Drug cartels are like sophisticated international corporations – ex-undercover DEA agent

Two decades of undercover work among the world’s most wanted drug lords and criminals, posing as a drug dealer, infiltrating gangs, hiding in the jungles, and risking his life every minute, Mike Vigil is one of the most experienced American anti-drug agents – and he has lived to tell the story. What’s it like on the inside of Mexican and Colombian drug cartels? How is the undercover war on drugs waged? Former head of international operations for the DEA, undercover agent – Michael Vigil is on SophieCo.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Mike Vigil, former head of international operations for the DEA, welcome to the show. Now, Mike, you have captured some of the most wanted drug lords - do you fear for your life, fear that somebody will come for you in the middle of the night?

Mike Vigil: To be perfectly candid with you, I really was not afraid when I was doing the job and at this point and time, I’m certainly not afraid for my life. I understand that through my activity with the Drug Enforcement Administration I made a lot of enemies through the capture of major drug lords in Latin America, but I refuse to live in fear. That is not just in my genetic makeup.

SS:But you have spent 20 years undercover alongside drug dealers, cold-blooded murderers, under the constant threat of being exposed. One wrong move and that’s it - you’re next to death. Why did you put yourself on the frontline like that, what was it that drove you?

MV: Well, actually I look at my work within the DEA as a total adventure. At the same time I wanted to do something for my country and other countries around the world in trying to stem this horrific issue of illegal drugs. And as you well know illegal drugs have really caused a major problem in many countries. We’re currently having a major problem here in the United States with opioids, to include heroin. So as a public servant I wanted to do something that would be beneficial to my country.

SS: You’ve said that if any of the drug dealers felt you were nervous, you could be killed. Negotiating with a group of dangerous armed drug lords in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia - and you can’t break a sweat. Did you have some kind of special tricks, techniques to keep your calm?

MV: Well by my mere nature I’m a very calm individual. And you are right, working undercover you have to be extremely careful, not be nervous, because drug dealers by their psychological makeup are very very suspicious, you know they suffer from paranoia, and they test you constantly, they ask you questions and they want to see how you’re going to answer them. So you have to maintain a calm, because if they notice anything that you did, that you said, you know, that you fidgeted, you act nervous, you know, that was enough for them to kill you.

SS:Right, so how did you deal with it, did you have special exercises, like breathing exercises, or meditation, or did you have mentor to guide you through it? Teach me something, because sometimes I’m nervous before the interview, I’d love to control that.

MV: Well what I did to control any type of nervousness, is I expunged from my mind  that I was a DEA agent, and psychologically I transformed myself into a drug lord. I was one of them. I dressed like them, I talked like them, but I could not afford to think like law enforcement and I did law enforcement for so many years, but I had to completely remove that from my mind and it was a transformation very much like an actor does before he plays a role in the movies or on television. However in this case you were playing a deadly game of cat and mouse, any minor mistake that you made and you were dead.

SS: Right, so from what you’re saying you were, in essence, an actual drug dealer during this time, right? The deals you made - did you give them all up to the DEA or keeping your cover and establishing your credibility was more important?

MV: Basically I maintained my cover, but any drugs that I purchased, for example, developing a case against these drug dealers, I would take and I would provide them to the DEA laboratory for analysis and for safekeeping until the investigation was complete. In the event that we had set them up for a major delivery of cocaine, heroin or whatever the drug was, then at that point and time they would move in, make the arrest and at the same time the drugs would be maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration as evidence and for some subsequent legal proceedings.

SS: What I’m interested in is how far did you have to go to keep up your act? I mean you’ve said that these drug dealers trusted you, understood you could be as ruthless as they are.

MV: I played the role of a very ruthless drug trafficker, I never committed any acts of violence obviously. But they totally believed the fact that I was just as ruthless as they were because I acted in that way, talked that way and many times they trusted me with their lives, they trusted me to deliver drugs to me and in undercover capacity. But make no mistake about it, my life was always in danger. And your life is in danger any time that you are working undercover, because the last thing that they want is to go to jail and by posing as an undercover agent, you know, they will kill you to avoid going to prison.

SS: So when you set up a drug exchange, a meeting with narco traffickers, how does the capture happen? Is there a group of agents at the scene, do they wait for your signal?

