In late October 2020, Nick Palmeri, the DEA’s top boss in Mexico City, threw a birthday party for himself even though relations between the United States and Mexico were quite uneasy. While Mexico’s president was enraged over the DEA’s apprehension of a top military general blamed for cartel deception, Palmeri’s party was cheerful. People were enjoying their beverages and food and a mariachi band was playing for the guests.
A few bigwigs from U.S. law enforcement departments attended the meeting, as well as some high-ranking Mexican authorities. One person questioned how the host, who was commemorating his 50th year around the sun, managed to acquire a taxpayer-funded house so enormous and outside the areas generally sanctioned for housing senior U.S. officers in Mexico City. To put it into perspective, one individual described the residence as a “mega-mansion.”
Several events contributed to the downfall of DEA regional director Nick Palmeri, who quietly retired one day before his firing last year. Recently, Palmeri’s wrongdoings have been made public, including improper meetings with defense lawyers representing cartel members.
VICE News spoke with federal law enforcement sources that knew Palmeri. Documents, emails, and other records were looked at, and Palmeri sat for a comprehensive interview defending his actions while recognizing mistakes he made. He said he could have probably used better judgment but he also stated he wasn’t saying it was misconduct.
The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General and the DEA’s Office of Professional Responsibility have investigated Palmeri, who has been blamed for violating rules for travel and expenses. Due to his overly friendly relationship with defense attorneys, he could have created conflicts of interest by asking an attorney who represented drug defendants for advice regarding his child support case.
Palmeri was not the only one out of a job. Matt Donahue, a senior DEA authority who was above Palmeri, was supposedly forced into early retirement after ratting him out, sources said.
Donahue is currently litigating with the DEA before the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which handles labor conflicts. Palmeri has likewise disputed the DEA’s handling of his firing before the MSPB, with his lawyer saying an appeal over the result is pending. Those who discussed the situation requested anonymity since the litigation is ongoing and their jobs are at risk.
Palmeri once helped wipe out an entire Colombian cartel and recoup hundreds of millions of dollars worth of drug money. While in Mexico though, his style conflicted with a senior official who didn’t care for the way he worked.
His short, contentious tenure in Mexico was completely predictable, according to Palmeri’s critics, who blamed the DEA leadership for creating the scandal by putting him in one of the agency’s most high-profile positions, one that covered Mexico as well as Canada and Central America.
One DEA source stated it wasn’t any surprise when this happened. He said they saw it coming and ultimately picked the wrong person.
A couple of months before his party, California DEA agents detained Mexico’s previous national secretary of defense, General Salvador Cienfuegos, on charges of narco-corruption. Afterward, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador lashed out at the DEA, saying they do what they want with complete freedom in the country.
From there, López Obrador wanted to limit DEA activities in Mexico. Palmeri, who was then the leader of the DEA in Mexico City, wished to work on the relationship with his superior counterparts in Mexican federal law enforcement—so he thought he would invite a few of them to his celebration. However, many scoffed at this saying if one wanted to repair relationships, it should not be at a birthday party.
The celebration only drew attention to how large Palmeri was living. To add to this, once the party was over, he submitted a request for over $700 to be reimbursed for hosting the Mexican counterparts.
In January, a report was released that there was the misuse of funds, including those for a director’s birthday party. Criminal prosecution has been declined.