Criminal informants are the real winners in the DEA’s drug war
“I’m looking for Mike Levine, ex-DEA,” said a man’s voice.
“How’d you get this number?” I said. It was close to midnight and my wife and I were in a San Francisco hotel on business.
“Man, you don’t know what I went through to find you.”
The voice belonged to a well-known California defense attorney who said he’d tracked me through my publisher.
“I’m in the middle of trying a case,” he said. “I need you to testify as an expert witness. The judge gave me the weekend to find you and bring you here.”
“Whoa! Back up,” I said. “I’m not a legal consultant.”
“But you’re a court-qualified expert. I checked you out. I read your books. I read some interview you did. Didn’t you call the drug war a fraud?”
“A huge fraud. But because I talk about thieves, crooks, and dopers inside the government doesn’t mean I’m gonna work for them on the outside.”
“Look, I’m defending the guy for expenses,” snapped the attorney. “He’s been working 60 hours a week for the last three years parking cars—does that sound like a Class One fucking cocaine dealer to you?”
Class One was the Drug Enforcement Administration’s top rating for drug dealers. You had to be the head of a criminal organization and dealing with tens of millions of dollars in drugs each month to qualify as a Class One. Pablo Escobar and the fabled Roberto Suarez were Class One.
“You can prove your guy’s a parking lot attendant?” I asked.
“I’ll Fed Ex you his time sheets. Better yet, I’ll send you everything—undercover videotapes and the DEA’s own reports. You tell me if the guy’s a Class One.”
“DEA couldn’t get any dope from Miguel [not his true name]—not even a sample. So they charge the poor bastard with a no-dope conspiracy. Did you ever hear of anything like that? A parking lot attendant on a no-dope conspiracy? Then they bring in a DEA expert from Washington to testify that a true Class One doper doesn’t give samples. You and I both know that's bullshit.”
The lawyer was right: It was pure bullshit. But it was the kind of bullshit I had always been aware of. There’s enormous career pressure on street agents to make as many Class One cases as they can, for a simple reason: Federal agencies justify their budgets with statistical reports to Congress, and Congress loves to see Class Ones. The agents with the highest percentage of Class Ones are the guys who get bonuses and promotions. And over the years the professional rats, who originate more than 95 percent of all federal drug cases, had learned that selling a Class One to the government was worth a much bigger reward payment. Many of them knew the DEA’s criteria for a Class One better than a lot of the agents.
Unfortunately, in the DEA and other federal agencies there were agents who would bend the facts in their own favor. They’d write up a midlevel dope dealer or a street peddler as a Class One, based on ‘evidence supplied by a previously reliable informant,’ without corroborating the rat’s information.
To me, that kind of bullshit was no different from all the federal prosecutors with an eye on public office who exaggerated the importance of their cases to a media that would swallow just about anything as long as it sold papers and got ratings. And it was downright harmless compared to some drug czar facing 20 million Americans on Larry King Live and saying “We’ve turned the corner on the drug war” to further his political career. If you put all the dopers the press had reported as “linked to the Medellin or Cali cartels” hand in hand, they’d circle the earth.
But the DEA flying an expert witness across country to make a parking lot attendant look like a Class One coke dealer in a federal trial was something I’d never heard of.
“You didn’t answer me,” I said. “What do you think I can do for you?”
“When I cross-examined the DEA expert he named your book, Deep Cover, as one of the books he read to qualify as an expert. Now I want you to testify that he’s full of shit.”
“There’s gotta be something you’re not telling me.”
“If I’m telling you the truth, will you be here on Monday?”
Just the thought of going head to head against the small elite agency I’d been a part of for almost a quarter of a century put knots in my stomach. Outsiders hear about the blue wall of silence, but no description I’ve ever heard really does it justice. To most guys in narcotic enforcement, the scummy bottom of life’s barrel is the CI (criminal informant), the rat. There’s only one thing lower: a cop who turns rat on his own. And to me, going to work for a doper was exactly that.
“How did the thing get started?” I asked.
