Agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration rarely discuss tradecraft in public. But in November, four veterans of the long struggle against the Colombian cartels sat down for a post-mortem of their intelligence operations at the DEA Museum and Visitor's Center in Arlington, VA.
While they kept operational details secret, the veterans claimed the lessons learned remain useful today in the government's ongoing global struggle to curb the flow of drugs to the U.S. One unanimous conclusion: no matter how good intelligence-gathering technology is, it can never replace old-fashioned investigative legwork.
“There's no such thing as a case on a plate” said Craig Estancona, an intelligence analyst whose decades of DEA experience include work on the cartels. “It's a methodical thing.”
Estancona was joined by fellow DEA analysts Ben Sanborn, Jay Cliff and Pat Kerner, all of whom participated in the wider take-down of the cartels.
The lecture was part of a month-long series held by the DEA Museum each spring and fall to give members of the public an inside look at the organization. Earlier topics ranged from the drug role in Afghanistan during the late 1980s to the current challenge of pharmaceutical drug abuse.
Blips on the Radar
The Colombian drug cartels are now the stuff of lore. But when they first appeared on the U.S. radar in the 1970s, smuggling small amounts of cocaine one suitcase at a time, no one could fathom what they would become.
Created in 1973, the DEA was still in its infancy when it began to uncover the scope of cocaine trafficking out of Colombia. Early on, the DEA didn't even have offices in some key cities, including Medellin, from which a lot of traffickers were operating. Few agents spoke Spanish.
“We really weren't geared up to deal with the onslaught” of trafficking that the DEA would face, Sanborn said.
The rival Medellin and Cali cartels between them controlled most of Colombia's narcotics trade. By the 1980s, they had evolved into sophisticated vertically integrated international businesses, with stakes in every stage of cocaine production—from the cocoa plantations in remote jungle valleys to clandestine labs and distribution to major American and U.S. cities.
At the height of their power and influence, they wielded small armies to protect their interests, and established business links with organized crime groups in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, including the Russian mafia. They bought and sold politicians, and through alliances with Colombia's guerrilla groups they were a destabilizing force in domestic Colombian politics.
The cocaine trade fueled Colombia's ongoing civil war, with both Marxist and right-wing guerrilla and paramilitary groups protecting fields, labs and smuggling routes in exchange for payouts from traffickers. Both sides of the conflict reaped massive profits. But long and often brutal military campaign by the Colombian army, helped by American advisors and equipment, finally brought some peace.
Today, the activities of the Colombian drug lords have been eclipsed by the escalating violence of Mexican drug cartels who took ownership of the far-reaching networks and drug routes into the U.S. But the Colombian cartels—and the battle to destroy them—remain a textbook example of the threat created by transnational crime groups with the power to co-opt governments.
The Medellin cartel was run by Pablo Escobar, an ex-bodyguard and thief whose drug wealth and political connections even got him elected to Colombia's parliament. During his reign as Colombia's most infamous drug lord, the Medellin group assassinated hundreds of officials, journalists and other Colombians, at one point even backing the storming of the country's supreme court by left-wing guerrillas.
Cali, however, was a less flashy operation—with a tight structure that made it difficult for agents to break in. The careful structure later proved key to its undoing, the agents disclosed. The Cali cartel operated “cells” —tightly controlled satellite operations in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California, among others—that passed along imported cocaine to local distributors. A single cell of the Cali cartel, in 1984, brought in about $500,000 a day, agents remembered. This required accountants, bank numbers and complex reporting practices.
“They were so organized (that) it made them a little bit easier to take down,” said Sanborn.
Nevertheless, the process wasn't quick. Listening to the agents describe intelligence gathering, those with fewer decades behind them might think it akin to the Stone Age.
The investigation of the cartels taught agents the importance of a centralized filing system. Agents in fact spent much of their time not in the field but in Washington, they said, digging through a room full of paper documents.
“What would take several analysts three or four weeks would be done in 20 minutes now,” said Sanborn.
Though tedious, this kind of data mining proved key to the DEA's success, particularly as agents started to focus less on the drugs, and more on the money.
This proved the key to taking Cali down, which controlled its cells so thoroughly, agents said, that each one was required to fax an invoice in at the end of each day. Cartel bosses did not realize the U.S. government had the technology to intercept the communications.
With devices sophisticated at the time, agents read confidential messages and began to follow the money.
But intelligence, like technology, can flow in two directions. As the DEA learned from its mistakes and changed with the times, so too did the cartels. The traffickers, for instance, have adopted GPS tracking for their product.
When Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993 by Colombian police, Cali effectively exploited Medellin's weakness. Cali began shipping cocaine into Europe and Asia, expansion fueled by an infrastructure that included lawyers hired to study U.S. prosecutors and DEA agents. To protect the empire, it also donated heavily to Colombian and U.S. politicians.
Even though cartel members feared going to prison in the U.S., the organization also knew how to make the most of the U.S. justice system. If authorities busted a cell, most members would post bail or skip town. One, however, would always stay behind to be prosecuted, agents recalled, forcing the government to reveal its methods.
Even arrests did not stop the cartels. By the mid 1990s, many leaders were behind bars, but DEA agents believe the leaders continued to direct operations from cells in Colombian prisons.
After regaining the audience with tales of finding a truck full of almost $20 million cash in the bust of a furniture store front and turning a teenage computer geek working for the Cali Cartel into their informant, the agents looked to today.
From Kingpins to Networks
The DEA is light years ahead in technology, which has caused them to rely less heavily on confidential informants than in the early years. Yet agents at the lecture say what's essential to destroying a sophisticated criminal organization with the size and reach of the Colombian cartels hasn't changed. It requires understanding it “from the inside,” as well as those who are in the thick of it. That still means exploiting people sources, but also now means electronic surveillance and data mining.
Last year, the agency stripped more than $17.7 billion in revenue from drug traffic, according to its reports, a success facilitated by agents in 63 countries.
“Things are going pretty well now,” said Estancona. “They're going in the right direction.”
But the agency has also recently faced some criticism. In 2005, the Office of the Inspector General in an audit said the agency for keeping sloppy records on payments, and failing to maintain proper oversight over informants.
“We believe the DEA should strengthen its management over long-term confidential sources,” the report said. Four years later, the Government Accountability Office found that tensions between the DEA and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which also policies international drug trafficking, “have led to conflicts and the potential for duplicative investigative efforts”—particularly in regard to the Mexican drug trade.
Agents at the DEA lecture spent little time discussing the problem of trafficking in Mexico and Central America.
The destruction of the Colombian cartels has not diminished the volume of narcotics moving into the U.S. and other Western countries—and may in fact have made the landscape more treacherous as small groups battle for control and trafficking routes.
EDITORS NOTE: For more on prosecuting cartel bosses, take a look at a Special Report by Jazmine Ulloa How (Not) To Deal With Drug Kingpins.
Mexican cartels now terrorize whole cities and states, even as the government has deployed the army to crack down on the trade. Drug conglomerates have also spread to Central America, where drug use—and violence—have skyrocketed.
About 95 percent of all cocaine entering the U.S. now comes through Mexico, where local trafficking groups have evolved into powerful cartels themselves—rivaling or even surpassing the Colombian organizations in firepower, political influence, corruption and violence.
Among the Central American countries, the troubled Guatemala has struggled to push back against the trade routes cutting grooves in that country. This poor country with rampant corruption has seen the homicide rate nearly double in the past decade. Neither the DEA, nor Guatemala itself, has yet figured out a solution.
Lisa Riordan Seville is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.