MV: When I used to work undercover and I would set up a situation for an arrest, let’s say, for example, I would order a large quantity of drugs, I would have agents conducting surveillance, if I was working in Mexico or Columbia, I would also have the country’s national police agents doing the surveillance. Prior to meeting with the drug traffickers I would set up a signal, for example opening up the trunk under the pretext of getting their money out of the trunk or taking off my sunglasses, taking off my hat, you know, any signal that they could see. Unfortunately, in some situations they were unable to get close enough and could not see the signal. And there were many times where they would start to move in prematurely or after the fact and I was caught between a crossfire  between my own people and the drug traffickers, with bullets flying and bouncing in front of me and behind me.

SS:So how do you explain to gangsters that you are the only one not arrested after a bust, I mean, that does look a little shady, doesn’t it?

MV: When I set up these drug deals for an arrest, you know a large quantity of drugs were to be delivered to me, it didn’t really matter if I was not arrested. At that point and time they were taken into custody so it really mattered very little. However if there was an informant or informants that I wanted to protect so that these traffickers would not send others after them, then my people would also pretend to arrest me to try to take the heat away from the informant. So it all depended on the investigation, who was involved and basically certain objectives that I wanted to comply with.

SS: You know, there are of course stereotypes about drug cartel members - that they’re impulsive, glitter-loving, trigger-happy, cocaine-snorting thugs. At the same time, the cartels are seem so efficient, so cold-blooded, so organised - how do they pull it off?

MV:Well drug trafficking organisations are very sophisticated, they function very much like a global corporation. They have different components, they have components that engage in money laundering, enforcement, the killing of security forces, the killing of informants. You know, they have individuals that are in charge of logistics, getting drugs into Mexico and then into the United States. So it’s highly structured and they operate in many countries around the world. A lot of the drug lords have very little education, but you know, they are very intelligent. And at the same time they hire experts in many areas to help them grow their cartels. So cartels are very sophisticated and as a result of that it takes a lot of effort to be able to effectively dismantle them. Unfortunately these cartels generate a lot of violence, because the have to protect their financial empire and at the same time, you know, they kill politicians, they kill journalists. It is a machine of violence that basically constitutes a national security threat for countries around the world.

SS: How did your everyday undercover work go down? Say, you’re in the middle of securing a deal with a cartel - and they want to see the money. Do you have the million bucks at hand to make them believe you? Did you have those kind of resources to do your job?

MV: At times I did, however that was rare. So it was a matter of trying to convince them to make the drug delivery without seeing the money. In one situation I was working against Bolivian drug traffickers who were residing in the country of Brazil. I was negotiating for half a ton of cocaine, didn’t have any money, I had about 300 dollars in my wallet and they demanded to see the millions of dollars that I was going to use to pay for the cocaine. The negotiations continued for about two weeks and it was back and forth, back and forth. And I finally convinced one of the principle drug traffickers to lie to his associates and tell them that he had seen the money. And the way I did it finally was I told him: Look, if you don’t want to deal with me, I’m going to go someplace else and you’re going to lose millions of dollars. You know, the ball is in your court. So a few days later they delivered, in a twin engine aircraft to a small ranch on the outskirts of Sao Paulo. It was the largest seizure in the history of Brazil. So you have to use a lot of ingenuity, you have to think on your feet, you have to be able to know how to manipulate them psychologically to convince them that you are a legitimate drug dealer. At times I would meet with drug traffickers, didn’t have the money, again, so I would take one hundred dollar bills and then put one dollar bills in the middle, tape them to my ankle, so that they wouldn’t want to count the money. And I was able to get the delivery done, the arrest accomplished. So, again, you just have to really know what you’re doing. And again, you can’t afford to make any mistakes. Mistakes are a way of life, everybody makes mistakes, but when you’re working undercover, those cannot happen. You just cannot afford to make any errors, otherwise you’re gone.

SS: I know drug cartels can get very creative in finding ways to smuggle drugs to the United States - including using homemade submarines, for instance - do these innovations work well or are their conventional methods like human and car smuggling more effective?

MV: A lot of the time they use maritime ships, they use what they call semi-subversibles, which float beneath the surface of the water, they use submarines, they use aircraft, for example, to smuggle the drugs from the source countries South America, mainly Colombia, into Central America or directly into Mexico, or into the United States. But at the present time most of the cocaine, for example, is going into Mexico and then finding its way into the U.S. consumer market. Once it gets into Mexico they’ll use maybe aircraft, but for the most part ground transportation to get it to the border. And then once it’s at the border they have tunnels, they can drive in certain border areas across into the United States. So they are very ingenious in the tactics that they use to smuggle and to transport drugs.

