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U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy On Prosecution Priorities

Audio

Aired 11/30/10

The new US Attorney in town Laura Duffy takes on the job with some powerful and high-flying successes behind her. As a federal prosecutor, she worked relentlessly to cripple the infamous Arellano Felix drug cartel. And Laura Duffy is still taking aim at the remaining members of that drug gang.

The new US Attorney in town Laura Duffy takes on the job with some powerful and high-flying successes behind her. As a federal prosecutor, she worked relentlessly to cripple the infamous Arellano Felix drug cartel. And Laura Duffy is still taking aim at the remaining members of that drug gang.

But the sights of the US attorney's office in San Diego have also recently turned to national security as four local residents have been charged with providing support to the terrorist group Al-Shabab in Somalia.

And then there's the border....with federal prosecutions of illegal immigrants up across the board this year.

Guest: Laura Duffy, United States Attorney for the Southern District of California

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The new U.S. 19 town, Laura Duffy, takes on the job with some powerful and high flying successes behind her. As a federal prosecutor, she worked relentlessly to cripple the infamous Arellano Felix drug cartel, and Laurie Duffy is still taking aim at the remaining members of that drug gang. But the sights of the U.S. attorney's office in San Diego have also recently turned to national security as four local residents have been charged with providing support to the terrorist group al-Shabab in Somalia, and then there's the border with federal prosecutions of illegal immigrants up across the board this year. So we have a lot to talk about. It's eye pleasure to welcome my guest, U.S. attorney for the sound district of California, Laura Duffy. Welcome to These Days.

LAURA DUFFY: Good morning, Maureen. Thank you for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now we invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you go with the priority it is of federal prosecutors in San Diego? Do you think that there are issues the U.S. attorney's office is not spending enough time investigating? Call us with your questions and your comments. 1-888-895-5727. Well, to start with today's news, that's a bail hearing scheduled for today for one of the San Diego residents accused of helping the Somali terror group, al-Shabab. How about has this federal investigation been under way?

LAURA DUFFY: Well, Maureen, you know that that -- this is it an ongoing investigation so there's not a lot I'm gonna be able to say about it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sure.

LAURA DUFFY: But it's been going on for some time, and I can tell you unequivocally that national security is our job one of it's our top priority. And our interest is doing everything that we can to protect the safety and the security of the citizens of this community. And that has taken many forms since 911. And the resources of the federal government are firmly devoted to all those efforts. And one of the areas, as you indicated, these prosecutions have shown, providing financial support to terrorists is of great concern and one of the areas that we will pursue whenever we uncover it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And as -- I know this is it an on going investigation and you have very little that you can say about that, I'm just gonna ask a couple more questions.

LAURA DUFFY: Okay.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And see if we can do -- if you can answer that. ONE of the indictments mentioned more suspects in the case. Can you tell us -- this case apparently is ongoing on? How widespread is this investigation in San Diego?

LAURA DUFFY: I think it -- we are definitely closing in on the individuals that we believe to be involved in, as has come out in other papers and publicly. There arelings with this investigation and investigations in other locations around the country.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see.

LAURA DUFFY: So we are closing in on this particular investigation on the individuals that we think were responsible for this particular funding of this group in this particular instance.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. And so we should expect then more arrests?

LAURA DUFFY: I don't think that that's out of the realm of possibility.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: All right then. I want to let everyone know I'm speaking with Laura Duffy, she is the new U.S. attorney in San Diego. And we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Now, you've been U.S. attorney for the sound district of California for about six months. Tell us a little bit about your background. How -- are you a San Diego native?

LAURA DUFFY: I'm not a San Diego native, actually. I grew up and was raised in the midwest. And I went to law school in the midwest, and it was really through one of my clerking experiences while I was in law school, which might be a surprise to some people, but with the public defenders' office in the community where I went to law school, that I really got bitten by the criminal law bug. I clerked for a Public Defender. The Public Defender himself in that community, and he was very heavily involved in criminal litigation. And he was a -- kind of a gruff, Columbia like disheveled guy, but he was so committed to every client and every case that he represented. I just had a great deal of respect for him and for his ethics, and to the passion that he had for the law and his clients that I too decided that I wanted to pursue criminal law. And even though my background and personality weren't a great fit for the noble profession of a criminal defense attorney, I knew after working with them, that I wanted to do everything in my power to bring that kind of passion and commitment to the other side of the table as a prosecutor. So I did everything in my power to make nap. And I reached out to every member of the alumni -- from my school that I could, and I secured a position with the Department of Justice law honors program. And made my way to Washington DC, where I worked in the money laundering sections and [CHECK AUDIO]. And ended up here in San Diego in 1995.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, since you started out working with a Public Defender, does that give you a special sort of insight or perhaps a soft spot in your heart for defense attorneys even though you are the top U.S. federal prosecutor in San Diego?

