Can't Fight a War Without Money

And in the drug war, the money sometimes ends up in strange places

The U.S. war on drugs is like a merry-go-round. There's a lot to look at: newspaper accounts of crackdowns on traffickers from Russia, Colombia, and Israel; local news coverage of stings at nightclubs or happenstance arrests of roadside smugglers during Cops. And there are plenty of people climbing aboard: hundreds of lawyers representing these small and large traffickers, and thousands of federal, state, and local law-enforcement agents hunting down the others. Every once in a while you see the same horse go by or the same person holding on to the pole. For many of them, the drug war is a ride that never ends, a carnival that keeps their lives afloat. And you're paying for it.

To measure just how absurd this carousel has become, consider the following case filed recently in Miami: A former informant is suing the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) www.usdoj.gov/dea for withholding money from him. The money is from drug trafficking. The DEA seized it using information the snitch provided the agency. This informant claims he's entitled to 25 percent of the proceeds from seizures using his information because of an oral agreement he made with the DEA. It's part of an incentive program. So let's review: Someone who used to be part of a massive criminal enterprise is suing the federal government for money resulting from illegal activities. Now that's progress.

The "John Doe" informant who filed the case against the DEA is a medium-size Colombian man with curly hair and a round, tan face. He likes to wear jeans and drape a fanny pack over his shoulder. Aside from being a narco-fashion statement these days, the fanny pack is useful: John carries two cellular phones and two different-colored beepers. When he was a snitch, John had one beeper to communicate with the drug bosses and another to communicate with the feds. It was complicated, especially when both beepers went off at once. But John didn't mind. In fact he liked it. "I've always been the berraco," or tough guy, he says softly before launching into another bite of his Cuban sandwich at a restaurant in West Miami.

John is accustomed to whispering over Latin food during surreptitious meetings in restaurants. His first appointment with DEA agents in Miami took place in a Kendall eatery near a small strip mall. It was June 1999, and John was tired of the way New York DEA agents were treating him. After being busted carrying a load of cocaine cross-country, he'd become a snitch. He'd worked nearly six years for the feds, tipping them off to the money-laundering operations of Colombia's Cali cartel. His job with the cartel was simple: He'd meet someone under the subway tracks or alongside an abandoned warehouse in Queens. This someone had a bundle of cash in the trunk of his car; they'd switch the bundle to John's trunk, then he'd take the money to another vehicle only to switch the bundle again. John never knew where the money ended up; it could have landed anywhere from a bank to a mutual fund to a cupboard.

John's job with the DEA was more complicated. As a link in the money-laundering chain, he gave information to agents so they could bust the next guy in the chain and capture the money. But there were problems. Sometimes John had "hot" information and the DEA agents weren't available. "I had three telephone numbers," he explains in mumbled Spanish at the restaurant. "But they didn't always answer the phone. And they never answered on Sundays." Even worse, John says, the New York agents put him in compromising positions. He frequently had to take on roles that weren't his in the chain -- a link or two away from his normal job. And one time the police were forced to arrest him lest other cartel members think that he was responsible for an $800,000 seizure. The stakes were high. In 1991, when John came to the U.S., he left his wife and four children behind in Colombia as a sign to the other traffickers that he would never work as a snitch. In that country, informants' families share the risk he takes -- and his fate if he's discovered.

With his wife and kids increasingly in danger, John had had enough of the DEA in New York. He wanted to work for the DEA in Miami; he felt more at home with the agents. During a second meeting with the DEA, a Colombian agent seemed interested in having him on his team. John told the agent that he knew of a 1.2 kilo shipment deal that had gone through Miami International Airport a few weeks earlier. The agent wasn't impressed. "That's nothing," he responded dismissively regarding the piddly quantity. Then John convinced him there was more pericoon the way, and the agent perked up. "Don't tell DEA in New York," the agent jealously said. "You have to be careful. I don't know how y'all work in New York. But here we are much more organized."

New York DEA, however, soon thwarted any plans John had for being a star informant in Miami. Through an undercover agent, the New York office had received word that John had facilitated the 1.2 kilo deal in Miami. The New York office called John to pick up close to $200,000, his stake for one of two seizures that totaled $1.8 million. When John arrived, he was arrested for the drug deal. John claimed innocence and was acquitted of the charges. But his days as a DEA informant were over, and the agency didn't give him the 25 percent cut of the two seizures, which would have totaled close to $450,000. "I risked my life, my family's life," he says, still working on his Cuban sandwich. "I was in so much danger for the government. And for what? So they could try and bust me for 1200 grams of coke." (The DEA would not comment on the case.)

Still for John, the lawsuit, filed by Miami attorney David Markus, isn't looking good. The government has moved the case from Miami to the Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., where a judge will decide on the merits of John's claims. Government lawyers have filed a motion to dismiss the suit based on John's alleged drug-trafficking activities in Miami (even though he was acquitted). They also are citing a clause in the law dealing with the incentive program for informants. "The terms of the statute explicitly places within DEA complete discretion as to when an award should be made," the government's motion reads, "[and] at the discretion of the Attorney General." (Their emphasis.)

In other words, this John Doe is expendable, and like a merry-go-round, the war goes on and on.

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