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.

"There was a sense of mistrust among the agencies," recalls Jordan, now retired and living in Dallas. "Lots of turf wars. A lack of coordination. A lack of teamwork, which in the big picture can lead to someone getting hurt. Like that case in California, where DEA and Customs ended up shooting at each other."

Jordan, a big, affable Inspector Clouseau sort with a passion for basketball and a gift for networking, immediately set about building relationships with the local police agencies, as well as with the DEA's traditional drug-fighting rivals, the FBI and U.S. Customs Service.

"I did have a lot of resistance from old-time agents, who felt the feds ruled and DEA didn't have to share," Jordan says. "But DEA alone cannot solve the problem. Even Michael Jordan needs a team to win."

Under Jordan, the Dallas DEA office put together a series of joint task forces, consisting of local and federal agencies working together to cover specific beats or cases. The participants have well-defined roles: The locals provide most of the personnel, the feds foot most of the bill.

DEA agents across the country say that while several of these communal experiments became models of federal-state cooperation, the D/FW Task Force was undeniably the showpiece. "They were the most successful airport group in the country," recalls Mark, a California agent who worked closely with the D/FW group. In 1990, agents say, the D/FW task force became one of the first in the nation to create what had long eluded state and local narcs alike--a drug-courier profile that was actually useful, but didn't target minorities or nationalities.

This is how it worked: Airline employees with access to SABRE, American Airlines' reservations system, were recruited to cooperate with the narcs. Normally, airline passenger information is off-limits to law enforcement--by law, U.S. Customs is the only federal agency with access to passenger manifests, and even then, only those from incoming international flights.

But the "skynarcs," as task force agents who work airports are called, taught willing ticket, reservations, and gate agents to comb airline records with an eye toward spotting suspicious passengers. Such a passenger might be someone traveling one-way to or from a well-known narcotics "source" or "destination" city who paid in cash without checking luggage. If they spotted such a person, the employees simply called the DEA.

The system worked for everyone but the poor schmo relieved of his drug-tainted cash. When the airline employees hit a live one, they got to keep up to 10 percent of the confiscated booty. Narcotics agents, in turn, benefited from a profiling system that was virtually challenge-proof, since SABRE does not identify passengers by race. And the airlines had no objections to the scheme, having learned that non-cooperation can be expensive.

"If they cooperate of their own free will, they get to police themselves," explains one task force agent. "In the old days, Eastern [Airlines] didn't cooperate. And they got a plane or two seized. So they all like to be good citizens."

By 1991, agency statistics show, D/FW's "skynarc" program was the most successful in the nation, seizing more cash and contraband than any other airport. In its peak year, 1992, D/FW agents seized $5 million in cash allegedly bound for Mexico, and were credited with alerting other airports to couriers carrying another $4 million. The Dallas DEA agents traveled the country, educating their less-skilled brethren in the fine art of profiling drug-money couriers. And other agencies adopted the system as well. The FBI, for example, acknowledges using the D/FW group's work as the model for its current hijacker profile.

The state and local coordination also paid off on the street. In 1986, Dallas police recall seeing a strange new drug called crack for the first time. Investigations revealed it was being supplied by sophisticated Jamaican gangs who specifically targeted Dallas because their market studies showed it was relatively free of organized street-level competition. And they brought with them violence even Texans had never seen before--by 1991, thanks to drugs, Dallas had one of the highest murder rates in the country.

Dallas DEA agents helped local and state authorities clean out the Jamaicans, as well as a number of other street-level drug moguls who ruled some South and West Dallas streets during the early '90s. In 1994, the feds and locals together put away several local heroin gangs and Ray Charles Fields, the city's last major street-level crack dealer.

They didn't get to spend a long time back-slapping, though, because they soon had another disaster on their hands. "For some time, we underestimated the Mexican drug cartels," says Dallas police chief Ben Click. "And then we woke up one day and had five major cartels under our noses."

Internal DEA documents tell the now-familiar tale of the rise of the Mexican Federation. "In the mid- to late-1970s, an organized group of individuals was in a position to control virtually all marijuana and cocaine trafficking in Mexico," one 1995 in-house report states. "This group eventually became the Mexican Federation."

The original five Federation members agreed that instead of fighting among themselves over territory, they would each control one traditional smuggling corridor from Mexico to the United States. Unlike the well-established Colombian cartels, the Federation never confined itself to cocaine; it also had factions specializing in marijuana, Mexican-grown "black tar" heroin, and methamphetamines.

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