Busted

Julio Mercado is Dallas' brand-new DEA boss, and he's inherited kilos of trouble. His city is about to be declared a drug disaster zone, but all his narcs seem to care about is snitching on each other.

In a corner office of the anonymous concrete bunker off Harry Hines Boulevard that houses the Drug Enforcement Administration's Dallas headquarters, Julio Mercado, the new man in charge, is squirming like a worm on a hot plate.

It's hard to say exactly what is making the 48-year-old former New York City cop so uncomfortable. The clothes are one possibility. Though nattily attired in a suit of the tiniest black-and-white houndstooth, a white dress shirt, and a yellow, Brooks-Brothers-interprets-Op-Art tie, the mustachioed Mercado--a veteran of more than 700 undercover narcotics "buys"--just looks like the kind of guy who's happier in a pair of jeans and a windbreaker.

On the other hand, it could be the newness of it all. It's been only three and a half weeks since Mercado officially arrived from Puerto Rico, where he was second in command at the DEA's San Juan office. From across his enormous desk, it's painfully clear that Mercado is not only grossly unfamiliar with the sport of media ping-pong, he's, well, still very much a boss-in-training. "Thank you, Eleanor," his secretary Eleanor corrects her boss as she hands him the fourth document he's barked for this hour without so much as a grunt of thanks.

Amid all this very pointed scrutiny, Mercado nervously taps his desk, digs through drawers and then produces a shrink-wrapped box of stogies. "I don't smoke," he explains in a thick New York accent, handing the cigar box over to his interrogator for inspection and explaining that he bought the cigars to hand out to his new employees.

The friendly and boyish Mercado is doing his best to act cool and in control. "There's nothing to hide," he says earnestly mid-interview, displaying an impressively pearly set of whites. Which isn't to say that Mercado has all the answers. Far from it.

The truth is that Mercado is a man who finds himself squarely in the Spanish Civil War of government jobs--a once-quiet kingdom now beset by savage infighting, intervention by the benighted higher-ups, and squabbles among exiled leaders. In its heyday in the early '90s, the Dallas Field Division of the DEA was making hugely publicized cases against such A-list international drug barons as Juan Garcia Abrego and Amado Carrillo Fuentes--the John Gotti and Vincent Gigante of the narcotics trade. Those types of cases don't seem to be happening anymore.

"I don't know the reason why yet, why that's changed," Mercado says, hands fumbling anew with a pad of yellow Post-it notes. "Six months from now, I'll give you an answer."

But if the view from outside the agency is bad, the view from inside is nothing short of hideous. The internal turmoil at the DEA office in Dallas is so bad, in fact, that its employees have been starring on the agency's unauthorized website, a dishy little enterprise that a retired DEA agent started up so frustrated narcs nationwide could air the agency's dirty laundry. (Unfortunately, like many entertaining but underfunded Internet publishing ventures, the website, DEA Watch, recently bit the dust.)

"I don't even look at that, to be honest," Mercado says of the website, displaying a hear-no-evil attitude that has no doubt aided his rise through management ranks. Not that he isn't curious, though. "They probably say a lot of things about me," he says sheepishly, as if seeking reassurance.

Indeed they do--although, lucky for him, it's not what he might imagine. "Julio Mercado is a great guy and a fine manager with the plus that he is an 'old school' agent who believes in doing the job," wrote one contributor. Added another: "I hope that Dallas realizes what a fine leader Mercado is and treats him accordingly. He is one of the best [managers] in DEA and certainly breaks the recent mold...He seems to be able to inspire people to do things that don't normally seem to be within their capability."

To be sure, Mercado is like a freshly minted Cub Scout troop leader, brimming with new-manager enthusiasm. "Have you read this?" he asks eagerly, crossing to his overloaded bookshelf and returning with a copy of Leadership Jazz, his latest pick from his favorite genre--management theory. Written by Max De Pree, the New York aesthete who magically transformed himself in the late '80s from modern furniture executive to management guru, the tome bills itself as a "soaring coda on the art and craft of leadership." The obviously well-read paperback, filled with paper-clipped pages and yellow highlighting, offers some decidedly non-traditional management tips for a cops-and-robbers outpost like the DEA.

"Beauty and harmony must become a red thread through an organization," the book advises. "Beauty and harmony must pervade an organization and all it does."

If Julio Mercado can bring beauty and harmony to the Dallas field office of the DEA, more power to him. But in the meantime, a little more kicking in of drug-house doors and a little less dissension among the troops would be a refreshing change.

One thing is for sure--it's going to take more than a couple of cigars to turn things around.

It's not just Dallas. But the recent history of the Dallas DEA office represents, in microcosm, many of the problems plaguing the troubled DEA nationwide.

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