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DEA’s Mexico chief quietly removed over ties to drug lawyers

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DEA’s Mexico chief quietly removed over ties to drug lawyers

MIAMI (AP) — The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration quietly removed its top official in Mexico last year over improper contact with lawyers for narcotraffickers, an embarrassing end to a brief tenure marked by deteriorating cooperation between the countries and a record flow of cocaine, heroin and fentanyl across the border.

Nicholas Palmeri’s socializing and vacationing with Miami drug lawyers, detailed in confidential records viewed by The Associated Press, brought his ultimate downfall after just a year as DEA’s powerful regional director supervising dozens of agents across Mexico, Central America and Canada.

But separate internal probes raised other red flags, including complaints of lax handling of the coronavirus pandemic that resulted in two sickened agents having to be airlifted out of the country. And another disclosed this past week found Palmeri approved use of drug-fighting funds for inappropriate purposes and sought to be reimbursed to pay for his own birthday party.

“The post of regional director in Mexico is the most important one in DEA’s foreign operations, and when something like this happens, it’s disruptive,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations.

“It’s even more critical because of the deteriorating situation with Mexico,” added Phil Jordan, a former director of the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center. “If we don’t have a strong regional director or agent in charge there, it works against the agency’s overall operations because everything transits through Mexico, whether it’s coming from Colombia or the fentanyl that flows in through China. It cannot be taken lightly.”

Palmeri’s case adds to a growing litany of misconduct roiling the nation’s premier narcotics law enforcement agency at a time when its sprawling foreign operations — spanning 69 countries — are under scrutiny from an external review ordered by DEA Administrator Anne Milgram.

That review came in response to the case of Jose Irizarry, a disgraced former agent now serving a 12-year federal prison sentence after confessing to laundering money for Colombian drug cartels and skimming millions from seizures to fund an international joyride of jet-setting, parties and prostitutes.

Palmeri’s is the second case in as many months to shine a light on the often-cozy interactions between DEA officials and Miami attorneys representing some of Latin America’s biggest narcotraffickers and money launderers. Last year, federal prosecutors charged a DEA agent and a former supervisor with leaking confidential law enforcement information to two unnamed Miami defense attorneys in exchange for $70,000 in cash.

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One of those attorneys, identified by current and former U.S. officials as David Macey, was also implicated in the probe into Palmeri. Internal investigative records show Macey hosted Palmeri and his Mexican-born wife for two days at his home in the Florida Keys — a trip that investigators said served no useful work purpose and violated rules governing interactions with attorneys that are designed to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

Palmeri, 52, acknowledged to investigators that he stayed at Macey’s getaway home, that his wife worked as a translator for another prominent attorney, Ruben Oliva, and that he took an unauthorized trip to Miami with his wife in February 2021.

The purported purpose of the Miami trip had been to “debrief” a confidential source. But it took place at a private home where Palmeri showed up with his wife — and a bottle of wine, according to the internal report.

“The meeting had the appearance of a social interaction with a confidential source,” the investigators wrote, “and there was no contemporaneous official DEA documentation concerning the substance of the debrief, both of which violate DEA policy.”

Those violations prompted Palmeri’s abrupt transfer to Washington headquarters in May 2021 before he ultimately stepped down last March, the records show. Palmeri told investigators he had shown “not the best judgment.”

The DEA wouldn’t discuss the specifics of Palmeri’s ouster or why he was allowed to retire instead of being fired. But an official told the AP the agency “has zero tolerance for improper contacts between defense attorneys and DEA employees.”

“The DEA aggressively investigates this serious misconduct and takes decisive action, including removal, against employees who engage in it,” said the official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be named.

For his part, Palmeri described the misconduct investigations as a “witch hunt” prompted by personal and professional jealousies he refused to specify and “an ill-conceived narrative to remove me from my position.”

Palmeri added that his relationships with attorneys have “always been professional and ethical,” and that all his expenditures in Mexico were “judicious” and benefited the U.S. government.

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“It is ironic,” Palmeri wrote in an email, “that the Department of ‘Justice’ would commit this injustice to the country.”