“A CI approaches the DEA with a deal. He’s wanted in Argentina and Bolivia. He says, “If I get you a Class One arrest here, will you get the charges dropped against me over there?”
“How much did they pay him?”
“Over thirty thousand fucking dollars. And they admitted he’s gonna get more when the trial is over.”
Thirty thousand was not all that much for a Class One, but I wasn’t going to say anything.
“And Mr. Car-parker, what kind of rap sheet does he have?”
“Nothing!” I held the phone away from my ear. “This is his first arrest.”
“What kind of rap sheet does the rat have?”
He laughed. “This guy’s been busted all over South America for every kind of con job in the book. He even tried to sell his wife’s vital organs while she was in a coma.”
“Come on, counselor,” I said.
“If I’m telling the truth, will you be here Monday?”
“I listened this far,” I said. “If you want to send me your stuff, I'll look at it” The Fed Ex package was delivered to my room on Saturday morning. I opened it to find a stack of reports including Miguel’s work records, the transcripts of audiotapes, the rat’s file (much of it blacked out, as I expected), and a videocassette. It was the DEA’s whole case.
The work records were straightforward. Miguel worked for a large parking lot chain, punching a time clock for an average of 60 hours a week for the past three years, at minimum wage. He also had a little side business of delivering lunches to workers in the area. And, as the attorney had claimed, he had no prior criminal record.
The CI (I’ll call him “Snakeface”), on the other hand, was wanted in both Bolivia and Argentina for bad checks, petty theft, and every kind of scam imaginable. He had a total of 17 charges outstanding against him. His favorite scam was selling cars he didn’t own. His other part-time source of income during the past four years was selling drug cases to the DEA.
Snakeface first comes to Washington, D.C., from Bolivia with a wife and two kids whom he promptly abandons, returning alone to South America. Things don’t go too well, and in a short time he’s back in the United States, on the lam from police and scam victims in two countries. Miguel, a family friend and fellow Bolivian, tries to help out by giving Snakeface part of his lunch delivery business.
In the meantime, Snakeface’s wife suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and falls into a coma. While she lies dying, her grieving husband tries to sell her vital organs. When the sale of his dying wife’s heart, lungs, and kidneys doesn’t work out, Snakeface decides to sell Miguel—organs and all—to the DEA as a Class One cocaine dealer.
Snakeface’s first move showed me that he was no novice in playing the federal rat system. Instead of calling the local Washington, D.C., office of the DEA, or the FBI, he calls the DEA in California. He describes Miguel as “Chama,” the “East Coast distributor for a huge South American cartel dealing in shipments of thousands of kilos of cocaine into the U.S.” and “the head of his own criminal organization”—a description that just happened to fit the criteria for a DEA Class One violator.
The reason Snakeface approached a DEA office in Southern California, as far away from Washington, D.C., as possible, was a move of sheer con man beauty. His experience as a professional federal rat had taught him about the insane competition for headlines, budget, and glory among the myriad American federal enforcement, spy, and military agencies—53 at last count—involved in some form of narcotic enforcement. He knew that the California agents, afraid that the East Coast agents or some other agency would steal their case, would keep Chama King of Cocaine a secret.
California DEA officials react exactly as Snakeface had predicted. Instead of calling the Washington, D.C., office and asking them to check out the information, they send Snakeface airline tickets and money to come to California so they can get their first evidence—a recorded telephone conversation—and lock the case in as their own.
Next Snakeface tells Miguel, “Look, I’ve got this American mafioso in California who is dumber than a guava. The guy’s so dumb he’s even sent me airplane tickets to fly out there and set up a cocaine deal. I’ll tell him you’re the capo de tutti frutti of all Bolivian drug dealers. You tell this boludo that you can deliver all the cocaine he wants. He’ll give you a couple hundred thousand dollars out front. Then you and me take off back to Bolivia rich men and open up a chain of drive-in theaters.”
So Miguel-the-car-parker goes along with the deal. He has failed the U.S. government-financed test of his honesty; a test that, according to my training, was called Entrapment.
