September 18, 2020

Warner, Kaine Demand Information on Administration’s Efforts to Protect Older Americans Exploited by Drug Traffickers

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine have requested information from the Departments of State and Homeland Security about their efforts to protect unwitting older Americans tricked into trafficking drugs internationally. In two letters—one to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the other to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, senior Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official Tony Pham, and Acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Mark Morgan—the senators inquired about 77-year-old Centreville, Virginia resident Victor Stemberger. 

According to reports, in March 2018, Mr. Stemberger received an email inviting him to a business opportunity that entailed making international deliveries. In July 2019, Mr. Stemberger followed his contacts’ instructions to receive gifts in Brazil; he was arrested the next day in Spain after he was found with cocaine sewn into his luggage, and a Spanish court subsequently sentenced him to seven years in prison for drug smuggling. Mr. Stemberger and his family insist he knew nothing about the drugs, and a retired DEA agent working on the case says 161 pages of emails demonstrate that “he’s completely unwitting.”

In their letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials, Warner and Kaine asked about efforts to protect unknowing senior citizens during Operation COCOON, DHS’s program to target narco-traffickers who manipulate older Americans into carrying drugs.

“We would like to understand what, if anything, your agencies did during Operation COCOON to prevent these targeted individuals’ arrest and prosecution in a foreign country once they were in transit as couriers and your efforts to have them returned to the United States,” the senators wrote to Wolf, Pham, and Morgan. “We are concerned that in an attempt to interdict illicit contraband being moved by unsuspecting senior citizens, Operation COCOON may have led DHS to provide information about these unwitting Americans to foreign law enforcement partners who then arrested, prosecuted, and jailed them abroad.”

In their letter to Secretary Pompeo, Warner and Kaine requested assistance in bringing Mr. Stemberger home and asked about the State Department’s knowledge of Operation COCOON and whether it has been working with DHS to prevent the foreign prosecution of older Americans exploited by drug traffickers.

“Sadly, Mr. Stemberger is not the only older adult a transnational criminal organization has tricked into becoming an unwitting drug mule,” the senators wrote to Pompeo. “Given these unique circumstances, we are requesting your personal involvement to encourage the Government of Spain to immediately release Mr. Stemberger on humanitarian grounds so he can return to his family in the United States. We are especially worried for Mr. Stemberger’s health after learning that two prisoners held in the same section have recently contracted COVID-19 and ask that the State Department push for safer facilities to hold Mr. Stemberger while efforts to secure his release are ongoing.”

The full text of the senators’ letters can be found here and below: 

Acting Secretary Wolf, Mr. Pham, and Acting Commissioner Morgan, 

We write to express concern about the case of Victor Stemberger and request information on your work to investigate and combat scams targeting older Americans to become unwitting drug mules. On July 30, a Spanish court found Mr. Stemberger, our constituent, guilty of drug smuggling and sentenced him to seven years in prison, rejecting his defense that he was duped into acting as a drug mule for a West Africa criminal network. Mr. Stemberger, 77, is a Vietnam veteran who served 24 years in the U.S. Army. To our knowledge, he has never been in trouble with the law. The circumstances of his arrest — as well as his advanced age — give us pause and concern.

According to news reports, the case began in March 2018 with an email from someone purporting to be a financial consultant with Nigeria’s foreign ministry and inviting Mr. Stemberger into a business opportunity that carried the prospect of a lucrative payout. The job allegedly entailed traveling abroad to deliver gifts and documents to officials, with a goal of recovering funds that were misallocated. In July 2019, he traveled to Brazil on a trip that was to take him to Spain and on to Asia. Sources claim his contacts told him officials would be visiting his Sao Paolo hotel room to help transfer the gifts into luggage but that Mr. Stemberger continued to believe the work was legitimate. The following day, Mr. Stemberger was arrested in Madrid after he was found with cocaine sewn into bubble jackets in a bag.

Mr. Stemberger and his family say he knew nothing about the drugs, and a retired DEA agent Robert Zachariasiewicz, whose investigative firm has worked with the family on the case, said the 161 pages of emails he’s reviewed make clear that “he’s completely unwitting.”[1] His family also explains that Mr. Stemberger suffered a brain aneurysm in 2005 that greatly diminished his logic and decision-making abilities, which a medical expert testified to at his trial. And, in a memorandum regarding Mr. Stemberger’s case dated October 28, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that he was “fraudulently deceived by members of a narcotics trafficking network into unwittingly transporting concealed controlled substances.”

