5 Insane Things I Learned About Drugs as an Undercover Agent
When you hear about the Department of Homeland Security, you probably picture a bunch of people in body armor swooping in on terrorist cells and forbidding you from carrying full bottles of shampoo onto airplanes. That's a small part of what they do -- the DHS has authority to bust everything from drug smugglers to child porn peddlers.
So we talked to an agent who has gone undercover for DHS, and he told us ...
Undercover Work Is Just Like the Movies (Sometimes)
Most of you know the Department of Homeland Security as that agency that was thrown together after 9/11 to take on terrorists. If you watch the news and hear about the DHS busting a drug smuggler, you might think the government has gone overboard, declaring every common criminal a terrorist and shipping them off to Guantanamo. But that's not really the case.
The DHS wasn't a new agency -- basically, they took a bunch of G-men who were already doing specialized jobs, shuffled them around a bit, and had them continue doing those exact same jobs. So when there's a cartel moving drugs across the border, people like me go undercover to take them down. Now, I know what you're probably thinking -- going undercover to bust drug cartels is putting yourself at serious risk of death by shark and/or chainsaw. You may be forced to do a ton of drugs or even kill somebody just to prove you aren't a cop, because that's what happens in the movies, and movies are never wrong.
Well, some parts of it are just like the Hollywood version. You know how, in Breaking Bad, the characters met out in the desert and stood around holding guns while they made their massive drug deals? That's pretty much how it happens. If we were hired to transport drugs into the country, we'd meet the bad guys and negotiate a price. The bad guys would hand over the product, and then we'd contact them when it was ready for pickup at whatever destination they had chosen. We'd forward the drop locations and they'd give us a bag with $150,000, hopefully before they realized we were cops.
The money we got paid went into a government account for use with the operation. If anyone asked the bank about the account, they would say it was just another commercial account opened by a legit business. It's called backstopping -- we had phones that would trace back to a fake business, computers with clean IP addresses, even untraceable fake license plates and driver's licenses. Being an undercover government agent is like using Game Genie on all the difficult parts of criminal life.
The boys in the lab are still trying to figure out the infinite lives code, though.
So what about the "Do these drugs to prove you're not a cop!" thing you see in every drug movie from Traffic to Training Day? Believe it or not, the government is pretty understanding of this -- if you have to smoke crack to avoid blowing your cover, they're probably not going to fire you the second the operation is over. But honestly, you'd be surprised at how many people in the drug trade don't actually use drugs -- it's the fastest way to put yourself out of business. Likewise for the much more dramatic "Prove you're evil by killing this innocent person!" scene (it's so common in film that it has its own page on TV Tropes) -- it's kind of a flawed litmus test, since most real criminals also wouldn't happily commit first-degree murder just to earn someone's respect.
This is why, if our targets start to smell bacon on us, they don't immediately reach for an Uzi and trigger a spectacular action sequence. Their first response to finding out we're undercover agents is to clam up. "Sir, are you implying that you were going to transport illegal drugs for me!? There must be some mistake! I must now return to the orphanage where I routinely volunteer my time!"
"It's rock candy. For the children."
They're really not that interested in killing an undercover agent. Why face the death penalty when the worst you're looking at is some drug trafficking charges you can fight in court? I mean, if you're talking to a federal agent, it's safe to assume that the lid on your criminal enterprise has already been blown, so your best bet is to do damage control and avoid implicating yourself any further. Killing everyone in the room just makes your lawyer's job so much harder.
And before we go any further, I think we have to address this next ...
Ending the Drug War Is More Complicated Than You Think
To be honest, I care as little about some guy peacefully smoking weed on his sofa as the next rational person. Homeland Security doesn't raid grow houses or bust people for burning down a few blunts. We only have jurisdiction if it's an international case, which means all our pot busting is aimed squarely at the cartels bringing drugs across the American border (and maybe someone smoking pot while deliberately straddling the invisible line between Mexico and the United States, because in all fairness, you're just being a dick at that point). Sure, we bust a lot of pot smugglers, but marijuana accounts for between 15 and 30 percent of the cartels' annual profits. And since cartel profits tend to be reinvested in murdering the shit out of people, we're all better off the more scarce cartel pot gets.