LAURA DUFFY: I think it certainly gives me an understanding and a respect for the work that they do. And for the very important role that they have in our criminal justice system, insuring that individuals are represented and receive due process. Absolutely.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you spent a lot of time and you worked your way up in the ranks of the U.S. attorney's office, by handling narcotics cases primarily. Did you choose that area or was it assigned to you or was it a combination of both?

LAURA DUFFY: Well, when I entered the Department of Justice back in 1993 in Washington DC, that was the area they was most interested in and that I selected. Narcotics trafficking and money laundering. And as I worked for the Department of Justice and travelled around to damage attorneys' offices in the country, learned in practice of prosecutions of investigations in Colombian drug trafficking organizations, Mexican drug trafficking organizations, I developed a real understanding and acumen for how international he they operated, how they moved their product into the United States and distributed that domestically and how they cleaned their money. And there came at a time when I knew I wanted to apply what I had been learning and the skills I had developed to the area of the country that was doing some of the most predominant major narcotics trafficking work in this the country, and that was San Diego in the mid-1990s.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you became famous, I must say, I mean this is part of a congressional record now, for your drop from a helicopter to be the first prosecutor, the first person to interview Javier arriana Felix after his arrest. And that drop from that helicopter has become the stuff of legends. Tell us about that story. Of I mean, you must have gotten the word that he'd been arrested. He was on a yacht, and was it your first instinct, I've knotta get on a helicopter and interview this guy.

LAURA DUFFY: Well, it was interesting, as the day unfolded we had -- really just let me give you a little back story.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sure.

LAURA DUFFY: We had been monitoring that particular yacht that Javier Arellano Felix and some of the members of the organization were arrested on for over a year. And we had been working with the coast guard and our assets in Mexico and U.S. law enforcement. And we had not seen that boat enter international waters except for on the very day that it did. It was the one and only time, and it was the perfect storm of circumstances that we were able to make the interception of that boat, and at the time the boat was ber cemented off the coast of Cabo San Luke as, we weren't sure that Javier Arellano Felix and other ranking members were on that boat. As it unfolded throughout the day and we discovered that Javier was one of the individuals on that boat, we were going to immediately take steps to get that farther into international waters, away from Mexico for safety and security concerns, and I knew that my best opportunity to have a conversation with him, to explain to him the seriousness of the trouble that he was in, and the case that we had against him, was to do so immediately in those conditions, and so I got ahold of the case agents, two of the case agents and I made plans to helicopter out to the ship and question him there to make efforts, anyway, to question him there. And to explain to him that we were gonna be the people that were in charge of his case. And I think it's always very important from the very get go, especially the higher that you go in an organization that they see you as the person in charge from the moment the case starts. And that was one of my goals.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, throughout the trial, Felix called you la mujer del Cielo. So you currently made an impression. How forthcoming was he in that interview?

LAURA DUFFY: He wasn't.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

LAURA DUFFY: And it was mostly just a listening exercise on his part. But I think at the end of the day, and the way the case resolved itself, he realized the massive amount of evidence that we had accumulated against him. And that really when the case was initially indicted, it was indicted as a death eligible offense. And information was presented to the capital crimes unit in Washington DC, and he realized the gravity of this, and made it known that he was interested in if entering a plea, even if that meant life imprisonment for him. And so I think it was effective, though he was not forthcoming in any of the conversations that we had at that point.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, the LA Times wrote that you were indispensable in efforts to dismantle the Tijuana cartel. The effort to bring these drug dealers to justice had some costs along the way. Your partner in Mexico, Jose patinno Moreno was killed. What does that do to your resolve when you're pursuing a case like that?

