. It described the scheme as “strategic and well-calculated.”

After days of being unable to find any trace of the drugs, Haitian police called for assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami. Together, they eventually found a fraction of the suspected stash — about 109 kilos of cocaine and almost 16 kilos of heroin — still concealed on the ship.

“The cocaine and heroin that was seized would not have been found were it not for the U.S. Coast Guard ... team,” said Marilyn Fajardo, the U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman in Miami.

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A tactical Haitian National Police officer participates in a security checkpoint in 2013 along National Highway 2 in Petit-Goave, Haiti, where armed gangs of masked gunmen had set up roadblocks to ambush unsuspecting motorists. PATRICK FARRELL Miami Herald File

There has been no accounting for the rest of the drugs that went missing from the ship, which has been seized by the Haitian government. But the whistle-blower agents say they suspect a now-former commander of the Haiti anti-drug unit, Joris Mergelus, was involved. They accuse him of taking bribes to hinder the investigation by Haitian police of the drug-laden ship. They also believe that Mergelus had given kickbacks to a DEA supervisor in the past from funds for confidential sources, equipment and other expenses. Mergelus also had previously failed two lie-detector tests given by the DEA about his relationship with drug dealers, they say.

Mergelus strongly denied any links to drug traffickers. In an interview with the Herald, he said the litany of allegations “truly surprises me” and that he believes he’s being made into the fall guy for what is really an internal conflict among DEA agents in Haiti. He challenged the claim that he had failed the polygraph tests.

“If I didn’t pass, why did they accept me as head of BLTS?” said Mergelus, who joined the narcotics unit in 1997 and became its commander in 2011. “All the big drug arrests in Haiti, I did.”

A man walks past the walls to the government port in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where graffiti on the wall pleads for the DEA to make an arrest. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Mergelus was removed from the command post in 2017 by Haiti’s new police chief, at the insistence of the DEA’s new Haiti Country Office chief, but he remains on the police force.

Haiti police Inspector Normil Rameau, who oversaw the anti-drug unit and its investigation into the Manzanares case, did not respond to the Herald’s request for comment about the allegations involving Mergelus. Rameau was removed from the post late last month but promoted days later by outgoing Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant to Haiti’s Washington embassy, according to an Aug. 1 letter signed by Lafontant.

To the DEA whistle-blowers, the Manzanares smuggling operation is just one more symptom of an ongoing problem: a high volume of drugs coursing through Haiti’s seaports and the country’s inability to stem it. They point to Haiti’s anti-drug police, who they say should have received port security training and had no idea of how to properly search a ship. They note that the police force had an office at the nearby government port in Port-au-Prince — but not at Terminal Varreux, which the whistle-blowers believe has become a hub for drug shipments between Colombia and the United States.

“There was absolutely no understanding of the most basic concept of how to do the seaport enforcement,” said one of the whistle-blower agents. “Nobody from the BLTS had the slightest inkling on what they were doing at that seaport. ... They were just completely clueless.”

The Manzanares smuggling operation wasn’t even particularly sophisticated. There were no anti-drug police at Terminal Varreux to circumvent. Newly installed video cameras weren’t even operating at the privately owned port.

Miami attorney Joel Hirschhorn, who represents members of the Mevs family that owns Terminal Varreux, said the port’s security has not been loose. The family even paid to build a BLTS substation at the port in 2017, he said. But that was two years after the Manzanares incident.

“The allegations that the port has ‘lax security’ and that illegal substances have been freely flowing are false as proven by the port’s security records,” Hirschhorn said in a statement. “[Terminal Varreux] has one of the tightest security operations of Haitian ports.”

Porous borders

But in general, Haiti’s seaports, airports and border security efforts are weak, the State Department says.

“Drug seizures still remain low, and Haiti’s minimal capacity to police its sea and land borders is a particular point of concern,” according to a 2018 international narcotics strategy report by the department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, or INL.

Until five years ago, the major drug-smuggling threat to Haiti had been Colombian traffickers flying cocaine onto makeshift landing strips and making airdrops off the coast. Today, the greater challenge is maritime trafficking along Haiti’s vast 1,100-mile coastline, according to the report.

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Dylan J. DeFrancisci, port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is shown in 2016 with 2,000 pounds of cocaine that was hidden on a Haitian freighter on the Miami River, the biggest drug bust in more than a decade. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@elnuevoherald.com

The Haitian Coast Guard, which has primary responsibility for the country’s territorial waters, lacks funding, management skills and fuel supplies — and only has five working vessels, the report said, adding that Coast Guard has failed to serve as “an effective deterrent force to maritime drug trafficking.”