Now we cut to Snakeface in Southern California making his first DEA-tapped phone call to Chama King of Cocaine. He calls the parking lot where Miguel is supposed to be waiting. But Miguel isn’t there.
“He’s home sick,” says the woman who answers the parking lot phone.
Do the DEA agents stop here and ask, “What the hell is the East Coast distributor of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cocaine and the head of his own criminal organization doing parking cars all day long?” No. They call his house and tape-record the call.
Miguel answers. He’s in a bad way. He apologizes to Snakeface, explaining that he’s home with a terrible hangover. Then he tells this long, confused story about some friend of his getting drunk in his room, stealing his pants, and wrecking his car. Snakeface, with some effort and doing all the talking, finally steers the conversation into some garbled code talk that sounds less like a drug deal than like Roberto Duran trying to explain the Monroe Doctrine to Mario Cuomo.
Snakeface: “Yeah, what I’m trying to do is—since it’s a matter which is quite serious—big—and from the other things that I’ve seen like this, when we can’t be playing with, with unclear words and . . . that’s why what I, what you did, and I asked you if you’d spoken with him, because I know that he has the financial capacity and after all he’s, he’s a partner of, of, of [major drug cartel leader] and, and in the end anything will yield a profit if we’re hanging on to a big stick that’s on a big branch and, and we won’t have any problems. Right?”
Chama King of Cocaine: “Of course.”
That was about as clear as it ever got. If it was a dope conversation, the fact that he was talking across 3,000 miles of telephone wire from his home phone—something a high school crack dealer wouldn’t do—didn’t seem to bother Chama or the agents in the least.
At the end of this conversation, did these experienced, highly trained agents say “This guy doesn’t sound smart enough to be a Washington Heights steerer” or “Let’s pull the autopsy report on the rat’s wife”? Nope. They open a Class One investigation targeting Miguel the parking lot attendant and pay the rat his first $1,000. And there was plenty more to follow.
The packet of reports indicated that the investigation lasted eight months, during which time Snakeface successfully pimped the DEA agents about Chama King of Cocaine while simultaneously pimping Miguel about “Tony” (a DEA undercover agent), characterizing him as the Dumb-and-Dumber of the Mafia.
During that time, the California DEA conducted no investigation of Miguel whatsoever. The record showed no telephone investigation to ascertain whether Miguel was making telephone calls to any real drug dealers; no financial investigation to see what he was doing with his drug millions; no surveillance that would have revealed that Chama King of Coke was a working stiff who lived in a one-room apartment. They did nothing but write down as fact whatever their rat told them.
For eight months Snakeface stalls the California agents by reporting that Chama is in the process of putting together a major shipment of cocaine, and the agents continue to pay him. In all, he receives another $29,000 in informant fees, plus expenses, which included periodic trips to California to be debriefed on his progress. For eight months the agents nag Snakeface into trying to get Miguel to deliver a sample of cocaine to prove he is really in the business.
The sample never comes. Miguel didn’t even know anyone who could sell him a small amount. And if he did, he didn’t have the money. Snakeface was afraid that if he paid for the sample himself, the California agents might get wise to him. So he came up with a clever solution: He tells the agents that Class One dealers don’t give samples; only small dealers give samples. When, to his astonishment, they believe him, he takes it one step further: He tells them Miguel will not make the deal unless the agents put part of the money—$310,000—out front, and says this is another sign that Miguel is a true Class One dealer.
Snakeface had enough experience selling cases to the feds to know they would never front that kind of money. He also knew that the feds’ indecision and the slow-moving bureaucracy could give him quite a few months of salary—which is exactly what happened.
After eight months, the California agents finally decide that if Chama won’t deliver drugs to them without front money, they’ll get him on videotape promising them cocaine and accepting the money—all they’d need to prove him guilty of conspiracy to possess and distribute—and then bust his ass. Miguel would face enough charges to make him a guest of the American taxpayers for more years than he had left on this earth. The no-dope conspiracy arrest would also give the agents their Class One stat and maybe a headline from the ever gullible press.