LAURA DUFFY: Well, I think one thing that it does is it really puts into perspective the -- the real commitment and dedication that our counterparts in Mexico have to this fight. They are living this year after year, day after day, and they are really putting their lives on the line to great sacrifice to themselves and to their families. And so it does cause pause and reflection in the seriousness of the work that we're doing. I have to honestly say it does not maybe surprisingly cause a great level of personal fear. If anything, it makes me, and I think the team members that I worked with all the more committed to what we were doing and to knowing that this is it really a problem that needed to be addressed and that we were really able to have a great impact in taking out some of the most violent and murderous drug figures and king pins in that organization.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, tell us what the extent of this case was and who was convicted when we're talking about the Arellano Felix cartel.

LAURA DUFFY: I was sent here, actually, from the Department of Justice as a narcotics prosecutor to focus on a couple of things. It was -- at that particular time, the Colombian transporters and traffickers had shifted their operations from the southeast corn upper of the country to the southwest corn upper of the country because of the immense public law enforcement that had been brought to bear on the [CHECK AUDIO] cartels, so we were focussing on the cartels, the Mexican transportation groups that were bringing cocaine into the United States , on behalf of the Colombian cartels, and also on their own terms as they grew in this role. So our investigation into the Arellano Felix cartel focused on the Colombians who were supplying them with cocaine, those who were involved of the transportation of that cocaine into Mexico, Mexico City, and all the way through the board. So all the we through that chain, our investigation focused on the Arellano Felix brothers themselves, the members of their leadership and hierarchy, and it was a very defined hierarchy. There were the leaders, there were lieutenants, there were soldiers, there were members of enforcement teams, and urn fortunately there were members of cross-complaint law enforcement and military.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break but when we return, we'll continue my conversation with U.S. attorney, Laura Duffy, and talk a little bit about the situation of drug violence in Tijuana across the border today, and what the attorney's office might be doing about that. And we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is U.S. attorney for the southern district of California, lava Duffy, she is U.S. attorney, she was installed in June of this year, and we're talking about a wide range of subjects and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. The Tijuana cartel that you were after from the early 90s seems to -- was effectively broken up, but we're seeing signs that the drug cartel power vacuum is being filled in Baja, there seems to be an uptake of violence lately in Tijuana, where are we when it comes to the drug war and what can the U.S. do about it.

LAURA DUFFY: Maureen, I think that's an important question. And what we're seeing with -- I'll say recent, but it's been going on for months now with this spectacular and gruesome really acts of violence with our southern neighbors. Not so much in if Tijuana and mechesicaly, as it is across the borders in Arizona and Texas. But that violence is disturbing and it seems to weigh against the notion that we're making meaningful and significant progress in our efforts. But the fact of the matter is we are making meaningful and significant progress. And we're making that progress against drug organizations that had traditionally for years had such grips on the Mexican population and had them really in a strangle hold. And there's a saying, I think, that's really apt when you look at what we're doing right now and what we're supporting president Caldron and his administration in doing, and that's if you want peace, that you need to prepare for war. And I think Perez did he want Caldron and his administration certainly are committed to getting through that war to lead to peace, and they have the kind of leadership and desire and commitment to get this. And I think one of the things that I'd like to pinpoint is maybe one of the most measurable items of success is the change in the complexion and the structure of the drug organizations that are operating today, and the individuals, really, who are perpetrating this violence. What we had for so many years was a number of very powerful, very structured, very well- financed drug organizations that had networks of operatives within their organizations, within the government of Mexico, within the military, and in law enforcement. They had this huge network that allowed them to operate almost without impunity throughout Mexico in bringing their wares across the border. That structure and organization has shifted. And the shift, I think, has been brought on by the pressures of the Mexican and U.S. law enforcement. We have been able to break that down. And now what you have is smaller, less well- financed and organized organizations who are really, as you say, competing to fill this power vacuum that's been opened by the removal of these large organizations. And while, yes, they're still criminal organizations, they're drug organizations and violent organizations, the defense here is we are moving away from in number and in structure the type of organization that has existed for so long. And that really was on the verge of creating national security issues versus law enforcement issues of and that's a much different enemy. And that is a big mile stone.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Just a technical question about this. Of when the U.S. attorney's office in San Diego issues indictments about drug trafficking the way you did last summer, what are the limits of your authority when it comes to indicting people who are foreign nationals? Do you have to wait until they are in international waters or in this country?

