Latino agents are indispensable to undercover drug operations.
Their Spanish, their appearance and their cultural backgrounds allow them to infiltrate drug gangs that are led by Colombians, Dominicans and Mexicans. They can blend in on the streets and they can translate wiretapped conversations. They find out about and raid laboratories.
Latinos in the Drug Enforcement Administration say that that they also are shot at and killed on duty in disproportionate numbers.
But when it comes to directing major investigations and setting policy, these agents say, they are regularly and unfairly passed over in favor of Anglos who have spent more years behind desks acquiring administrative skills and playing the executive buddy system.
Now, as federal law enforcement agencies step up their assault on the Colombian-dominated cocaine cartels and their networks in the U.S., long-simmering resentment continues to undercut morale among Latino narco agents.
"One way to counter the image of all of us (Latinos) out there selling cocaine is to have a high-level (Latino) fighting the people who are selling the cocaine," one DEA agent said.
Latino agents' lawsuits charging discrimination are slowly moving forward against both the DEA and the U.S. Customs Service, which is also heavily involved in drug interdiction.
Both agencies deny any violation of the law or government regulations.
"We believe that we are complying with the government's rules and regulations on hiring and promotions," said Edward L. Kittredge of Customs. "We believe that we do not discriminate in any manner."
Spokesman Frank Shults said the DEA never comments on pending litigation, but it is "diligent" in recruiting, hiring and promoting minorities and probably does a better job of it than most agencies.
Meanwhile, Latinos in other federal law enforcement agencies--the Border Patrol, Marshals Service, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Secret Service--also are considering lawsuits, attorneys for Latino agents say.
"We've been contacted by (members of) virtually every federal law enforcement agency," said Antonio V. Silva of El Paso, who was co-counsel in a Latino agents' class action decided against the FBI last year. "Virtually every one of these (contacts) is a potential class action."
Hugo Rodriguez of Miami, the other lawyer in the FBI case, said that the groundwork is being laid through the administrative hearing process for a class action against the U.S. Marshals Service. Grievances against the Secret Service and its uniformed division are being pursued informally but could later result in legal action, he said.
At the Border Patrol, 29 discrimination complaints have been filed by Latinos over the last five years, and agents are discussing a broad action, a well-placed source said.
Latinos make up 35.6% of the Border Patrol, 10.6% of the Customs Service, 8.7% of the DEA and 4.8% of the Marshals Service.
The suit against the DEA, filed in U.S. District Court in 1985 and now in a renewed pretrial "discovery" stage, echoed black agents' continued dissatisfaction with response to problems brought out in their own successful lawsuit against DEA in the early 1980s.
Carl L. Jackson, chairman of an equal employment opportunity monitoring committee set up as a result of that lawsuit, charged in a July memo to administrator Jack Lawn that the DEA "has continued to employ a discriminatory promotion system."
"It appears that facing up to the reality of discrimination in DEA is unacceptable," Jackson wrote.
U.S. District Court Judge Lucius D. Bunton a year ago found that the FBI had systematically discriminated against Latino agents in promotions and working conditions and had retaliated illegally against one of the plaintiffs. Since then, court-ordered reforms have yet to make a dent in the problems; the changes have been "very cosmetic," a congressional watchdog from California said.
Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente) said: "FBI agents tell me nothing's happened."
But bureau spokesman Milt Ahlerich said the FBI is "completely in compliance" with remedies ordered by the federal court. These involved no back pay or other remuneration, but rather "programmatic changes, which have been accomplished--and then some," he said.
He noted that Director William Sessions recently advised against appealing the federal court's ruling and he quoted Sessions as saying it is "imperative. . .that both employees and the public have confidence that racism and discrimination do not exist in the FBI."
The FBI lawsuit has encouraged Latinos in other agencies to combat what an ex-Senate Judiciary Committee staffer who examined their grievances said "appears to be a systemic problem throughout (U.S.) law enforcement agencies."
"The FBI opened the door," attorney Silva said. "In the '90s, you're going to see many, many lawsuits brought by Latino organizations against federal employers."
It is a slow, expensive course to follow. Rodriguez said that mounting a class action against a federal agency can cost as much as $1 million--plus legal fees.
"We don't have that kind of budget--not even close," said Amy E. Wind, attorney for the Latino DEA agents.
Not all Latino law-enforcement officers are dissatisfied, however.
Two Border Patrol supervisors who are Latinos said in recent interviews that they had been promoted rapidly and fairly. Felix Jiminez, a Puerto Rican who is chief of the DEA's Latin American section, was quoted in Hispanic magazine in April as saying: "I've never felt like I've been discriminated against."
But the 17 Customs agents and others at the DEA whose complaints are pending recited grievances echoed by Latinos elsewhere.
At both agencies, they say, Latinos are used so heavily for undercover and translation work that they don't get the chance to direct investigations or acquire administrative skills.
At promotion time, their failure to demonstrate "leadership" is held against them, but they don't get credit for their undercover and wiretapping work, they say.
Jesus Muniz, who started the action against the DEA, claimed in a court affidavit that while he was assigned to the agency's San Diego office from 1974 until 1978, "it was only through my own initiative in developing several key informants that I managed to initiate a few major investigations which, by virtue of my early involvement, I was permitted to see through to completion."
The DEA's Latinos say they are also used excessively for temporary assignments that often involve violence. More than 25% of agents shot or killed are Latinos, they say.
They also point out that Enrique Camarena, the DEA special agent who was kidnaped and killed in Mexico in 1985, was an early contributor to the legal fund for the discrimination lawsuit.
Often, Latinos say, they are kept in cities and regions that have large Spanish-speaking populations and are not brought to headquarters in Washington, so they miss the chance to form relationships with top managers that often lead to promotions.
Customs agents say that the agency's commissioner has "actively sought to reduce the number of Latino employees at upper management levels."
And there are other, more subtle forms of discrimination, the agents say: At Customs, non-Latinos "are specifically groomed and positioned for promotions."
An at the DEA, "the prevalent attitude is that Hispanics are hired exclusively for undercover work," an attitude they compare to being treated as "field hands."