For years, federal officials have warned about scams that target and lure older Americans or those with diminished mental capacity to become unwitting drug mules. In fact, in February 2016, A. Scott Brown, former Acting Assistant Director of Investigative Programs for Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), testified before the Senate Special Committee on Aging about “international drug smuggling scams targeting seniors.” Mr. Brown noted that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was tracking 144 cases of older adults being duped into acting as unwitting drug mules. He cited statistics of Operation COCOON (DHS’s program to target narco-traffickers who manipulate older Americans into carrying drugs): “To date, HSI and CBP have worked with our foreign counterparts to interdict a total of 272 kilograms of methamphetamine, 209 kilograms of cocaine, 4 kilograms of ecstasy, and 11 kilograms of heroin. They have arrested 15 facilitators affiliated with TCOs — one in Hong Kong, two in China, three in Argentina and nine in Spain.”[2]

We would like to understand what, if anything, your agencies did during Operation COCOON to prevent these targeted individuals’ arrest and prosecution in a foreign country once they were in transit as couriers and your efforts to have them returned to the United States. We are concerned that in an attempt to interdict illicit contraband being moved by unsuspecting senior citizens, Operation COCOON may have led DHS to provide information about these unwitting Americans to foreign law enforcement partners who then arrested, prosecuted, and jailed them abroad. As such, we would like to request more information on Operation COCOON and any other similar ongoing operation to combat criminal organizations from preying on older adult Americans.

We would appreciate your responses to the following questions about Operation COCOON and other requested documentation no later than September 28, 2020: 

  1. Please provide all records and information related to Mr. Stemberger.
  2. Please provide the Concept of Operation for Operation COCOON and any related guidance, reports, metrics, and documentation. Please include any documentation pertaining to the collaborative arrangement between DHS and foreign law enforcement.
  3. Please provide the Concept of Operation for any ongoing operations pertaining to the targeting of older adult Americans to become unwitting drug mules and any related guidance, reports, metrics, and documentation.
  4. Please explain how you tracked success of the Operation COCOON and any similar ongoing operation.
  5. As DHS was aware that older adult Americans were tricked into being unwitting drug mules, did DHS alert these individuals or their family members or otherwise intervene to stop them from leaving the United States?
  6. Did Operation COCOON identify these “unsuspecting elderly citizens” to foreign law enforcement?
  7. Subsequent to identification by U.S. officials, were these Americans then arrested by the foreign law enforcement to whom they had been identified?
  8. Did DHS or any other agency or component of the U.S. federal government communicate to foreign law enforcement the judgment of the U.S. Government that these American citizens were unaware of drugs placed in their luggage?
  9. Did the information-sharing or collaborative arrangement between DHS and foreign law enforcement include a commitment by the foreign government to not prosecute unwitting older adult Americans and, instead, only prosecute members of the transnational criminal organization facilitating the fraud on the Americans?
  10. How many unwitting older American citizens have served time in foreign incarceration as a result of Operation COCOON? How many are still detained in foreign jails (in addition to Mr. Stemberger)? How many Americans died while in foreign custody as a result of Operation COCOON?
  11. If there were 144 cases in 2016, how many cases is DHS aware of cumulatively throughout the period of Operation COCOON?
  12. If there were nine cases involving Spain in 2016, how many is DHS aware of involving Spain cumulatively throughout the period of Operation COCOON?
  13. Did DHS or any entity involved in Operation COCOON notify Spanish officials of their suspicions relating to, or knowledge of, Victor Stemberger being an unwitting drug mule prior to his July 5, 2019 arrest? If so, did the notifying entity make clear to the Spanish officials that it was the position of the U.S. Government that Mr. Stemberger was unaware drugs were planted on him?
  14. What steps, if any, has DHS taken to secure Mr. Stemberger’s release from Spanish prison? Is DHS coordinating with the State Department on the release of Mr. Stemberger or any other senior American imprisoned via Operation COCOON? 

