With all the publicity that the Drug War has received, little is actually known about the roll that undercover operations played in this seemingly endless struggle. One reason for this is that federal agents are notorious for never making comments about their cases, especially when they involve an undercover operation. Even when information was provided to the media it was usually heavily sanitized to protect an on going investigation and certain tactics being used to bring criminals to justice. Fortunately, the author of this article received written permission from the U.S. Customs Service to reveal information about an extremely successful undercover operation to took place during the height of the Drug War. Thanks to Tactical Weapons Magazine the story of Controlled Delivery can finally be told.
One of the most closely guarded secrets of the Drug War involves the use of private aircraft and vessels to mount high-risk, covert air and marine operations known as a controlled delivery. In federal parlance a controlled delivery is the ultimate sting operation. In order to execute one correctly, federal agents must maintain complete “control ” over the contraband without alerting the violators of their presence until the “delivery” is affected.
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, the U.S. Customs Service and the Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS) were merged to form two new federal agencies under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security. The uniformed side of the U.S. Customs Service and the uniformed portion of the INS were brought together to form an agency called U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The agency called CBP also contains the Border Patrol and former U.S. Customs air and marine units. The investigative side of the old Customs Service and INS were united to form an agency called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—ICE.
Now that the priorities have shifted, the agency known as ICE has gotten away from working some of the old Customs Service-style drug cases and is now heavily involved in immigration cases such as those involving human smuggling.
Few people outside the profession know that during the height of the Drug War U.S. Customs Agents used the U.S. Navy Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba as a secret base and departure point to mount covert air and marine operations. While GITMO is now famous for its roll as a prison camp for terrorists and enemy combatants captured in The Global War on Terrorism, during the height of the Drug War in the 1980s and early 1990s GITMO was used as a forward base by U.S. Customs Agents due to its proximity to Colombia, Aruba, Venezuela etc. We also used Puerto Rico as a staging area to mount covert air operations.
During the height of the Drug War in the 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. Government launched a massive air and marine interdiction effort that took place in south Florida and the Caribbean. If one thing was accomplished as a result of this massive air and marine interdiction effort, it was to drive the smugglers further and further away from U.S. shores. Naturally, this forced some smugglers to change tactics and operate differently.
Their loss was our gain. The door was now open for a free-lance group of undercover operatives to make themselves available to provide badly needed transportation services to any criminal enterprise with a drug shipment that needed to be smuggled. Between losing so many of their crews, planes and vessels to accidents and the intense interdiction efforts being made in the Caribbean and elsewhere, the drug cartels and smuggling organizations were always looking for a few good men with good equipment to bring drugs into the United States.
In October of 1988 I approached the Special Agent in Charge in Miami and asked for permission to form an undercover air unit that would infiltrate smuggling organizations in an effort to mount as many controlled deliveries as possible. My plan was to go undercover as a smuggler and have my contract personnel get hired to fly multi-hundred and multi-thousand-kilogram shipments of drug contraband from source countries like Colombia to CONUS (the Continental United States).
In the beginning we planned less complex CDs and just made arrests when we delivered a drug shipment to stateside drug traffickers. Once we became more experienced we expanded our efforts and negotiated large transportation fees that we demanded had to be paid before a delivery was made. This insured that we not only seized a large cache of drugs but we also recovered large amounts of drug money. Collecting money from drug smugglers was no easy task. By having patience and holding out for a portion of our transportation fee we usually flushed out higher-echelon violators who had the authority to authorize large payments to the transportation people.
Once our contract crews and informants arrived in the U.S. with a drug shipment, my colleagues and I would complete the controlled delivery and arrest the violators involved once they paid us for services rendered. If everything worked out according to plan, my colleagues and I would ride off into the sunset and use the drug money we received for services rendered, to sting another unsuspecting group of smugglers.
With no military experience, an expired student pilot license and some 15 hours of flight time under my belt I became the ad hoc commanding officer of an undercover air unit that had no assigned aircraft, no funding other than rent money and no missions to fly. To staff this undercover unit I recruited war heroes, convicted felons, airline pilots, bush pilots, a crooked ex cop and even a former drug smuggler who never got caught, to help out. We used our contract personnel and documented sources of information to infiltrate smuggling organizations, to gather intelligence, to act as translators, to go undercover with special agents and to serve as crewmembers on board undercover aircraft and vessels.
