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El Narco: Dying for nothing

From the archive: This story is more than 10 years old.

El Narco: Dying for nothing

The second of three excerpts from Ioan Grillo's book on the drug war

  • Bloomsbury Press
  • Ioan

Alongside other veterans, Daniel would buzz around the state in a helicopter carrying an M16 automatic rifle and raiding marijuana plantations. Most were run by Mexicans and located inside national parks and forests and included some huge farms with up to twelve thousand plants. During one bust, some thugs from Michoacan fired at them with Kalashnikovs.

“I was getting close to the plantation and they fired. We hit the ground first, kneeling down and we fired back, and they were gone. These people have balls, they are crazy.”

Daniel’s next job was in the U.S. Customs Service busting runners as they came over the border. Because of the huge quantity of traffic at Tijuana-San Diego, agents can only toss a tiny percentage of vehicles. So the key for Daniel and other agents was to try to read people and smell who was dirty. Daniel found he had a special talent for spotting smugglers.

“It is like a sense. I look at them and see if the person that is driving does not match the car or the car does not match the person. I get close up to their face and say, ‘How are you doing?’ And if you’re carrying a bunch of money or drugs, I’m going to get all over your ass.

“The problem was people on the streets knew me because I grew up there. They would say, ‘This is a contradiction. We used to smoke grass together.’ Well, that was then, this is now. To avoid retribution, I had to segregate myself and move way up north.” 

As Daniel scored big results busting marijuana, crystal meth, cocaine, and heroin, DEA agents spotted his talent and invited him over. Suddenly, he was a federal agent on a higher salary and working on the big investigations; his career had rocketed.

First he would stay at the border and be called in when customs agents had made a bust. His job was to flip the smuggler and persuade him to work for the DEA. He found his knowledge of border culture gave him a special talent at turning suspects into informants.

“I don’t even need a bad cop. I just need me, because I sell the product. You did what you did. That is on you. How can I help you go forward? I can’t go back and erase your fucking life. If you want to move forward let’s do it. I sell myself – I sell myself the way I reach people and the way I talk to them.

“I don’t lie to them. I already know what is in the car. I know where you are going. Either you take it and I’ll arrest the people who it really belongs to, or you can just sit on this shit for a while and just do your fucking time. If it’s coke, heroin or ice you are fucked. You are fucking fucked. Don’t worry about it. The only way I can help you is if you fucking take it where you need to go. I’m not lying about any of the things – they are all true. If you have got five or ten keys (kilos) you are fucked. If you have got more than that you are fucking destroyed.”

Daniel would persuade the smugglers to take the drugs onto their delivery point, followed by agents. Then they could bust a whole drug warehouse – in San Diego or often up in Los Angeles. Or they could keep following the gang and bust a whole smuggling operation.

Daniel also learned the art of cultivating informants and training them to get deeper into the cartels. As the “rats” get closer to the DEA, they can be used for a whole range of tasks, such as introducing other infiltrators to higher-ranking mobsters.

“Informants are a big key. They can say they are my buddy, say they went to school with me for ten years. They can make a whole bunch of stuff up. As long as you treat each other like it is true, the gangsters will believe it. You have got to believe it too.”

Use of informants is ethically questionable. The DEA ends up paying money to dubious characters, albeit toward busting bigger drug loads and bigger criminals. In theory, agents cannot pay informants actively involved in criminal activities. In practice, agents try not to know what their informants are up to. As they admit, “these guys are not choir boys.” Agents are also worried the informant could be a double agent, who is feeding info to the cartel. Or a triple agent. Daniel discovered you have to push into an informant’s mind to make sure they are playing straight.

“I’ve got to make sure they are not fucking lying and setting me up so I can fail. Who wants to fucking die for nothing. I can’t do that.
Informants are all dirty. All of them. Except maybe they are clean for a moment. They are like a dirty person who took a shower that day. Guess what? He’s clean for that day. Tomorrow he is dirty again.”

During the Mexican Drug War, two high profile cases of bad informants have caused scandals for American law enforcement. They didn’t involve the DEA — but the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, an agency that is part of the Bush-created Homeland Security and has also moved into fighting drug gangs. ICE agents broke the rules and hired informants who carried out murders in Ciudad Juarez. It caused a bad stink on both sides of the border — thugs on an American payroll killing in Mexico.

That was a case of bad agents. But even the best agents have to take risks. Because the very nature of the drug trade sows conspiracy. It is not a crime like a bank heist, where sobbing victims will help the probe and testify against the robbers. The narcotics trade is an industry in which billions of dollars spreads round among thousands of people. There is no classic victim — only drug takers on the street, who willingly take their dose and haven’t a clue about who is moving it. So drug agents have to infiltrate the industry through informants and undercover. They have to get into the espionage game.

After two and a half years flipping smugglers at the border, DEA officers saw that Daniel had huge potential. Here was a man with a perfect profile for undercover south of the Rio Grande: Mexican, tough, street smart, an ex-marine, and with a proven track record. So they sent him to the school where agents learn to work undercover – in a two-week course. 

“You can’t learn shit in two weeks. Not a damn fucking thing. That is just for protocol, and that is just to check to say you have been to it. You learn nothing more than the streets will teach you growing up.”

With a license to work undercover, Daniel started going after major international trafficking operations. He didn’t care about kilos anymore; he was looking for tons.

In the next excerpt, Daniel sets up a huge bust.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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