Macey did not respond to requests for comment. Oliva told AP the the translation work Palmeri’s wife did for him was “totally unrelated” to Palmeri and that he’s “never met a more ethical, hard-working and highly effective drug enforcement agent.”

A former New York City police officer, Palmeri raised eyebrows from the moment he arrived in Mexico in 2020.

Some agents complained about his near-obsession with capturing Rafael Caro Quintero, the infamous drug lord behind the killing of a U.S. DEA agent in 1985, saying Palmeri prioritized that over the agency’s less-flashy efforts to stem the flow of Chinese precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl. Quintero was finally taken into custody last summer, months after the DEA recalled Palmeri to Washington.

Chris Landau, who oversaw Palmeri as U.S. ambassador to Mexico during the Trump administration, said that singular focus on Quintero and other such headline-grabbing arrests is characteristic of the DEA’s broader failings in the drug war.

Landau cited the shocking U.S. arrest in 2020 of a former defense secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, which prompted Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to disband the elite police unit that was the DEA’s key ally. López Obrador also rammed through a national security law keeping DEA agents at their desk instead of out in the field. Overnight, law enforcement cooperation between the neighboring countries went from strained and spotty to non-existent.

“Unfortunately, in the absence of a broader strategy, DEA is driving the bus of U.S. counter-narcotics policy and it’s a very narrow lane they drive in,” Landau said. “It’s not going to move the needle in terms of stemming the flow of drugs into the U.S. and frequently carry sometime devastating foreign policy consequences.”

Palmeri also came under criticism for his handling of coronavirus procedures in 2020, when federal agents were under orders to avoid in-person meetings and unnecessary travel. Several agents under Palmeri’s command, including an assistant regional director, contracted COVID-19 following a meeting at the DEA office in the resort town of Mazatlán, where some agents say they were admonished or ridiculed for wearing masks.

Two agents became so ill they had to be airlifted out of the country, according to two former U.S. officials who weren’t authorized to discuss the controversy and spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity.

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An Office of Inspector General report released last week also found Palmeri sought government reimbursement to pay for his own birthday party and approved the purchase of “unallowable items” as part of foreign trips by the then acting DEA administrator. Tim Shea, who held that position during Palmeri’s tenure, did not respond to requests for comment.

The report, which did not detail specific items or amounts spent, also did not explain its conclusion: “Criminal prosecution of the Regional Director was declined.”

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Mustian reported from New York.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at [email protected] or https://www.ap.org/tips/

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Israel hails ‘success’ after blocking unprecedented attack from Iran

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Israel hails ‘success’ after blocking unprecedented attack from Iran

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli leaders on Sunday credited an international military coalition with helping thwart a direct Iranian attack involving hundreds of drones and missiles, calling the coordinated response a starting point for a “strategic alliance” of regional opposition to Tehran.

But Israel’s War Cabinet met without making a decision on next steps, an official said, as a nervous world waited for any sign of further escalation of the former shadow war.

The military coalition, led by the United States, Britain and France and appearing to include a number of Middle Eastern countries, gave Israel support at a time when it finds itself isolated over its war against Hamas in Gaza. The coalition also could serve as a model for regional relations when that war ends.

“This was the first time that such a coalition worked together against the threat of Iran and its proxies in the Middle East,” said the Israeli military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari.

One unknown is which of Israel’s neighbors participated in the shooting down of the vast majority of about 350 drones and missiles Iran launched. Israeli military officials and a key War Cabinet member noted additional “partners” without naming them. When pressed, White House national security spokesman John Kirby would not name them either.

But one appeared to be Jordan, which described its action as self-defense.

“There was an assessment that there was a real danger of Iranian marches and missiles falling on Jordan, and the armed forces dealt with this danger. And if this danger came from Israel, Jordan would take the same action,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi said in an interview on Al-Mamlaka state television. U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Sunday.