"It's vegetables. For the children."
This is where many of you immediately start talking about legalization, and it's true that, as we've learned from states where marijuana has already been decriminalized, consumers prefer to buy their drugs from people who aren't psychopathic murderers. It's estimated that legalization in Colorado and Washington will cut around $3 billion from annual cartel profits, so in a very real way, legal dispensaries are a powerful weapon against the cartels.
But before you start talking about legalizing everything, keep this in mind: The cartels are currently on the receiving end of up to $30 billion in annual drug sales to the United States. According to the DEA, as much as $10 billion of that is shipped across the Arizona/Mexico border alone. What do you think would happen if that revenue stream suddenly dried up? Would all drug-related violence in Mexico come to a complete stop, or would the cartels start fighting for control of the entire country? These people aren't going to shrug it off and get day jobs -- it would be like the last scene of Scarface, only spread across all of Mexico.
At least the neon globe statue market would be thriving.
I'm obviously not saying we should keep fighting the war on drugs because the poor cartels need the money -- I'm saying that it's naive to assume anything we do north of the border can make them go peacefully into the night. The war on drugs should be about minimizing the negative impact of drugs on our communities. If the greatest reduction of that impact comes from legalizing certain drugs, then let's do that right now. But it's not as black and white as many people seem to think. For example, if marijuana were legalized tomorrow, do you think the cartels wouldn't be smart enough to find a way to carve themselves a piece of that revenue (or that they haven't already)? Hell, cigarettes are legal, and there's still a worldwide $100 billion black market just from people looking to avoid taxes.
This is when those on the opposite side of the debate (who know even less about how the drug trade works) suggest sending some military special ops team down to Mexico to assassinate all of the cartel leaders, as if real life is exactly like Return of the Jedi and killing the guy in charge will immediately end the war. The problem is, "cartel boss" isn't exactly a career with a long life expectancy, and nobody is better at assassinating cartel leaders than other cartels.
Even Satan contracts hits out to them.
You see, killing each other is the cartels' second favorite pastime (coming in just behind "making money" and well ahead of "Magic: The Gathering"). Sending the military in to wipe out their leaders would be like trying to stop a fire by blowing on it -- you're just accelerating a process that was happening anyway. No one is resorting to drug smuggling because they want a safe, secure occupation.
The Police Are as Much a Threat to an Operation as the Cartels
When we're arranging to pick up a bunch of drugs and drive them across the country, we spend just as much time worrying about the cops as the actual criminals do. Part of being undercover is not telling anyone what you're doing -- if we notify the Border Patrol, the highway patrol, or the two dozen other law enforcement agencies lying between the pickup and drop-off points, we might as well paint "FEDERAL AGENT" on the side of the van and blast the DHS theme song as we drive.
"I just met you, and this is crazy ..."
See, in the border areas, the bad guys have scouts on pretty much every strategic hill and mountaintop for miles. They'll notice a "thinning of the line" if law enforcement starts pulling out of one place or gathering in another -- cooperating with us instead of trying to catch us. Not to mention the possibility that some overzealous Border Patrol agents might screw us over just to get a pat on the back for a big drug bust, which totally happens.
So, we use the same tactics that real drug mules use. For instance, we usually have extra "heat" vehicles -- cars that aren't loaded with drugs that we send screaming down the highway to deliberately get pulled over for speeding, allowing the cars behind them with the drugs to creep on by. Once we get out of sight of the border, we can relax a bit, because we have more control. But the impending bust is still a problem.
Especially when Burt Reynolds isn't available.
Once we've finally gotten the product to its prearranged destination, we organize a drop-off (usually a big parking lot somewhere) to hand over the shipment. Eventually, this will make its way to a stash house, a phrase that here means "the place where everyone is going to be arrested." However, if they get busted right away, they're going to know for sure it was us who set them up -- we prefer them to believe they had the misfortune to get busted by the local police and that we were still on their side the whole time. Since we're working with the local police, we have to trust them not to bust the stash house immediately (which they'd be tempted to do, to get the biggest possible "score"). If everything goes smoothly, we're long gone before the first set of handcuffs gets slapped on.
