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 Dallas--as much as any city--it is painfully clear that the feds are losing the big drug war. The feds are so hamstrung, in fact, that the DEA is currently seeking to have Dallas deemed a drug disaster zone--one of 12 High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, or HIDTAs--a declaration that will bring a big pot of federal money to the rescue. If, as expected, Dallas receives the designation this fall, it will make Texas the only state with not one, not two, but three HIDTAs: Dallas, Houston, and the southwest border.

A look at the recent history of the Dallas office reveals many of the reasons why the war is going so badly. Clearly, some of the problems are beyond the ability of the drug warriors to solve: There's the very real possibility, for example, that having the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and keeping drug trafficking under control are mutually exclusive. There's also an inherent problem: Human ingenuity being what it is--and the profits to be made from drug dealing being what they are--drug interdiction is an endless cycle of Hydra-slaying.

Still, many of the wounds in this war appear to be self-inflicted. In interviews with the Dallas Observer, 21 current and former DEA agents, as well as numerous state, local, and federal agents who work closely with them, discussed the Dallas division's problems. (Unfortunately, since the DEA does not allow contact between its third estate and members of the fourth, the names of current agents--except, of course, Mercado--have been changed lest they face reprisal.) Their observations were borne out by court records and documents obtained through open records requests, as well as numerous internal DEA reports and correspondence.

All together, these sources and documents reveal an office crippled by revolving-door management, ethical challenges, and endless internal investigations of its own members, not to mention revolts by the local cop shops and a run of can't-keep-it-in-their-pants scandals that would make the American military blush.

They turn up a few other points as well--like how we're fighting a war we can't win, but can't stop fighting because local law enforcement has become addicted to federal money and the shiny new toys and additional personnel that it brings. A nasty brouhaha this spring over the now-decade-old D/FW Airport Joint Task Force--a hush-hush drug-busting program that allows participating cop shops to split confiscated drug money--not only raises the familiar specter of agency infighting, but also poses intriguing questions about the degree to which the financing cart drives the law enforcement horse. Even the DEA, it seems, fears that seizing money has become the raison d'étre of the drug war at every level--a topic that Congress is currently examining.

The DEA is little different from other federally subsidized law enforcement agencies--FBI, CIA, and Secret Service--in that management has no interest in sharing the details of its activities with the U.S. taxpayers who foot the bills. That said, when things go so awry inside one of these top-secret shops that stories start spilling out in the most unlikely places--say twice-weekly postings on the World Wide Web--it's fair to say that things are very, very bad indeed.

It wasn't always this way.
The DEA, like the "drug war" itself, is a legacy of the 1968 presidential campaign. Until then, the business of fighting illegal narcotics was largely the province of local police departments; indeed, modern federal laws banning drugs outright were only passed in 1970. (Until then, Congress believed that the Constitution only gave it authority to tax drug use.)

In 1972, President Nixon created a new federal police force, the Drug Enforcement Administration, whose sole mission was to enforce the new drug laws. Since then, the DEA has grown from a $30 million-a-year minnow to a billion-dollar-a-year leviathan, employing more than 7,000 agents in 45 countries across the globe.

The DEA's Dallas office is one of the agency's 20 domestic regional headquarters--"field divisions" in agency parlance. Dallas oversees nine sub-offices, from Tyler on the east to Midland on the west, and Tulsa on the north. Although Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Mercado guards the exact number of narcs in the Dallas division like the family jewels--"the problem is, you're telling the traffickers," he says--he'll finally concede that the number under him is approximately 200 agents, counting those borrowed, or "detailed," from local police agencies.

Mercado wouldn't divulge the Dallas division's budget, either, but a former employee put the figure north of $30 million a year.

Though estimates vary, some suggest that since 1968, the federal government has spent $300 billion fighting narcotics. Some modest successes have accompanied that effort; usage rates have generally declined since peaking over a decade ago.

Still, usage rates remain higher than they were in 1968 for all drug categories except heroin. And America is awash in drugs of a variety, potency, and cheapness unimaginable 30 years ago. Across the country, police insist that the majority of crime is drug-related. And Texas, thanks to its border with Mexico, has replaced Florida as ground zero in the "war."

Until the mid- to late-'80s, locals and feds say, the DEA's Dallas Field Division was no more than a sleepy outpost, for the most part policing Mexican marijuana-smuggling routes that had been established decades earlier. Phillip Jordan, who served as head of the Dallas DEA office from 1984 to 1994, recalls that the biggest problem when he came to town was the customary infighting among federal, state, and local law enforcement.

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