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.

By last summer, DEA employees' spirits were at an all-time low in Dallas--and so were drug stats division-wide. Marijuana seizures were down 90 percent from the year before. Pharmaceutical busts--LSD, quaaludes--had fallen 40 percent. Cocaine was flat. (Only heroin was up significantly, thanks to one gigantic bust in Lubbock.)

Phelps blamed the locals, who he thought were more concerned with filling city coffers than fighting drugs. And Phelps believed the airport task force needed stronger leadership. In January of this year, he came up with a solution: He signed a memorandum of understanding with the Dallas and Tarrant County Sheriff's departments, adding them to the task force.

The locals were incensed. They hadn't been consulted, and the issue wasn't academic. Under the terms of everyone's annual agreement with the DEA, participants split all the cash and property that was seized. Twenty percent off the top went to the DEA--the remaining 80 percent was split among the other task force members, according to the percentage of personnel each provided. (For example, DPD has contracted to provide 28.4 percent of the manpower, so it gets 28.4 percent of 80 percent of the booty.)

In years past, the city of Dallas has recouped as much as a quarter of the DPD's total narcotics budget from the D/FW task force alone. The smaller police forces relied on the money even more. In a series of emotional meetings from February through April of this year, the feds and the locals hurled charges and countercharges at each other. The feds told the local chiefs they cared too much about money and not about drugs; the locals accused the feds of arrogance and of forgetting who really did all the work.

After much discussion, the chiefs took a most practical approach: They decided to call Thomas Constantine. By then, with complaints reaching crescendo level, Phelps had unexpectedly retired--to take an executive security position with GTech, the company that runs lottery games nationwide, including the one in Texas. Mercado, meanwhile, had been notified that he was taking Phelps' place. So the next big task force powwow on April 24 saw a wide-eyed Mercado sitting at the conference table in Dallas with the local police chiefs.

Mercado is exceedingly gracious about the task force affair, which he is obviously still working furiously to defuse. "I think it was a mistake on our part," he says. "I think that it was just that we didn't address it initially--request to see if they wanted to increase their manpower. But it has been resolved, or it will be."

As of last week, though, no one had figured out quite what to do about those newly hired sheriff's deputies. After all, they specialize in running clean jails, not snaring evil drug runners.

Two things are sure to happen.
First--all management techniques involving Beauty and Harmony aside--the resolution of the problem will definitely involve a lot more federal drug money. It's HIDTA money to the rescue. "Do you know about this?" asks Mercado, proffering a copy of the Dallas DEA's HIDTA proposal for a $2 million cash infusion, which he expects to be approved later this year.

And second, as soon as all the airport greed is sorted out, Mercado will have to turn his attention to much bigger issues. At the top of his list will be transforming a drug enforcement agency into, well, a drug enforcement agency.

"We will do better," vows Mercado, with the solemnity of a man who takes his management-theory reading very seriously. "We will do better. You'll see."

Christine Biederman is a Dallas freelance writer.

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