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.

According to DEA intelligence, key Federation members were related to Colombian cartels by blood or marriage; so when the Colombians lost too many loads by air and by sea in South Florida to the feds, they naturally turned to their Mexican relatives, who specialized in ground transportation. The deal was simple and lucrative: In exchange for acting as the Colombians' shipping arm, the Federation could keep half the cocaine. By 1989, law enforcement was making record cocaine seizures on this side of the Mexican border: 19 tons here, 21 tons there. By 1992, it was clear these weren't flukes; Texas and California had replaced Florida as the U.S. entry point for drugs.

"Dallas had always been a semi-transshipment point," Jordan says. "But as the Mexican Federation and Juan Garcia Abrego and Amado Carrillo Fuentes gained control in Mexico, Dallas-Fort Worth became of increasing strategic importance."

Juan Garcia Abrego, who controlled the border from Matamoros to Laredo during the late '80s and early '90s, was particularly effective in moving his product into Texas. In 1988, Fort Worth police uncovered a cell of the Garcia Abrego organization here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. With the help of the Dallas DEA and the FBI's Brownsville office, the U.S. Attorney's office in Dallas obtained indictments against Garcia Abrego for drug trafficking and money laundering. (Mexico finally turned Garcia Abrego over to U.S. authorities in 1996; he was convicted last fall and is now doing life in a federal prison.)

Three years later, local police uncovered another cell that led back to a different branch of the Mexican Federation run by Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the man who controlled El Paso--the entry point, the DEA says, for the majority of the cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamines currently available in this country. In 1993, Carrillo Fuentes was indicted in Dallas for cocaine trafficking. But July 6 press reports originating from Mexico City stated that Carrillo Fuentes died last week during cosmetic surgery to change his appearance. (There's also been speculation that he faked his own death to elude authorities.)

The DEA's heady successes were short-lived, however, because in 1994, two things changed. In January, NAFTA arrived. And in February, Thomas Constantine took over as the national DEA administrator.

In order to understand the turmoil that began to envelop the DEA in 1994, it helps to understand DEA agents--and then to get your cop prejudices straight.

At the time they are hired, DEA agents must be between 22 and 36, must have a college degree, and must sign a pledge to move wherever the work demands. Many do stints in one of the DEA's 44 foreign offices, and most have dodged bullets. (Mercado has himself been shot at--and missed--twice.) At their best, these agents are smart-alecky, hard-boiled types reminiscent of Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's fictional detective: proud, honorable, and, as Chandler described his hero, full of "rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness."

At their worst, they are the most macho of coppers, a shortcoming Mercado acknowledges. ("The problem with us is, most agents want to go through a door," he says. "No one wants the rear. Everyone wants the door. It's just, I would say, the DEA way.") Even in law enforcement circles, they are notorious for being "badge heavy"--given to throwing around their weight, not to mention their Sig-Sauer semi-automatics, in inappropriate circumstances. Perhaps not surprisingly, a good number display a devil-may-care attitude toward rules and regulations borne of running snitches, serving as buckshot-fodder, and hunting down drug dealers on unfamiliar, often hostile, foreign soil.

Most have a well-developed rebellious streak, and being clever, long ago learned how to circumvent bureaucracy. Almost all consider fighting drugs a jihad, and being holy warriors, don't mind lopping a few corners off due process now and then.

All in all, they are as manageable as a herd of cats. They disdain other federal agencies, especially the FBI, whom they call "feebs" (as in "feeble") and view as drug-war upstarts. By tradition, they war with Customs and with the CIA (yes, the CIA has drug jurisdiction), and show contempt for local police, whom they semi-secretly consider lower life forms. The other agencies, in turn, refer to DEA agents as "doorkickers" or "cowboys," and suggest that DEA stands for "drunk every afternoon."

A quick peek at the rank-and-file's unauthorized website reveals their core values. They value loyalty to each other above all else. They regard any mention of drug legalization as seditious libel. And a surprising number hate the current agency head in Washington, DEA Administrator Constantine.

Part of this, of course, is because Constantine is a Clinton appointee, and in their hearts all cops suspect Clinton did inhale and might, without eternal vigilance, lead America down the slippery slope of drug-induced light-headedness. Part of this is because Constantine is from the New York State Police--not merely a local cop, but, in their view, little more than a highway speed-trapper, one of the lowest forms of locals. (DEA agents sneeringly refer to Constantine as "The First Trooper.")

But most of all, the website suggests, they hate the boss because they perceive he has forced an unprecedented number of agents out of the agency.

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