And then, you have the threats that come from inside the agency itself ...
It's Shockingly Easy to Be Taken in by a Double Agent
Full disclosure -- I have been tricked by a double agent who was secretly working for the cartels.
"Hello, I would like to apply for the Good Guys America #1 team, please."
Her name is Jovana Deas. She was assigned to work with the Border Patrol, and she spent years feeding drug cartels information about our operations and our informants. Most of us didn't know anything was wrong until the FBI came to the office to seize her computer, and that shit is terrifying.
You can learn the whole story here, but the short version is that she was a model worker who constantly volunteered to take on more tasks and thus gained more access to sensitive information. If we started using a new program to catalog our investigations, she'd quickly become an expert in it and gain admin status, and so on. This woman had direct access to confidential informant files -- people whose lives depended on keeping their identities secret. Deas was caught when a hit man in Mexico was busted with a picture of an informant that had come from one of our files. That's like finding a Polaroid of one of your co-workers in a serial killer's lunchbox.
"Oh, phew, I thought that was me for a second. OK, drive safe."
In the end, Deas got only 2.5 years in prison -- she had leaked so much information that it was more valuable to get her to admit what information had been compromised in exchange for a reduced sentence, rather than hit her with the maximum penalty.
The whole situation made me realize that people working for the DHS are rarely suspicious of each other. Yeah, we're "special agents" and we carry guns, but at the end of the day, it's still an American office. We have holiday parties, and we go out to lunch together and talk about non-homeland security stuff all the time. We don't lurk in shadows and speak in code words. So it's easy to forget that we're working in a field where spies and espionage are a legitimate concern.
And we are now super attentive to how you order your drinks.
And if you're shocked that the drug cartels are sophisticated enough to get a mole inside a federal agency, well ...
The Cartels Aren't Quite What You'd Expect
Chances are, when you picture cartel drug lords, you're picturing the cast of Scarface hanging out with the cast of Miami Vice -- guys in flashy pastel suits who fly into a murderous rage if anything happens to one of their shipments and tend to feed anyone who crosses them to exotic animals. The truth is, cartel members look just like every other upper middle class person from the Southwest -- they wear designer jeans and collared shirts and keep very few tigers.
Two or three, tops.
The cartels are very sophisticated, especially in Mexico. They're closer to being their own countries than gangs. And unlike the drug barons you see in movies, actual cartels know that loss is a part of the game, and that drugs are the one thing they will literally never run out of. For example, marijuana is cheap to produce, so if you walked into a bar in Mexico and lied about your smuggling skills, a cartel might just front you a thousand pounds of weed to see if you live up to your own hype (and that is a shitload of weed). From the cartels' perspective, it's worth it to shotgun cheap drugs like pot out onto the streets because it costs them almost nothing and they don't take on any risk.
The cartels also have a radio network that crosses Mexico and the United States in a truly awe-inspiring feat of guerrilla engineering. It's incredibly high-tech -- they use constantly evolving encryption and a repeater network with little stations stuck on top of mountains across the U.S. Rumor has it that the cartels paid a former spec ops communications expert to set it up. Maybe that sounds crazy, but they do have a multimillion-dollar radio network that stretches across three nations and seems almost impervious to disruption.
And it has better coverage than AT&T.
So, yeah, the next time you see a movie about a renegade cop going off on his own to take down the cartels single-handedly, Punisher style, keep that in mind. These organizations are formidable enough that entire countries have failed to take them down. Your lone action hero isn't going to make much of a dent, no matter how much he refuses to play by the rules. As long as people like doing drugs, these guys aren't going anywhere.
Robert Evans's first book A Brief History of Vice is available for pre-order now. It's filled with guides to recreating ancient drug-fueled debauchery!
Related Reading: For a look on the opposite side of this article, check out Cracked's investigation into the real facts of life as a street-level drug dealer. If you're more interested in what your doctor wants to shout at you, but legally can't, read this article right here. Curious about life inside a Christian fundamentalist cult? We talked to a woman who grew up in one. If you've got a story to share with Cracked, hit us up here.