To pay for this operation a change in the law permitted federal agencies to use money paid to undercover agents under certain circumstances to cover legitimate investigative and undercover expenses. This enabled us to use money known as “trafficker directed funds” to conduct investigations of international significance and mount large-scale covert operations without having to use significant funds from our agency’s budget. This made us one of the most cost-effective units in the drug-enforcement field.
I am convinced that my colleagues and I in the Miami-based (Customs Group 7) undercover operation were successful because of the “Greed Factor.” Not just smugglers, but all criminals seem blinded by the lure of easy money, as the words to the famous song go. It also helps if undercover agents and street-wise informants have the gift of gab and a personality that enables them to easily ingratiate themselves into the hearts and minds of their adversaries.
Some of the more significant drug seizures that we made established records that have not been surpassed to this day. The following is a brief description of our most successful controlled delivery operations.
On With The Mission
In December of 1988 we flew our first mission from Colombia to Cape Cod in a blinding snow storm and delivered more than 500 kilos of cocaine to Customs Agents in Boston for use in a controlled delivery in New England. The second and third missions we flew were in support of DEA and FBI agents in Miami and resulted in the combined seizure of 650 kilos of cocaine. The fourth mission we flew provided support to an undercover agent from our own Group 7 who convinced a smuggling organization that he was a Cuban Army General involved in the drug trade. In order to provide support for this CD, my partner and I had one of our contract crews use a rented ex-military seaplane to pick up more than 500 kilos of cocaine in Colombia. While making the pickup for this CD, our undercover seaplane got stuck in shallow water and had to be pulled free by local natives.
Once the undercover seaplane returned to the CONUS with the 500 kilos of cocaine, the Colombians air-dropped an additional 2,000 pounds of cocaine to an undercover U.S. Customs vessel that operated extremely close to Cuban waters. Tragically, a U.S. Customs Pilot was killed when his Blackhawk helicopter crashed at sea during this CD investigation.
Rules of Engagement
After being repeatedly denied authorization to fly an undercover plane into Colombia to make a pickup for our Albuquerque office, we flew two back-to-back seaplane missions to Colombia but were unable to land because the seas were too rough. The ocean water close to shore was calm enough for our seaplane to land and make the pickup, but our contract pilots were under strict orders not to operate that close to Colombia. Ridiculous orders like this made the Drug War a lot like the Vietnam War.
Rather than walk away from a good case I decided to use a loophole in the rules of engagement and go by boat to pickup two violators and 750 kilos of cocaine off the coast of Colombia. My plan was to make the initial pickup off the Colombian coast then travel to Puerto Rico where we would use an undercover seaplane to travel the rest of the way to New Mexico.
During the trip to the coast of Colombia to rendezvous with the Colombian vessel, a huge wave blew the bow hatch open and flooded the sealed forward compartment on the undercover vessel with seawater forcing us to go dead in the water. After broadcasting a coded emergency message in the clear, a U.S. Navy surface warfare vessel, the USS Blakley, arrived alongside our under-cover vessel in the morning to render assistance. While working in the hot sun the United States Navy Damage Control Party pumped the UC vessel dry and made us seaworthy again. This enabled us to rendezvous with the Colombian boat crew just in the nick of time.
Once we picked up the cocaine shipment and the two bad guys off the coast of Colombia we rendezvoused with the undercover seaplane in the Bay of Mayaguez in Puerto Rico. As soon as we made the transfer as planned, we took off and flew 17.5 hours cross country, landing twice at clandestine locations to refuel the undercover aircraft before we landed on a mining road in the New Mexico desert.
When we landed in New Mexico our two passengers were taken to a motel by undercover agents from our Albuquerque office, while a contingent of local agents and air officers took possession of the drug shipment so it could be used as bait during the final phase of the controlled delivery. Every violator involved in this case was subsequently arrested when two undercover agents were paid approximately $500,000 to satisfy a portion of our transportation fee, and the violators attempted to take delivery of “their” cocaine shipment.