By this time Snakeface not only had received $30,000 in rat fees, but all charges against him in Argentina had disappeared, and Snakeface had taken up residency in the United States to avoid going to jail in Bolivia.
Now Snakeface had two final duties to perform for his masters: bring Miguel to California for his arrest and then testify in court. More money was promised to come after Miguel’s conviction. How much, we’ll never know.
The stage was now set for the final act—the videotaping of the crime. Only there was one remaining snag. Miguel didn’t have the money to come to California for his own arrest. In a final irony, the DEA had to pay for his trip.
At last, dressed in his best Sears casuals and prepared to play the role of a Class One cocaine dealer for what he thought was a live audience of Mafia retards, Miguel was on his way to California, like a big Bolivian turkey on his way to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner.
It was close to midnight when I keyed the videotape of the climactic undercover meeting between Chama King of Cocaine and Tony Capo of the Three Stooges Mafia Family.
The screen flickered to life.
Center screen, Chama and Tony (the DEA undercover) face each other across a table. Between them is a piece of hand luggage containing three hundred grand in hundreds and fifties.
Several problems are immediately apparent. First, Tony’s Spanish is rudimentary at best, and Miguel speaks only a few words of English. Tony, for example, keeps referring to the “percento,” until Miguel finally figures out he is trying to say “purity”—a word anyone who did drug deals in Spanish would have known in his sleep.
Second, neither man knows his role. It is like Pee Wee Herman and Newt Gingrich playing dress-up and pretending to do a drug deal. Chama is dressed like the hotel maintenance man and Tony like an Elvis impersonator.
Neither knows the mechanics of a real Class One drug deal, or any real drug deal for that matter. There is no discussion of specific amounts, prices, weights, meeting places, delivery dates, provisions for testing the merchandise before delivery, methods of delivery, or prearranged trouble signals. Nothing happens that resembles a real drug deal, which is typically a paranoid event all about specifics. What the agents had on video wasn’t authentic enough for a Stallone movie.
The only clear thing is that Tony is asking Miguel to promise that if Miguel is allowed to leave the room with the $300,000 he will deliver an unspecified amount of cocaine within 25 to 30 days to an unspecified location. Pretty good for a parking lot attendant.
Miguel eagerly assures his new benefactor that he will make the delivery. He is then allowed to examine the money, after which the undercover DEA agent asks him if he is happy with what he sees. Miguel, who must be thinking that America truly is a land of gold-paved streets guarded by idiots and that his friend Snakeface is a genius on a par with Einstein, assures Tony that he is very happy.
With all the elements of the crime of conspiracy recorded on videotape, Tony concludes by saying, “Whew! Thank you very much and I’ll wait for your call.”
“OK,” says Miguel, his eyes bugging out with disbelief as he gets to his feet holding the money.
“Hey, dude,” says Tony, “I’ll be here a little while. I have to make a few calls. Bye.”
Miguel’s look as he starts to leave with the money says: Feet, don’t fail me now. But they don’t have far to go—about a half dozen steps before he is arrested.
I clicked off the video. If DEA stood for Dumb Enforcement Administration, Miguel undoubtedly was a Class One violator. But a drug dealer he definitely was not.
Had the agents responsible for this case been working for me at any time during the 17 years I was a supervisory agent, I would have jerked them into my office for a private conference. “There are a million real drug dealers in this country,” I would have told them. “There’s probably a couple of hundred working within a square mile of the office. If you’ve gotta go 3,000 miles and spend a quarter of a million in taxpayer bucks to turn a fucking parking lot attendant into a Class One doper, you oughta be working for the CIA, or Congress, or wherever else you can convert bullshit to money.”
I would have put them on probation and moved to fire them if they couldn’t do the job. I had done it before. But was this any of my business now that I was retired? And if Miguel wasn’t a dope dealer, he was certainly a thief, wasn’t he?
“What are you going to do?” asked my wife.