The U.S. has long tried to forge a regionwide alliance against Iran as a way of integrating Israel and boosting ties with the Arab world. The effort has included the 2020 Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab countries, and having Israel in the U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and works closely with the armies of moderate Arab states.

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The U.S. had been working to establish full relations between Israel and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack sparked Israel’s war in Gaza. The war, which has claimed over 33,700 Palestinian lives, has frozen those efforts due to widespread outrage across the Arab world. But it appears that some behind-the-scenes cooperation has continued, and the White House has held out hopes of forging Israel-Saudi ties as part of a postwar plan.

Just ahead of Iran’s attack, the commander of CENTCOM, Gen. Erik Kurilla, visited Israel to map out a strategy.

Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, on Sunday thanked CENTCOM for the joint defensive effort. Both Jordan and Saudi Arabia are under the CENTCOM umbrella. While neither acknowledged involvement in intercepting Iran’s launches, the Israeli military released a map showing missiles traveling through the airspace of both nations.

“Arab countries came to the aid of Israel in stopping the attack because they understand that regional organizing is required against Iran, otherwise they will be next in line,” Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s military intelligence, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said he had spoken with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and that the cooperation “highlighted the opportunity to establish an international coalition and strategic alliance to counter the threat posed by Iran.”

The White House signaled that it hopes to build on the partnerships and urged Israel to think twice before striking Iran. U.S. officials said Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington would not participate in any offensive action against Iran.

Israel’s War Cabinet met late Sunday to discuss a possible response, but an Israeli official familiar with the talks said no decisions had been made. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing confidential deliberations.

Asked about plans for retaliation, Hagari declined to comment directly. “We are at high readiness in all fronts,” he said.

“We will build a regional coalition and collect the price from Iran, in the way and at the time that suits us,” said a key War Cabinet member, Benny Gantz.

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Iran launched the attack in response to a strike widely blamed on Israel that hit an Iranian consular building in Syria this month and killed two Iranian generals.

By Sunday morning, Iran said the attack was over, and Israel reopened its airspace. Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, claimed Iran had taught Israel a lesson and warned that “any new adventures against the interests of the Iranian nation would be met with a heavier and regretful response from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The foes have been engaged in a shadow war for years, but Sunday’s assault was the first time Iran launched a direct military assault on Israel, despite decades of enmity dating back to the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran said it targeted Israeli facilities involved in the Damascus strike, and that it told the White House early Sunday that the operation would be “minimalistic.”

But U.S. officials said Iran’s intent was to “destroy and cause casualties” and that if successful, the strikes would have caused an “uncontrollable” escalation. At one point, at least 100 ballistic missiles were in the air with just minutes of flight time to Israel, the officials said.

Israel said more than 99% of what Iran fired was intercepted, with just a few missiles getting through. An Israeli airbase sustained minor damage.

Israel has over the years established — often with the help of the U.S. — a multilayered air-defense network that includes systems capable of intercepting a variety of threats, including long-range missiles, cruise missiles, drones and short-range rockets.

That system, along with collaboration with the U.S. and others, helped thwart what could have been a far more devastating assault at a time when Israel is already deeply engaged in Gaza as well as low-level fighting on its northern border with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are backed by Iran.

While thwarting the Iranian onslaught could help restore Israel’s image after the Hamas attack in October, what the Middle East’s best-equipped army does next will be closely watched in the region and in Western capitals — especially as Israel seeks to develop the coalition it praised Sunday.

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In Washington, Biden pledged to convene allies to develop a unified response. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. would hold talks with allies. After an urgent meeting, the Group of Seven countries unanimously condemned Iran’s attack and said they stood ready to take “further measures.”

Israel and Iran have been on a collision course throughout Israel’s war in Gaza. In the Oct. 7 attack, militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, also backed by Iran, killed 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped 250 others. Israel’s offensive in Gaza has killed over 33,000 people, according to local health officials.

Hamas welcomed Iran’s attack, saying it was “a natural right and a deserved response” to the strike in Syria. It urged the Iran-backed groups in the region to continue to support Hamas in the war.