But Haiti’s second line of defense against drugs — seaport security in Port-au-Prince and other areas — has been equally porous because of a lack of basic training of Haitian police officers. While the INL has spent $18.7 million since 2010 on supporting Haiti’s anti-drug police and coast guard operations, the agency has provided “limited funding” for more specialized training — only $500,000. Only a fraction of that money has gone to seaport security training, an INL spokesperson said.

And that’s the root of Haiti’s persistent drug-smuggling problem, according to the whistle-blower agents: the DEA’s failure to properly train anti-drug officers on vessel inspections in Port-au-Prince and other key ports. The agents complained not only about corruption among Haitian police officers but also said there was a “vacuum” in seaport enforcement during evenings and weekends.

“There was no underlying [counternarcotics] law enforcement program in Haiti for seaport smuggling,” one of the agents asserted.

Rameau, the former Haiti police inspector, did not respond to a request for comment on seaport security training for Haiti’s anti-drug police.

Last year, Haiti’s anti-drug officers seized only 48 kilos of cocaine, while the U.S. Coast Guard confiscated about twice that amount in and outside of the country’s territorial waters. Haiti also arrested 110 suspects for drug-related crimes, but only a few were actually prosecuted because of the country’s notoriously dysfunctional justice system, the 2018 INL report said.

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Guy Philippe, left, one of the rebel leaders of the Resistance Front, was in Gonaives after an armed revolt in 2002. Philippe was arrested in 2017 by DEA agents and Haiti’s anti-drug brigade outside of a Port-au-Prince radio station on drug-trafficking charges in the United States. Miami Herald File Photo

Only one “high-value target” was turned over to U.S. authorities in 2017: Guy Philippe, an elusive former Haitian police commander who had led a rebellion against then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Philippe had been on the lam for almost 12 years before DEA agents, in collaboration with the Haiti National Police, nabbed him.

Philippe was brought to the U.S. and pleaded guilty to a drug-related money-laundering charge. He is serving nine years in federal prison. The investigation into Philippe grew out of the 2003 expulsion from Haiti of drug kingpin Beaudoin “Jacques” Ketant and the subsequent extraditions of Haitian police officers, politicians and others. All but one were convicted for allowing drugs to be transported through Haiti to the U.S.

In contrast, most other drug-trafficking cases investigated by the DEA in Haiti and prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office during the past decade have been small-time operations involving low-profile Haitian dealers moving lighter loads of cocaine, Miami court records show.

A.J. Collazo, the special agent who took over the DEA’s Caribbean division in January, dismissed the idea that the agency isn’t doing its job in Haiti and questioned the relevance of the Manzanares sugar boat case to the United States. Haitian police made the seizure at the Varreux port, he said, and its judicial system took responsibility for prosecution.

“I don’t know if there was any intel that it was going to the U.S. as part of a DEA case,” Collazo said. “This sounds to me like it was something that was being prosecuted in Haiti and is going to end in Haiti.”

Former President Michel Martelly, who is pictured in a 2015 photo at the National Palace, was in charge when a Panamanian flagged freighter arrived at a Port-au-Prince seaport carrying loads of cocaine and heroin. Three years later, the case remains open. Dieu Nalio Chery AP

The Haiti case seems to be grinding to a halt. A Haitian investigative judge who oversaw the sugar boat case dismissed most of the initial suspects, including the 13-member Manzanares crew and one member of the prominent Mevs family, Jean Fritz Bernard Mevs.

In 2016, a Haitian judge charged a handful of suspects with drug trafficking: businessmen Marc Antoine Acra and Sébastien François Xavier Acra, the brothers who owned the company, NABATCO, that commissioned the sugar shipment from Colombia. The port’s foreman, Fedner “Supris” Doliscar, was also indicted along with longshoreman Grégory Georges.

Marc Antoine Acra told the Herald he’s innocent and deflected the accusations, saying that investigators aren’t going after the real traffickers. The well-known businessman, even as he was under investigation in the Manzanares case, was appointed a Haiti Goodwill Ambassador by former President Michel Martelly.

In April, a three-judge appeals court in Haiti put the Manzanares trial on hold and assigned a new judge to the case. It ordered the investigation reopened to allow questioning of the ship’s captain and 12 crew members, none of whom are in Haiti. The panel also wanted a DEA agent to testify in the case, but that has yet to happen.

Of the 16 people originally arrested, including the ship’s crew, only the lone longshoreman, Georges, remains behind bars.