While all this was going on my crew and I experienced an in-flight emergency and were forced to crash-land the undercover seaplane with only one engine working properly. I permanently injured two discs in my lower back because I had no seat belt protection in the co-pilot’s seat when we crash landed the 27,000 pound Grumman seaplane. My injuries were made worse when I was re-injured a few weeks later during a tropical storm at sea, while I was making my second undercover boat trip to the Colombian coast.
More Greatest Hits
During another controlled delivery that we executed with our New Mexico office, our aircraft was mistakenly picked up on radar as a viable target for the Colombian Air Force. While I stayed on the phone in the CP at GITMO, to get the Colombian fighter jets to disengage from their intercept, my crew ignored the danger and made the pick-up as planned. After we returned to the CONUS with the 500-plus kilogram shipment of cocaine we arrested several violators after we received a portion of our transportation fee.
In another CD we supported the Miami Freighter Intelligence Team by using a converted Twin-engine commuter plane to pick up 300 kilos of cocaine that were used as bait to recover more trafficker funds and capture several violators in Miami.
During another elaborately planned and executed covert air operation, my UC partner and I were paid an unprecedented $1 million dollars in cash after we transported 2000 kilos of cocaine and 7,000 pounds of marijuana in a rented four engine DC6 from Port Estrella, Colombia to Newark, NJ. In the last three missions we flew in support of our Boston Office, we used a Douglas DC3 to pick up more than 300 kilos in a combination FBI/U.S. Customs Controlled Delivery. We then went first class and rented two executive-class jets, including a Gulfstream G2, to transport a total of 9,400 pounds of cocaine from cartel hands at Cali International Airport in Colombia, to Boston. As usual, once we received a portion of our transportation fee U.S. Agents arrested every violator involved.
Of the 25,000 or so pounds of cocaine that my colleagues and I helped to seize, approximately 22,000 pounds of cocaine were safely transported on board our undercover aircraft in support of numerous controlled deliveries. The balance was transported on undercover vessels. In addition, my colleagues and I skillfully negotiated the recovery of approximately $3 million dollars in trafficker funds, seized 11,000 pounds of marijuana and arrested 70 some major violators.
Many of the same informants and documented sources of information that helped me make this undercover air operation a success, previously helped me arrest other violators and seize millions of dollars in drug assets, including aircraft, vehicles, an additional $500,000 in drug money, jewelry, and approximately 50 firearms. I even found time to help our fraud agents by going undercover and meeting with a Korean smuggler in Miami and Manhattan who was trafficking in counterfeit Chanel Products that he smuggled into the United States inside cargo containers.
The last time I worked undercover in 1995, I purchased two AK 47 machine guns, 4,000 rounds of ammunition and a silenced .22-caliber Ruger pistol from a violator operating along the Mexican Border. Unfortunately, I was re-injured again in a serious motor vehicle accident when I totaled the undercover vehicle that I rented for the machine-gun trafficking case.
The Dirty—But Effective—Dozen
Because there was no such thing as a training course at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center called Controlled Delivery 101, everyone who worked in this certified covert operation was a self-taught undercover operative. My colleagues and I in the Miami Group 7 undercover operation were the Dirty Dozen with Wings. The special agents, contract personnel and informants who worked in this UC operation were a group of eccentrics and social outcasts who acted as if they operated like the enemy but did it all by the book. It was the ultimate shell game of now you see it and now you don’t.
During the Drug War we were the tip of the spear that hurt the enemy in a way that they had never been hurt before. Every time we tricked our adversaries and we picked up a large shipment of cocaine in Colombia, we brought the United States of America a little closer to victory. Our job was not to win the Drug War. Our job was to give a good account of ourselves while executing as many controlled deliveries as possible. Last but not least, I am convinced that God was truly our Co-Pilot and we were successful because we were better than the enemy.
When my back injury got progressively worse I was forced to medically retire from federal service. I left the U.S. Customs with a set of retired agent’s credentials, a letter of recommendation and written permission to publish my manuscript entitled Controlled Delivery. The material represented in this article was extracted from this two part manuscript. Hopefully, the day will come when this story will be told in more vivid detail.