Hezbollah also welcomed the attack. Almost immediately after the war in Gaza erupted, Hezbollah began attacking Israel’s northern border. The two sides have been involved in daily exchanges of fire, while Iranian-backed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have launched rockets and missiles toward Israel.

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Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Michelle L. Price in Washington; Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran; Samy Magdy in Cairo; Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan; and Giada Zampano in Rome contributed to this report.

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How to get rid of NYC rats without brutality? Birth control is one idea

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How to get rid of NYC rats without brutality? Birth control is one idea

New York lawmakers are proposing rules to humanely drive down the population of rats and other rodents, eyeing contraception and a ban on glue traps as alternatives to poison or a slow, brutal death.

Politicians have long come up with creative ways to battle the rodents, but some lawmakers are now proposing city and statewide measures to do more.

In New York City, the idea to distribute rat contraceptives got fresh attention in city government Thursday following the death of an escaped zoo owl, known as Flaco, who was found dead with rat poison in his system.

City Council Member Shaun Abreu proposed a city ordinance Thursday that would establish a pilot program for controlling the millions of rats lurking in subway stations and empty lots by using birth control instead of lethal chemicals. Abreu, chair of the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, said the contraceptives also are more ethical and humane than other methods.

The contraceptive, called ContraPest, is contained in salty, fatty pellets that are scattered in rat-infested areas as bait. It works by targeting ovarian function in female rats and disrupting sperm cell production in males, The New York Times reported.

New York exterminators currently kill rats using snap and glue traps, poisons that make them bleed internally, and carbon monoxide gas that can suffocate them in burrows. Some hobbyists have even trained their dogs to hunt them.

Rashad Edwards, a film and television actor who runs pest management company Scurry Inc. in New York City with his wife, said the best method he has found when dealing with rodents is carbon monoxide.

He tries to use the most humane method possible, and carbon monoxide euthanizes the rats slowly, putting them to sleep and killing them. Edwards avoids using rat poison whenever possible because it is dangerous and torturous to the rodents, he said.

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Some lawmakers in Albany are considering a statewide ban on glue boards under a bill moving through the Legislature. The traps, usually made from a slab of cardboard or plastic coated in a sticky material, can also ensnare small animals that land on its surface.

Edwards opposes a ban on sticky traps, because he uses them on other pests, such as ants, to reduce overall pesticide use. When ants get into a house, he uses sticky traps to figure out where they’re most often passing by. It helps him narrow zones of pesticide use “so that you don’t go spray the entire place.”

“This is not a problem we can kill our way out of,” said Jakob Shaw, a special project manager for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “It’s time to embrace these more common sense and humane methods.”

Two cities in California have passed bans on glue traps in recent years. On the federal level, a bill currently in committee would ban the traps nationwide.

“It ends a really inhumane practice of managing rat populations,” said Jabari Brisport, the New York state senator who represents part of Brooklyn and sponsored the bill proposing the new guidelines. “There are more effective and more humane ways to deal with rats.”

Every generation of New Yorkers has struggled to control rat populations. Mayor Eric Adams hired a “rat czar” last year tasked with battling the detested rodents. Last month, New York City reduced the amount of food served up to rats by mandating all businesses to put trash out in boxes.

While the war on rats has no end in sight, the exterminator Edwards said we can learn a lot from their resilience. The rodents, he said, can never be eradicated, only managed.

“They’re very smart, and they’re very wise,” he said. “It’s very inspiring but just — not in my house.”

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Coachella: Earthquake shakes SoCal desert during music fest

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Coachella: Earthquake shakes SoCal desert during music fest

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — A small earthquake shook the Southern California desert Saturday near Coachella, where the famous music festival is being held this weekend. No damage or injuries were reported.

The quake, with a preliminary magnitude of 3.8, hit at 9:08 a.m. about 8 miles (13 kilometers) northeast of Borrego Springs in Riverside County, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The epicenter was about 20 miles (32 kilometers) southeast of Coachella. It struck at a depth of about 7 miles (11 kilometers), the USGS said.

A dispatcher with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said there were no calls reporting any problems from the quake.

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