Corruption in the war on drugs, from the inside out.
Copyright, December, 1990
“There is something in corruption which, like a jaundiced eye, transfers the color of itself to the object that it looks upon, and sees everything stained and impure.”
Thomas Paine, The American Crisis (1776-83).
“It’s like they want us to go bad, ” said Al 1, using the not-so-euphemistic term DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) agents use to describe the taking of a bribe, the stealing of drugs and money, the selling of drugs or any of the other myriad of ways a law enforcement officer can cross the line from upholder of the law to violator of the law. He picked up a heavy barbell and continued speaking through a violent, chest-slamming, set of curls.
“They give the FBI an extra twenty-five thousand bucks a year… to work in this God damned city….and us nothing….and half those feebs come to work in car pools… And Lawn (Jack Lawn, ex-Administrator, DEA) doesn’t say a fucking word….What does he care?…He retired and got himself a big paying job…Vice President… of the fucking Yankees. ”
I paused in the middle of a set of push-ups to listen. The place was the New York, DEA office Gym, which I continued to use after my retirement. Street agents and cops will always be my favorite people; not the “suits”-the political appointees and administrative types who direct this whackier-every-day War on Drugs from behind desks. I had levelled some strong criticisms against them in my book, Deep Cover, accusing them of an incompetence that cost agents’ lives; of running a fraudulent drug war; of being motivated by greed, self-aggrandizement and a quest for media exposure and lucrative second careers-of everything and anything, other than really winning. I doubted that they were happy that I was still using the gym. But I figured after retiring with three herniated discs, a bad knee and shattered ankle-momentos of my career-I had earned the right.
“Yeah,” said another agent skipping rope. “He took care of himself pretty good, didn’t he. And Stutman’s no better. (Robert Stutman, retired head of DEA’s New York office) Now that he cashed in on his DEA job and got named the CBS drug expert, he’s saying the government oughtta spend less for law enforcement…”
“Christ,” said Al in exasperation. “They’re all whores. A fucking saint would go bad in this business.”
The words jarred some old memories loose-and some not so old. I had known too many guys who had gone bad and every one of them was the last guy in the world anyone would have believed it of; and most of them had “gone over” during the past thirteen years. The past decade, in fact, has brought with it the worst epidemic of corruption in the history of law enforcement, making the years of prohibition look like a Boy Scout weenie roast-and almost all of it related to our war on drugs.
Within the ranks of DEA, alone, cases of “misconduct” have increased during the past several years at a whopping rate of 176 percent, 40 percent of which involved cases of bribery, fraud, obstruction of justice and the selling of drugs. The situation has become so critical according to the DEA brass that experts are being consulted to determine what the problem is and how to meet it.
A little more than a decade ago cases of corruption were rare. The idea among DEA agents, that one of us would go bad was almost inconceivable. Most of the people selected for the position of Special Agent were, and still are, products of a highly moral background, (as verified by lengthy and exhaustive reputation and background investigations); conservative men and women who seem to take the job out of the highest of ideals (as verified by intensive personal interviews before panels of agents and supervisors). If anything, events of recent years have made DEA more discriminating than ever about its candidates; only granting employment interviews to those who have graduated college with a cumulative B average or higher, and who have passed the Federal Entrance Examination in the top ten percentile.
If you add to that the continuous brainwashing we are subjected to, driving home the message that failure to inform on a fellow agent you know to have violated the law makes you as guilty as he and subject to the same penalties, the incongruously rough sentences narcotics officers convicted of corruption are given, and our intimate knowledge of the, particular, horrors awaiting us as inmates in the penal system-to be caught going bad, for a DEA agent, is a fate worse than death. I had known men, during those early drug war years, who, on learning that they were under investigation-even for seemingly minor violations of law like overstated voucher expenses- committed suicide.
So what is happening to cause DEA agents- once thought of as the least likely candidates for corruption imaginable-to suddenly go bad at a record pace? I think I know the answer; and it’s not one the politicians and drug war bureaucrats want you to discern or spend much time thinking about.
A Strange Case and the Beginning of a Trend
On a warm spring day in 1977, I found myself in a Connecticut motel room, with an informer with the unlikely name of James Bond, on one of the strangest undercover assignments of my career-posing as a Mafia hood trying to buy information from DEA’s secret files.