“I wish I knew,” I said. “It’s pure entrapment, but the idiot did his best to sound like a doper. If I’m gonna go against the DEA, I don’t want to lose.”
Everyone who has ever carried a federal badge knows how easy it is to convict someone who’s been entrapped on little more than an informant’s testimony, as long as the informant was clever enough to hide his tracks, the victim gullible enough to fall for the trap, and the agents and prosecutors ambitious and immoral enough to go for headlines, statistics, and winning at all costs.
Until a few years ago, I had believed that most of us in federal law enforcement were people whose pride and consciences would not allow that to happen. I was no longer so sure.
As a result of my books, I’d been receiving letters from federal prisoners who claimed they had been set up by lying criminal informants working for the various competing federal agencies enforcing the drug and money-laundering statutes. Guys like Lon Lundy, a once successful businessman, husband, and father from Mobile, Alabama—a man with no criminal record who was set up by a CI in a no-dope conspiracy case and received a life-with-no-parole sentence; or Harry Kauffman, a once successful Cleveland used car dealer, husband, and father, who was conned by a CI into accepting cash, alleged to be drug money, for some cars and charged with money laundering. And many, many others.
They were men of every race, religion, and national origin in the federal prison system. Most had no previous criminal records, most had had their homes, businesses, and financial assets seized by the federal government, leaving their families destitute. Each had received a prison sentence of more than 20 years. These were men whose lives and families had been destroyed. Their letters to me were desperate cries that affected me deeply. In many cases the rats ended up with a percentage of the assets seized as a reward for their work.
My 25 years in the justice system had taught me that there were plenty of bureaucrats and politicians who, if they didn’t like the way you exercised your rights as a citizen, or if they thought they could make headlines, political hay, or a promotion by your arrest and prosecution, would not think twice about using the government’s legions of paid belly-crawlers to target you. Few people have the money of a John DeLorean to defend themselves adequately against a slick rat.
The only thing, in my experience, that stopped these rats with badges and rats in public office were people of conscience in positions of authority and a knowledgeable and watchful media. For several years I had been seeing no evidence of either. And as publicly outspoken as I had been about the phony drug war bureaucrats and politicians, I found this all personally threatening.
But as I mulled this over, I recalled the murder of my son Keith by a man who had two prior murder convictions in New York State, a man who was on the street—according to our political leaders—because there is just not enough money to put everyone in jail who belongs there. Yet I had in front of me a file that spoke of federal law enforcement spending many hundreds of thousands of dollars to arrest and convict a parking lot attendant as a Class One drug dealer.
“I’ll do it,” I heard myself say the next morning. “I went over all your stuff. You’ve got a better entrapment defense here than John DeLorean had.”
There was a long silence on the phone. “I didn’t claim entrapment as my defense theory,” said the attorney.
I started to ask him why and stopped myself. It no longer mattered. The attorney’s opening statement claimed Miguel was innocent of all charges—not that he had been entrapped into committing the crime by a government rat working on commission. Miguel, on camera, had done his best to play the role of Chama King of Cocaine; he had accepted money and promised to deliver drugs, which was all the government needed to prove conspiracy. If a judge didn’t explain to a jury what entrapment was, not even Johnnie Cochran could get him off. And once the trial had begun, no judge would allow a change in the defense theory—it was a simple matter of law.
But Miguel’s guilt or innocence no longer mattered to me. I wanted to make the issue of the growing power of rats—those with and without badges—as public as I could. They weren’t only hurting people who had failed an honesty test, they were spending billions in taxpayer dollars for nothing but phony show trials, and they were filling the jails with people who were, at worst, nonviolent dupes while our nation’s streets were crowded with violent offenders.
My testimony for the defense lasted all day Monday and into Tuesday morning. I pointed out dozens of places in the tapes where Tony and Miguel’s actions indicated that neither of them knew what a real drug deal was like and stated that the crime never would have happened had it not been for the CI’s actions and the agents’ failure to control him and investigate his allegations properly.
