Interagency Rivalries Said to Hinder Drug Fight : FBI, DEA Don’t Trade Data, Ex-Trafficker Tells Senate Hearing

Times Staff Writer

A former cocaine trafficker and money launderer, describing how one federal law enforcement agency questioned him about information he already had given another, testified Thursday that interagency rivalries are crippling the nation’s anti-drug efforts.

Max Mermelstein told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Drug Enforcement Administration questioned him about certain drug activities 10 months ago, unaware that he had provided the same information to the FBI three years earlier.

“The FBI won’t tell the DEA, the DEA won’t tell the FBI and nobody wants to talk to Customs,” said Mermelstein, who was convicted in 1986 on drug charges and served two years in federal prison. “Everyone has his own budget priorities.”

Pleas for Cooperation


Mermelstein’s testimony underscored recent appeals by law enforcement officials for interagency cooperation in the fight against illicit drugs. Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh, speaking in Milwaukee Thursday, cited the importance of cooperation “from the cop on the beat to the international law enforcement agency” as the key to prosecution of drug dealers.

Mermelstein, now a protected government witness, testified under heavy security precautions because Colombian drug cartel leaders reportedly have put out a $3-million contract on his life.

He was flanked by several deputy marshals, was hidden from spectators by a screen and spoke through an electronic voice modulator, which failed to conceal his East Coast accent.

Mermelstein estimated that he had helped to smuggle up to 56 tons of cocaine into the United States from Colombia before being arrested and convicted.


After describing first-hand contacts he said he had had with leaders of the Medellin drug cartel in Colombia, Mermelstein said that U.S. apprehension of cartel leaders is crucial to any effort to stem the flow of cocaine into the United States.

“The only thing the cartel is afraid of is American justice--that’s it,” he said. “American justice is something they cannot control, they cannot buy.”

Mermelstein said that the cartel would be damaged by destruction of coca crops in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia through aerial spraying, a proposal that has met with resistance both in the United States and in the target countries.

Spokesmen for the FBI and DEA, although stating that they do not know the nature of the information that Mermelstein said he first gave to the FBI under a code name as an informant, insisted that they share information.

But Assistant FBI Director Milton Ahlerich indicated that the need to protect informants could impose constraints on interagency communication. “If it was confidential information, there would be great pains taken to protect the confidentiality of the information,” he said.

In disclosing another case of apparent interagency conflicts, former prosecutor Richard D. Gregorie testified that America’s ambassador to Venezuela had blocked an effort by U.S. authorities to apprehend Colombian drug kingpin Jorge Ochoa in Venezuela last October.

Ochoa, who is wanted on drug charges in the United States, had earlier thwarted efforts to bring him back for trial, despite being arrested in Spain and Colombia.

Gregorie, a former top federal drug prosecutor in Miami, contended that former U.S. Ambassador Otto Reich had been “outraged” because Gregorie had talked directly with the Venezuelan minister of justice about capturing Ochoa.


“The drug problem in the United States is a foreign policy problem, not a local law enforcement problem,” Gregorie said, noting that “the State Department wants no part in law enforcement.”

State Department spokesmen did not respond to a request for comment on Gregorie’s testimony. But a federal law enforcement source said that the situation is “more complicated” than described by Gregorie and that Reich had not been to blame. He did not elaborate.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said that the hearing was one of a series being held to collect information to help in evaluating a drug-fighting plan developed by William J. Bennett, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. The plan will be announced by President Bush on Sept. 5 in a nationally broadcast address.