In 1977, for a DEA agent, the drug war was still a simple matter of good versus evil. I had been a federal law enforcement officer for twelve years in four federal agencies, (IRS, Intelligence Division; Alcohol, Tobacco And Firearms; Bureau of Customs, Hard Narcotics Smuggling Division and DEA beginning in 1973) during which time I had personally known only three men who had been arrested and accused of corruption; and only one of them was a DEA agent who was accused of stealing money. Most of us actually believed the rhetoric of the politicians; that the youth of our nation were being poisoned by the deadliest and most loathsome enemy Americans have ever had to face-the evil drug dealer. And that putting them in jail-by any means-was God’s work. And with a brother who had just committed suicide after nineteen years of heroin addiction, I doubt that there was another agent or cop more fanatically dedicated to doing just that, than I was.
I could not have been more “off the wall.”
There were of course some disquieting rumors that the CIA was involved in protecting drug dealers in the Far East for political reasons. There were even some who claimed the agency itself was involved in drug trafficking-but who the hell would believe that? A meticulously researched and documented book like The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia by Alfred McCoy, that should have had Americans screaming for investigations into the conduct of a drug war already dripping with evidence of high-level government deception and fraud and the senseless sacrifice of human life, was little known, poorly distributed and successfully ignored by the bureaucrats and politicians. No right-thinking DEA agent would ever read anything like it, anyway. To do so was damned near un-American. What kind of man-CIA agent or not- could protect a drug dealer and still call himself an American? The rumors were obviously part of some commie disinformation plot.
So in the Spring of 1977, I was the quintessential representative of a DEA still in its years of innocence; a fledgling agency not yet adept enough internationally to threaten special interests like the $40 billion debt the cocaine producing nations owed American bankers; or people with “special” relationships with the CIA, Pentagon or State Department-people like Manuel Noriega. We just didn’t know what the score was. But times were changing, and changing quickly.
There was a light knock on the motel door. I raised my arms and signalled at the hidden cameras. In another room video and sound equipment began recording what would be the first case of its kind in DEA’s history.
A short while later in the smoke filled motel room, a young, clean cut looking guy by the name of George Girard promised me that for $500 a name he could check out any name I gave him in the DEA computer system.
“You could tell me if the guy’s an informer?” I asked.
“No sweat,” said Girard who had quit DEA after seven years on the job to open a private detective agency.
I couldn’t believe my ears. No DEA agent alive would sell the name of an informer-it was murder. Girard was out of DEA, so there was no way he could make good on the promise. I was sure he was just running a con job on me. He probably figured stealing money from the Mafia’s no crime, so screw it! But still, before I gave him the name that had already been rigged into the DEA computer system as an informant, I had to be sure he knew that-if he did get me the information- he was killing a man, just as surely as if he were pulling a trigger.
“If this guy is a stool pigeon,” I said, trying to rivet him with my eyes. “I’m going to kill him.”
“I don’t want to know that,” said Girard quickly. “That’s your business.”
“The name’s Lumieri,” I said. “Richard Lumieri.”
Days later I met with Girard in the motel and was stunned when he gave me, almost verbatim, the information that had been planted in the DEA computer system. Over the next several weeks I kept feeding the ex-DEA agent requests for information from DEA’s files. He was unfailing in his ability to furnish me with everything I requested including the identities of other informers. To see how far he would go, I offered him cocaine as payment instead of money, and he accepted.
I kept dealing with Girard until we learned that his inside connection was an agent named Paul Lambert, one of the best thought of agents in DEA headquarters. The whole agency was shocked as Lambert was arrested at his desk and led out in handcuffs. The Administrator of DEA, Peter Bensinger, who had been kept in the dark throughout the investigation, was outraged. Nothing like it had ever happened before. Lambert, besides having a promising DEA career was known to be independently wealthy. The few hundred-dollars a name he received for running computer checks could not have meant anything to him. He hired-at no small cost- one of the best defense attorneys in the land, Charles Shaffer, who also defended John Dean of Watergate fame.
After a two month, well-publicized trial, Girard and Lambert were convicted and sentenced to ten and twelve years in prison, respectively. Their lives were destroyed.
But why? And, for what?
During the weeks of undercover with Girard I had tried to get some idea of what motivated him. The clearest answer I got was his description of the drug war as, “The whole thing was bullshit.” I never knew Lambert; although those who did, said that his participation in the scheme made less sense than Girard’s. For me the whole episode ended with the unanswered question-Why?
DEA, of course, revamped its security system and the suits breathed a sigh of relief. The case was an aberration, they said. It was not-they assured the media-part of a growing pattern of corruption.
They could not have been more wrong. And all of us on the inside could feel it-the times were changing.