LAURA DUFFY: We certainly don't have to wait to bring charges against them. We are able it indict individuals who are engaged in criminal enterprise and criminal organization and conspires where we have jurisdiction in the United States. And we are given jurisdiction in the United States if there are acts that that organization is committing that -- committing that fall within our district. And the test, really, is is there a link to this district? Is there an overt act that the organization or enterprise has conducted in this district? Are there facilities that are used in this district? And we are -- we are not only focused on returning indictments and charges in this district. But we are very committed to supporting and assisting the government of Mexico and the fight that they're taking on there in their own country and to reach that goal, one of the new things that our office is doing is we have pledged members of our prosecution team to work with government of Mexico federal prosecutors in a special investigative unit and that unit is being sponsored by the Department of Justice and DA. So members of our [CHECK AUDIO] mentoring federal prosecutors in Mexico who are working on six vetted teams and these prosecutors are hand selected by department attorney general Marcella Morales who is head of their organized crime Ciedo group. And we're gonna be assisting Mexico in steading their own high priority investigations and working with them in targeting Mexican cartel figures in Mexico. And in addition to that, we are standing up and enhancing a gang initiative in our office with the recognition that gangs are becoming more so than they have been in the past, that even though they do have a history of being an arm of cartels with the recognition that they are with greater frequency using local gang members to carry out enforcement activities and collection activities and distribution activities where they are not able to so freely do so in the United States. And so we're gonna have a group of prosecutors who are focussing on those efforts available to state police agents, available to local law enforcement, available to federal law enforcement, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, hot lines that they can use to contact us to work on cases particularly where federal tools, federal Rico statues and penalties might be available in the federal system that aren't visible in the state system.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with U.S. attorney in San Diego, Laura Duffy, taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. John is on the line from Encinitas. Of and good morning, John, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. Can you hear me?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes, we can, John, thank you.

NEW SPEAKER: I was interested to know, the bloom berg magazine a couple of months ago, 2 or 3 months back reported that Wachovia bank had laundered $374 billion of Mexican drug money over a five-year period, I think, ending in twine. And there didn't seem to be any criminal prosecutions that resulted from that. And I'm wondering why that was.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay, John, thank you. Thank you for the call.

LAURA DUFFY: Well, John, thank you. And I appreciate you raising that point. I'm not aware of the particular case that you mention, but what I can tell you is that efforts in our district most certainly to the best of our ability focus on the financial aspects of narcotics prosecution. I think that that is really one of the areas where we can really hit organized crime where it hurts. Of and any chance that we can to follow the money trail, to identify money laundering, to identify southbound currency transferring, to identify legitimate, seemingly legitimate businesses who are engaged in the laundering of narcotics proceeds, we're gonna follow that any chance we get. And we have had investigations with basicing and financial institutions in Mexico and the United States where that's something that we monitor very closely, and when we're talking about financial institutions outside the United States, we will immediately look to whether we have branches and institutions within the United States that we can attach for liability and force consequences that way.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have another call, Maria is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Maria, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You're welcome. Of.

NEW SPEAKER: Laura, did you ever feel like all the resources you're using for this will be pointless in the end because drug consumption in the United States is really at a really big high? No pun intended. Of and many support decriminalization creating an open market and local production?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. So you want to get Laura Duffy's take on perhaps an effort to decriminalize or legalize marijuana?

NEW SPEAKER: Yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right.

LAURA DUFFY: Well, I think that's an important issue. And, you know, the proposition 19, which was our last proposition that was before the public to vote on was defeated. But I think that we can certainly anticipate that we are going to see that type of legislation return to the ballot in the future, probably as early as 2012. And I think that I will leave the merit of whether marijuana and perhaps other controlled substances should be legalized to the academics and political operatives. But what I can tell you is from a law enforcement perspective, pieces of legislation like that, and particularly pieces of legislation that are written, really, without taking into the bigger picture and the fuller implications of the situation do present problems for law enforcement. And just looking at proposition 19, some of the problems that were presented from a law enforcement perspective there were it ran contrary to some of our very significant federal interests. And some of those were keeping the international drug cartels from increasing their presence in our communities. Nothing in provisions like proposition 19 or others that I've seen be proposed would prevent agents from Mexican drug cartels from becoming licensed by our local government for the commercial distribution of marijuana. Additionally, there were nothing -- there was no text in that piece of legislation that would have prevented gang members from becoming involved in the production of marijuana. There has always been the history that drugs go hand in hand with guns and the federal government has a very keen interest in prosecuting those who posses firemans and further drug trafficking. And I think our efforts would have been made more difficult in doing so, had this type of legislation been passed 678 and we're really also dealing with issues of, currently, now, with marijuana cultivation in our national forests and our national lands and that's a growing concern and growing problem. And there was nothing in that type of legislation that really precluded somebody from growing marijuana in federal lands. Of even if they were in a tent or in, you know, some kind of temporary housing in a motor home. So there are things that we need to do to look at the problems, the greater problems and implications that law enforcement would face with that kind of legislation going forward. And we really want to, I think, minimize the extent to which our district and California is servicing as a source district for the nation.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, Laura, your most famous recent predecessor, U.S. attorney carol lamb was fired, and there are speculations many believe that she was fired because -- not because of her performance but because she didn't stick to administration priorities. Now, your boss is Eric Holder. I'm wondering, do you feel pressure from the administration to pursue certain types of cases? What is your interaction with the attorney general?