“If the federal government is going to use suitcases full of taxpayer dollars to test the honesty of American citizens,” I added finally, “instead of working the parking lots of America, they ought to be running their tests in the halls of Congress, where it might do us some good.”
As soon as I got off the witness stand I headed back to New York, feeling shitty. The judge had refused to instruct the jury that they could find the defendant innocent by reason of entrapment, but the attorney was still hopeful. He said he’d call to let me know the verdict.
In New York a message was waiting for me—from another California attorney—that would quickly take my mind off what I had begun calling “the Beavis and Butt-head case.”
The attorney represented Donald Carlson, a 45-year-old executive for a Fortune 500 computer company. A paramilitary assault team of Customs, DEA, BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms), and Border Patrol agents had invaded Carlson’s suburban San Diego home using flash-bang grenades and automatic weapons. One of the invading feds did a Rambo roll, firing 15 rounds from his submachine gun, hitting everything in Carlson’s foyer but Carlson. Other agents hit their mark: Carlson was shot three times and arrived at the hospital in critical condition. The team had executed a search warrant based on the uncorroborated, uninvestigated word of a professional rat.
Miraculously, despite the best efforts of this newly formed suburban assault squad, Carlson had survived. He wanted to sue the government.
“We’d like to retain you as our consultant,” said the attorney, a soft-spoken, thoughtful man with an impeccable reputation for integrity.
I immediately started poring over the reports and statements. It was one of the most frightening examples of out-of-control, almost comically inept federal law enforcement I had ever seen or heard of in my career.
The federal grapevine must have been buzzing. I was contacted by cops and agents who wanted to see some of these guys go to jail. One of them sent me a copy of a congressional report he thought might be helpful, on hearings chaired by Congressman John Conyers Jr.
The title of the report tells its story: Serious Mismanagement and Misconduct in the Treasury Department, Customs Service and Other Federal Agencies and the Adequacy of Efforts to Hold Agency Officials Accountable.
The hearings not only found evidence of all of the above, they also found there was “a perception of cover-up” in these federal agencies for all their misdeeds. Although this report was issued within months of the Carlson shooting, the killings at Ruby Ridge, and the massacre at Waco, Texas, it went virtually ignored by the media.
A couple of days into my work on the Carlson case I got a call from Miguel’s attorney. The jury had found him guilty of attempted possession of cocaine. The charge carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. The attorney said he was appealing the conviction. The CI, in the meantime, was paid whatever he’d been promised and was probably off selling more cases. Even I had to admit that it was a good living. I hung up feeling like shit.
Weeks later, after I had submitted a report to Carlson’s attorney recommending that the agents and prosecutors involved in the case be fired and prosecuted, I was full of hope. A rat cannot be king unless the people who are supposed to control him become as immoral and corrupt as he is, and I was going for their throats. The Carlson case would be the example of what was going wrong all across the country that all Americans should see.
Miguel’s attorney called me again. “The judge reversed himself. He’s granted a new trial on the basis that Miguel should have had an entrapment defense. Will you be available to testify?”
“:Sure,” I said. “I’d love to.”
It would be months before I learned that the attorney and the federal prosecutor had worked out a plea bargaining deal. Miguel pled guilty to “use of a telephone for the purpose of facilitating a drug transaction,” and ended up with a four-year prison sentence. I suppose it could have been worse.
It would be more than a year before I would learn that the U.S. government had decided to settle with Carlson for $2.75 million, avoiding a trial and the public revelations of my reports. Part of the final agreement was that the government’s reports of its own actions be classified.
The U.S. attorney of San Diego made a public statement exonerating the agents and prosecutors of all wrongdoing. He said that “the system” failed Carlson, but that the agents and prosecutors were to be commended for having done their jobs.
And somewhere in the middle of this political shit storm the truth was lost and, as usual, all the rats—those with badges, those in appointed and political office—came out smelling like roses, while the walking-around, taxpaying, hardworking Americans took it up the ass.
God bless America, I thought. The land where the rat is king.
Reprinted from Prison Life, Jan-Feb 1996. Note this magazine is no longer active.