The Strange Case of Sandy Bario
“The Case Of Agent Bario,” was the title that Time magazine used in its January, 29, 1979, edition, reporting the strange life and even stranger death of DEA agent Sante Bario. The article synopsized how one of DEA’s top undercover agents went bad, using his post as DEA’s, Assistant Country Attache in Mexico City to smuggle drugs into the United States. “Sandy,” as those of us who knew him well called him, was arrested by DEA’s Internal Security Division after he had allegedly conspired with one of his informants in the smuggling and distribution of eleven pounds of cocaine stolen during a DEA raid in Mexico City.
On December 16, 1978, while sitting in his jail cell, Sandy took a bite of a peanut butter sandwich. He stood up and threw the rest in the toilet. Moments later, according to reports, he was found in convulsions. He slipped into a coma from which he would never recover. Preliminary tests made while he was still alive revealed strychnine in his blood. The warden told Sandy’s wife that he had been poisoned. Subsequent tests, according to DEA, mysteriously, failed to reveal any traces of poison. The first tests were ruled “in error. ” The final autopsy report indicated that Sante Bario had “choked to death” on his peanut butter sandwich. To this day there are many in DEA who secretly (and not so secretly) believe that Sandy was either killed by DEA’s Internal Security, or the CIA because “he knew too much about secret U.S. government involvement in narcotics trafficking.”
But who, in 1979 could believe that?
I was already stationed in Argentina when I heard about Sandy’s arrest and death. The news was more than a shock to me. I had known him for many years. He was one of the best, most decorated undercover agents this government has ever had, laying his life on the line on a daily basis with the kind of courage that only comes from the deepest of conviction. Sandy was a legend among undercover agents. I doubt that his record of arrests and convictions for a deep cover penetration of the Mafia will ever be equalled.
Sandy and I had known each other for more than ten years. We had met as agents in the IRS Intelligence Division. “This country’s biggest enemy is going to be drugs,” he told me before transferring to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1965. His words-and then later learning of my brother’s heroin addiction- were what convinced me to follow his path.
In 1975 we were working in the same DEA, international enforcement group when Sandy was transferred to Mexico. An Internal Security Division-at the time without much corruption to investigate-tried to hold up Sandy’s transfer, investigating him for living with his girlfriend “out of wedlock.” I don’t think there are any words to convey the pain a man who daily lays his life on the line for his government suffers when that same government turns on him in such a shabby, cheap way.
Sandy-in righteous indignation and without any of the traditional fear agents have for standing up to the dreaded Internal Security Division- fought the investigation boldly and finally won a written apology from one of the suits. He was a man with nothing to fear or hide-a truly heroic figure. There is no way I will ever believe that the Sandy Bario who left for Mexico in 1975 was the same man who smuggled drugs and died in a Texas jail four years later. Something had to have happened that changed him; and it had to be something radical.
Within months of Sandy’s death my education into the realities of our so-called War on Drugs would begin. It would leave me with an understanding of why Sandy and scores of men like him have gone bad and why countless more will follow, unless things are changed quickly and drastically.
The “Coca Revolution”
(The Sellout of The Cocaine War)
Early in 1980, from my post in Buenos Aires, I began to put together a deep cover “sting” operation against a Bolivian named Roberto Suarez who was putting together a combine of all his country’s major coca growers for mutual protection, economy of production and to eliminate competition. It was the birth of what, nine years later, DEA would call “the General Motors of cocaine.” The deep cover operation-in spite of many behind-the-scenes moves on the part of DEA and other government agencies to sabotage it-was eventually accomplished. Attempts at destroying the investigation were so overt, frequent and outrageous-at times exposing us to life-threatening situations- that by the end of the operation the rallying cry of the undercover team had become, “Let’s make this case in spite of DEA.” 2
Our efforts; however, turned out to be in vain. After the arrests, seizures, indictments and the media ballyhoo giving the suits and politicians credit for “the greatest sting operation in history;” 3 those of us who had accomplished the feat, then watched horrified and helpless as the CIA supported the same people we had arrested, indicted and identified as the biggest drug dealers in history,4 in their takeover of the Bolivian government in the now infamous July, 1980 “Cocaine Coup,” one of the bloodiest revolutions in Bolivian history. Our government’s greatest drug war victory had been turned into its greatest defeat; a fact that received no media coverage whatsoever.
I would later learn that the Suarez organization had convinced the CIA that the civilian government-some of whom had cooperated with us in the sting operation-were “leftists.” Our secret government then made what they had been conned into believing was a choice between communism and drugs, for us. They helped in the destruction of the only Bolivian government officials having any anti-drug sentiments at all. And if any proof of the new military government’s real aims were needed, their first act was to destroy all the drug trafficking files in Bolivia’s Hall of Justice. Bolivian cocaine traficking would never again be truly threatened. The drug war had taken a back seat to politics, as it still does.
