Context: Research for Cocaine: An Unauthorised Biography
Location: Los Angeles
Date: October 4th 2000
Interviewee: Senior DEA Agent
This interview, with a senior DEA agent who will no doubt wish to remain anonymous (if you’re reading this, recognise yourself, and would like me either to name you or to remove the transcript altogether, let me know!), took place in Los Angeles in the summer of 2000. This agent is very interesting on the development of the ‘Kingpin’ strategy that eventually collapsed the Medellin cartel – and the ensuing rise of Cali. He also explains the emergence of some of the main Mexican cocaine cartels – and how ignorance of the ways they were operating in tandem with the Colombians gave them a relatively free hand. The brief section in which he deals with corruption in Mexico is pretty eye-opening.
Download: Download Interview (PDF)
There was cocaine in 1965 but very small amounts, mostly from Peru. Mostly by seamen arriving in the New York who were smuggling in a couple of kilos at a time. We didn’t see any large shipments. The biggest I saw back in those days was 5 or 6 kilos at a time. It was a drug used mostly by folks in the entertainment world. Artists, writers, musicians – a cachet drug. It wasn’t highly abused, we didn’t see many ODs or criminal activity other than the smuggling itself. I was in New York City. Half of all the heroin addicts in the US were in the New York area and probably a good portion of the cocaine crowd.
When did the cocaine trade in the US really pick up?
Around 77, 76. When we began to see several things. First of all there was the violence in Florida. We began to see the Colombians and the Cubans shooting it out with each other on the streets in broad daylight, pretty much as they had been doing in their own countries for years. We hadn’t seen that level of violence in the States. Sure, we had a lot of gun violence and drive-bys and that sort of thing but for the most part we have never really had the machine-gunnings and the sort of group-against-group violence that is typical in other parts of the world, particularly in South America. And that was a wake-up call. A lot of the policymakers began looking at this and saying ‘What’s going on?’ and we began to realise that cocaine was flooding the country, that organisations were bringing in 100 kilo shipments at a time and what probably retarded our attention to this somewhat was that heroin had re-emerged, even though the French Connection was out of business for a few years by then and we thought we had made a significant progress on heroin (which we had) our friends in South east Asia began to produce a lot more than they normally produced and the Mexicans began to ship a lot of better quality heroin into the US and so we were really geared up to go after the heroin when all of a sudden we were hit on our left side – blind-sided – by this flood of cocaine. And as a law enforcement officer, the two drugs present a completely different challenge…
You were a heroin specialist?
Yeah, chasing the French Connection. I was in New York for that interregnum between the demise of the French Connection and the rise of cocaine, when there was almost a sort of a Pax Romana for a couple of years and we actually thought, in the words of Nixon, that we had turned the corner. Well, we turned the corner – to find another corner!
Was there any special incident that drove home to you the new threat?
There were some murders. There was a very interesting case in Queens back in the early 1970s where two young children were found slaughtered in the basement of a family residence in Queens. In a residential area that normally would not see this kind of violence. Even though New York City is a violent place there seems to be some level of violence that it will not stoop to. And that was one that captured the attention of the city for weeks. This incredibly brutal – I think the kids were strangled to death and found hanging from the plumbing pipes in the basement. This was headline stuff for weeks, mostly because the family seemed like it was so normal. It was an immigrant Colombian family that – a man and a woman. I want to say that he was a schoolteacher or something. I know he had a job and they were portrayed as average middle class ordinary people and how could something like this happen to them? All of a sudden about a month or so later it started to come out that this guy was heavily into the cocaine traffic and that he had owed the group some money and he had reneged on paying them and that this was their way of showing revenge. This was sort of an intense symbol that this was something a little bit different.
Even with the heroin trade there was never that degree of violence. If there was a killing it was a mob killing, it was – in their way – justified by their rules. It was not indiscriminate, it was never against a family member. If Lucky Luciano didn’t like Carlo Gambino he wouldn’t kill Carlo Gambino’s wife or mother or child. He would go after Carlo and if he couldn’t get Carlo, he’d leave him alone. This was the way we had been educated to expect the way crime operates and all of a sudden we were visited by this alien variety of brutality and violence. I know it may sound strange coming from a country that has more violence by handguns very year than many others, nonetheless there are some levels and instances of violence that are absolutely out of hand. This was one of them – and it captured the imagination of the people. And then when the public found out that this was drug-related, it ushered in a whole new era of thinking about this drug… All of a sudden we realised that there was this growing criminal culture behind [cocaine] that was alien in both the literal and figurative sense.