LAURA DUFFY: I actually don't feel pressured by attorney general Holder to pursue certain kind of cases. However, I'm happy to report that I think a number of the priorities in this district are in line with the national priorities that he has set for the national at this point in time. I've met several -- I've met attorney general Holder on several occasions and met with him and had extensively meetings with him and other attorneys throughout the country, a week before last in Washington DC, where we discussed our priorities, and really, what the position of this Department of Justice is under attorney general Holder is that they're focused on setting the policy of the nation and really leave to each and every U.S. attorney in the district to be the chief law enforcement officer in their district and set the ways in which those policies can be best implement indeed that district given the unique characteristics and needs of the district. And while I was last in Washington KC, I also had the opportunity to meet president Obama. And he made some really meaningful statements to all the U.S. attorneys who were gathered there. That he respects the work that we do, and that we're not his attorneys. Of we're the attorneys of the people of the United States. And our job is to represent the interests of the United States to prosecute individuals in our districts who are engaged in violating federal laws and to represent the United States in civil actions. And he leaves that to us to do and to our discretion as the needs of our district require.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to move on to the prosecutions of illegal immigrants coming across the border. There have been articles that I've read that prosecutions are up across the board in all of the border states. And that these prosecutions are in essence clogging a lot of the Courts, they're overwhelming parts of the federal judiciary system. And I'm wondering, what do you see as a way to either stream line or reduce or handle these prosecutions? Are we going about it the right way?

LAURA DUFFY: Well, I think that that's a good question. And it's something that we are continually analyzing and adjusting in our office. And while we are a U.S. attorney's office in a major metropolitan area who is charged with the prosecution and defense of the us in a wide variety of crimes, from national security and exploitation of children and bank robberies and drug and violence and all these kinds of crimes, we cannot get away from the fact that we are geographically on the southwest border and our proximity to the border and to Mexico and to two very large metropolitan cities, Tijuana and mechesicaly, immediately south of our border, are going to drive a certain percentage of our casework, and we need to be responsive to that casework. But what I can tell you is that immigration related case load that we focus on focuses on individuals and organization who pose the greatest threat to our community. And what I'm talking about here is not economic migrants. That has never been something that has been a strong hold for us. We concentrate on immigrant smugglers who are prying on migrants and who are exposing migrants through their methods and means of smuggling to very dangerous activities, from being smuggled in vehicles and crates and containers that were not meant to carry humans, to the under engages of vehicles to the trunks of vehicles, and the like. Just really very dangerous situations for people who are trying to get to the United States. The other primary category that we're focusing on is illegal immigrants. And will what I mean by that is individuals who have committed serious felony crimes in the United States who have been deported from the United States and are back in the United States without permission. And these are individuals who are not coming into our communities to secure employment and work but who are transiting through our district, committing crimes in route to other locations in Northern California and throughout the country. And we do our very best to coordinate our limited prosecutorial resources and bed space resources with the priorities of the CV P, and the border patrol, and our other federal agencies that are focused on the border to go after the smuggling organizations and to do everything we can to cut off different avenues that they exploit. And so I think what we have seen in this district is a decrease in economic migrants with the downturn in our economy. But we still do face immigrant smuggling as a serious issue, and we will focus our attentions on that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Laura Duffy, we could speak for a lot longer, but we are out of time. I want to thank you so much for taking time out of a very busy school for speaking withes.

LAURA DUFFY: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with the U.S. taken for the southern district, Laura Duffy, and if you'd like to comment, please go on line, KPBS.ORG /These Days. Coming up, a conversation with [CHECK AUDIO] John DeBeck, that's as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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