From that point on Bolivia began supplying cocaine base to the then fledgling Medellin Cartel in Colombia as though it were a legal export. At the same time the demand for cocaine in the United States began to boom. It was the beginning of a decade that gave us crack, crack babies and the worst crime and violence statistics of any nation in history; and it could not have been done without the help of our own government.
I, along with many of my brother DEA agents, watched the fraud from the sidelines with aching and frightened hearts. The times indeed were a changing.
The Roberto Suarez case also heralded in a decade during which the the drug economy’s value as a political and economic tool rose sharply while, in contrast, the the value of the lives of American’s in general and narcotics officers in particular, plummeted. Within the U.S., police and narcotic agents fought a bloody, urban drug war, while our politicians, CIA and Pentagon were in bed with the biggest drug dealers alive. Many DEA agents began to realize that they were sacrificial pawns in a fraudulent, no-win war like Vietnam; that their true purpose was to pile up meaningless arrest and drug seizure statistics-and at times, die in the streets-in order to convince voting and tax-paying Americans that there was a drug war; and that international narcotic enforcement was a “minefield” of Roberto Suarezes and Manuel Noriegas.
It seemed no small coincidence to me that, during the same time period the incidents of corruption in DEA began to spiral upward, involving criminal indictments against the least likely people imaginable. People like my friend DEA agent Darnell Garcia-a legendary martial arts expert and profound believer in Bushido, (The Way of the Warrior), as antithetical a system of beliefs to acts of corruption, as exists on this earth-who was arrested and charged with stealing and selling drugs, and money laundering. People like my friend Tom Traynor 5-a deeply religious father of five and highly decorated DEA agent who neither drank, smoked nor (and I’m not kidding) used profanity-who was arrested and charged with smuggling large quantities of cocaine from South America. And more just like them followed-too many more. To me it was mind boggling.
The increase in drug war corruption was not only limited to DEA, it was happening everywhere. Law enforcement officers, elected officials and even judges were being indicted for everything from accepting bribes to selling drugs. In one investigation that I supervised in the New York City Joint Task Force (US V Cesar Ramirez), I arrested two New York City detectives who had accepted bribes and helped a drug dealer in covering up the murder of his wife, and was then astounded to learn that some of the cocaine and money we had seized during the investigation had been stolen by Assistant United States Attorney Daniel Perlmutter-a Phi Beta Kapa graduate of Williams College and NYU Law School- the man charged with prosecuting the case. The scholarly prosecutor-married to another prosecutor-had been stealing the drugs and money to support his and a model girlfriend’s cocaine habits.
To a DEA agent in the 1980s, the whole world had become corrupt. No one could be trusted-not even our own government. And if we needed proof of how little our lives were valued alongside our government’s special interests in the drug war, the death of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was all the proof necessary.
The “Sacrifice” of Enrique Camarena
It was almost inevitable that the sacrifice of the life of DEA agent Enrique Camarena would occur in Mexico, one of the countries in this hemisphere most corrupted by the drug economy and most protected by our government’s special political and economic interests. It was also a country that would play a heavy role in events that would mold the rest of my life; events during which I often thought of Sandy Bario and wondered what secrets he might have revealed about the hypocrisy and corruption of our drug war, had he lived-and how much he had been through before he had gone bad.
Some six years after Sandy’s death, Kiki Camarena and his brother DEA agents assigned to Guadalajara Mexico, would write memorandums and cables to DEA headquarters in Washington and Mexico city, complaining of the anarchic conditions in Mexico and pleading for additional agents, more DEA, State and Justice Department support or-at the very least-getting diplomatic status for agents assigned there so that they might arm and protect themselves.
They were ignored.
Economic and political considerations were deemed more important than our drug problem. No one wanted to “upset” Mexican officialdom by bringing up the “D” word (drugs)-or worse yet: the “C” word (corruption). And the DEA suits -more politicians than law enforcement officers, and willing pawns of any special interest group-were more interested in maintaining the illusion of a “special” and “cordial” relationship between the U.S. and Mexican governments than the complaints of a couple of street agents. Camarena finally prophesied his own death when he said, “Does someone have to die before something is done?”
On February 7, l985, DEA agent Enrique Camarena, married and the father of three young boys-who, on his own, working around and in spite of obstacles placed in his path by DEA suits, the State Department and other special interest groups, managed to cause the biggest Mexican marijuana seizure in history-was kidnapped in broad daylight in front of the American Consul in Guadalajara by Mexican policemen working for drug traffickers. He was tortured to death over a twenty four hour period, while his murderers tape-recorded his cries.