Cc:

Derek N. Benner

Executive Associate Director for Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy Director

The Honorable Michael Pompeo

Secretary of State

U.S. Department of State

2201 C Street NW

Washington, D.C. 20520

 

Dear Mr. Secretary:

We write to request your assistance to seek the return of Victor Stemberger to the United States on humanitarian grounds and request information about the Department’s knowledge of a DHS program called Operation COCOON. On July 30, a Spanish court found Mr. Stemberger, our constituent, guilty of drug smuggling and sentenced him to seven years in prison, rejecting his defense that he was duped into acting as a drug mule for a West Africa criminal network. Mr. Stemberger, 77, is a Vietnam veteran who served 24 years in the U.S. Army. To our knowledge, he has never been in trouble with the law. The circumstances of his arrest — as well as his advanced age — give us pause and concern.

According to news reports, the case began in March 2018 with an email from someone purporting to be a financial consultant with Nigeria’s foreign ministry and inviting Mr. Stemberger into a business opportunity that carried the prospect of a lucrative payout. The job allegedly entailed traveling abroad to deliver gifts and documents to officials, with a goal of recovering funds that were misallocated. In July 2019, he traveled to Brazil on a trip that was to take him to Spain and on to Asia. Sources claim his contacts told him officials would be visiting his Sao Paolo hotel room to help transfer the gifts into luggage but that Mr. Stemberger continued to believe the work was legitimate. The following day Mr. Stemberger was arrested in Madrid after he was found with cocaine sewn into bubble jackets in a bag.

Mr. Stemberger and his family say he knew nothing about the drugs, and a retired DEA agent Robert Zachariasiewicz, whose investigative firm has worked with the family on the case, said the 161 pages of emails he’s reviewed make clear that “he’s completely unwitting.”[1] His family also explains that Mr. Stemberger suffered a brain aneurysm in 2005 that greatly diminished his logic and decision-making abilities, which a medical expert testified to at his trial. And, in a memorandum regarding Mr. Stemberger’s case dated October 28, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that he was “fraudulently deceived by members of a narcotics trafficking network into unwittingly transporting concealed controlled substances.”

Given these unique circumstances, we are requesting your personal involvement to encourage the Government of Spain to immediately release Mr. Stemberger on humanitarian grounds so he can return to his family in the United States. We are especially worried for Mr. Stemberger’s health after learning that two prisoners held in the same section have recently contracted COVID-19 and ask that the State Department push for safer facilities to hold Mr. Stemberger while efforts to secure his release are ongoing.

We are confident that you and your team are closely engaged on this case, and we would appreciate the following updates:

  • Have officials of the Department of State met with Mr. Stemberger and his Spanish defense counsel?
  • Is there anything that the Embassy in Madrid can do to improve the conditions in which Mr. Stemberger is being held?
  • Have State Department officials communicated at a senior level to appropriate officials of the Government of Spain that it is the position of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Justice that Mr. Stemberger was unaware of the drugs in his luggage and that sophisticated transnational criminal organization tricked him into becoming an unwitting drug mule?
  • Has Ambassador Buchan or officials working at the Embassy in Madrid met with Mr. Stemberger’s defense counsel and offered support in his pending appeal of his conviction to ensure that the Spanish courts have documentary evidence of the U.S. Government’s determination that Mr. Stemberger was unwitting of any illicit activities? 

Sadly, Mr. Stemberger is not the only older adult a transnational criminal organization has tricked into becoming an unwitting drug mule. We understand that there are numerous additional cases of older Americans falling victim to similar schemes. As such, we have written separately to the Department of Homeland Security to ask for information about their activities under a program called Operation COCOON — a joint effort by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — to target international drug traffickers who manipulate older Americans into carrying drugs. We are troubled that in an attempt to interdict illicit contraband being moved by unsuspecting senior citizens, Operation COCOON may have led DHS to provide information about these unwitting Americans to foreign law enforcement partners who then arrested, prosecuted, and jailed them abroad. To that end:

  • Have State Department officials inquired with their colleagues in the Spanish Government about how they selected Mr. Stemberger for screening and whether they received advanced notification of him by any U.S. officials?

Is the Department aware of Operation COCOON? Has DHS coordinated with the Department on the protection of these older unwitting Americans to ensure that, once they entered a foreign country, they were not arrested, prosecuted, and jailed but instead sent safely home to the United States?   

Sincerely,

 

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