SS: Does the fact that the DEA funding is much less than any cartel’s earnings cripple the agency’s efforts, or does it have resources that are more important than money?

MV: Well, we have a lot of dedicated agents. We are very good at what we do. But we also use force multipliers, for example, if we’re working in a foreign country we work with host country security forces, sometimes the military, sometimes the national police. It’s the same way here in the United States. We work with other federal agencies, we work with state and local agencies. So it’s a combined effort of resources and manpower that we use in combating this situation.

SS: With Mexico`s government, even the army and law enforcement infiltrated by drug money, you said it yourself that “the drug lords don’t know which corrupt official to bribe”, so how can it win against the cartels?

MV: Well one of the things that we do and Mexico is doing as well, is they are trying to weed out corrupt officials, because drug money creates corruption in literally every country. You know, there is a certain sense of corruption and that’s something that we have to weed out. Mexico has been working towards arresting these corrupt politicians that protect the cartels.

SS: You know, cartels try to take over government duties on their turf, they dispose justice, provide welfare to the people, maintain order - is there a danger that cartel territories will actually become de-facto mini-states?

MV:No, I think that the cartels, there’s certain cartel leaders, like Pablo Escobar, El Chapo Guzman in Mexico that played the role of Robin Hood. And in many communities they did provide a lot of funding. They built schools, they built churches, they gave money to the poor, however, these states, the nations as a whole recognise that these cartels are generating a lot of violence. They are corrupting public officials and it is a threat to the moral fiber of their countries. So they speak out against it. It’s a campaign that is very complex, because here in the United States, for example, we have very adequate laws in dealing with drug trafficking, but there’s a lot of countries around the world, that need to do more in terms of passing legislation that would adequately address money laundering, corruption, drug trafficking, sentencing guidelines, so there’s a lot of work to be done. So it’s not only attacking the cartel, it’s developing the infrastructures of a lot of countries around the world in order to allow them to effectively address illegal drug trafficking.

SS:There’s a whole popular culture springing around the drug cartels - they’re investing in regular business to whitewash their cash, there’s a music scene dedicated to the exploits of narcos, how do you eradicate their popular appeal?

MV: I would say that you eradicate the popular appeal by educating the youth of our country and other countries to the fact that drug trafficking is wreaking havoc in their country, a lot of people are dying from drug overdoses. And you’re absolutely right, there is a narco culture that is popping up where narcocorridos, or narco ballads are very popular in Mexico, in other parts of the country. But they are not super popular where they dominate the culture in the United States in other areas. There are pockets of that type of culture but I think most people recognise the fact that drug dealers are very treacherous, they’re very violent and drug trafficking is not good for anybody.

SS: Some drug gang territory, like the favelas in Brazil’s Rio, would be cleared for a while (like before the Olympics), but would quickly go back to being a no-go zone for the police once the spotlight moves on. Should such setbacks just be accepted instead of wasting lives trying to regain territories again and again?

MV: I think that we have to do a better job in these foreign countries. The foreign countries have to establish a presence in a lot of these rural areas, isolated areas, because one of the phenomenons that I see that if you don’t have a government presence in certain areas, who moves in there, but the drug traffickers. The drug traffickers go in there because they are not going to be hindered by law enforcement and they are going to be free to conduct their criminal enterprise.One of the experiments that we did in Colombia, for example, we provided a lot of funding and the Colombian government has been able to move into a lot of these isolated areas that were basically controlled by subversive organisations such as the armed revolutionary force of Colombia, the FARC. And that is basically what drove the FARC to a peace treaty with the Colombian government.

SS: I have an example of Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte and he’s taking a tough line battling the criminal drug gangs in his country, pretty much killing them on the spot. But his war on drugs has left thousands dead and his methods have been condemned internationally - is his war out of control, or are these measures effective?

MV: No, the measures that are being undertaken in the Philippines are disastrous, because Duterte has empowered his security forces to kill anybody suspected of drug trafficking. There is no rule of law, innocent individuals are being killed because they were suspected wrongly of drug trafficking. So these type of drastic measures will never work. I think that Duterte is causing a lot of major problems, eroding the democracy that currently exists in the Philippines.

SS: Alright, Mike, thank you very much for this interesting insight. We really enjoyed talking to you. We were talking to former head of international operations for the DEA, undercover agent, Mike Vigil, author of “Deal: In a Deadly Game of Working Undercover”. He was giving his rare inside look into America’s war on drugs. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, I’ll see you next time.