Mexican government officials were so disdainful of our hypocritical drug war that they aided his killers in escaping from right under the noses of frustrated and powerless DEA agents. It would be a month before Camarena’s body would be found and years before some-but not all-of those responsible for his death would be brought to justice. The whole affair, were it not for the rage of Kiki’s brother street agents in keeping the investigation alive, would have been quickly swept under a rug.
The suits were in a rush to “normalize” U.S. relations with Mexico. There were items far more important than Kiki’s murder-items like the Mexican debt, and trade and oil agreements, not to mention secret Mexican support of the Contras and other CIA programs. Instead of pressuring Mexico economically to aid in identifying those responsible for the murder, our Treasury Department was negotiating a new bail-out package of loans and the State Department was planning to increase Mexico’s share of the narcotics aid budget. And among the supporters of this move was DEA Administrator, John Lawn. 6 Hearings into the Camarena murder and the actions-or lack thereof-of our drug war “leaders,” by the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s task force on international narcotics control, would result in its chairman, Representative Larry Smith saying,
“I personally am convinced that the Justice Department is against the best interests of the United States in terms of stopping drugs…I just don’t think the Justice Department is committed to pushing the Mexicans on a resolution to the Camarena case. What has a DEA agent who puts his life on the line got to look forward to? The United States Government is not going to back him up. I find that intolerable!”
So did we DEA agents, but what could we do? Where and how could we vent our rage and frustration?
In the years following Kiki’s death, drug war corruption increased to levels unprecedented in our nation’s history. Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that during the same period of time evidence was revealed during the Iran-Contra hearings indicating that secret elements of our government were using the proceeds of drug sales to fund the Nicaraguan Contra movement and circumvent the wishes of our elected officials; and that evidence that might have convicted high level U.S. government officials of drug trafficking was withheld from senate investigators for “national security” reasons.
It was a time when “heros” like Colonel Oliver North and other U.S. officials were banned from Costa Rica for “drug and gun running activities” by that country’s very credible, Nobel Prize winning president, Oscar Arias; a time when the DEA agent assigned to Honduras documented 50 tons of cocaine entering the U.S. at the hands of U.S. supported Contras and Honduran military, (half the estimated U.S. cocaine consumption), and was then immediately transferred out of Honduras to get him out of the hair of the Pentagon and CIA; a time when DEA agents like Everett Hatcher and local cops like New York City patrolman Chris Hoban would be gunned down trying to take grams and ounces of drugs off our streets, while our own government aided and abetted in the trafficking of tons.
It was a time when our President would tell us that “everyone who looks the other way” condoning drug trafficking was “just as guilty” as the drug traffickers. He would then order our troops to invade Panama at a cost of hundreds of innocent lives to arrest a drug dealer whose activities our government had condoned by looking the other way for almost two decades. It was a time when I would witness the intentional destruction of one of the biggest and most far-reaching drug cases in the history of the drug war (Operation Trifecta, the subject of Deep Cover ) because it threatened other U.S. interests deemed more important.
It was a time when we DEA agents would realize that, as Pogo said, after tracking full circle, “We have found the enemy and he is us.”
A mighty thump brought me back to the present. Al was now pounding a heavy-bag suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the gym. “In a dirty card game,” he grunted, jabbing at the bag, “only a fool plays it straight.” He punctuated the sentence with a thumping right cross. He turned from the bag shaking his head in frustration. No amount of sweat would lighten the burden all narcotics officers carry. “How do they blame a guy for going bad, when the whole fucking government has gone bad?”
One of the defenses classically used by people arrested for selling drugs to an undercover agent, is claiming that the conduct of the government’s agents was either criminal, immoral, or such that the defendant was enticed into doing something he ordinarily would never have done-entrapment. It seems to me that our government’s conduct in its so-called war on drugs has become so criminal and immoral, that anyone arrested for going bad might have a valid entrapment defense.
What do you think?
1 Not his real name.
2 these events are synopsized in Deep Cover Delacorte Press, March,1990 and will be documented in greater detail in the forthcoming Queen of Cocaine to be published in October, 1991 (Delacorte Press).
3 September, 1982, Penthouse , “The Great Bolivian Cocaine Scam,” by Jonathan Kandell.
4 Roberto Suarez was called the “biggest drug dealer alive,” by Mike Wallace on a “60 Minutes,” show aired, 3/1/81
5 I changed his name because the case received little publicity and I think his family has suffered enough.
6 Ironically, years later, Lawn-who claimed never to have seen any of Kiki’s memos; a claim that was never investigated-was depicted as a “hero” in an NBC television movie version of Kiki’s death, called The Drug Wars.