Drug Warrior

For one DEA special agent, the war on drugs has come full circle.

In January 2005, when Mark Trouville pulled his car into the parking lot outside the Drug Enforcement Administration Miami field division, a chill ran down his spine. Twenty-six years earlier, he had pulled into the same parking lot as a rookie special agent with a lot to learn and an appetite to learn it. Now, two and a half decades later, he was the special agent in charge. The boss.

He had walked through the front door of the Phoenix Building west of the Miami International Airport countless times before, always walking fast past the right-hand corridor, making a beeline for the elevators to get out of the way in case the boss was coming around the corner. Now that would be him. "To walk in here and make the right turn was an incredible feeling," Trouville says during an interview in his office. He hadn't expected to be back in Miami. His previous position, special agent in charge of the New England field division, was going to be his last, he thought.

But DEA Administrator Karen Tandy called Trouville and asked him take over in Miami, DEA's largest field office. "I had mixed feelings, because Boston is my home. But Miami is Miami. And if you're a DEA agent, there's no other place like it," Trouville says.

When he first arrived in Miami back in 1979, Trouville had never seen a palm tree. The Massachusetts native was fresh out of college with a degree in criminal justice from Northeastern University in Boston and a passion for DEA nurtured through an internship at the agency's Washington headquarters while he was still in college.

The son of a milkman who rose at 3:30 every morning to pasteurize and bottle milk before making daily deliveries, Trouville grew up knowing he would go to college, if not knowing what he wanted to do with his life. "Many summers I spent putting milk bottles on doorsteps, and my father told me, 'Go to college unless you want to do this forever.' "

He thought he wanted to be an engineer, but after a few physics and chemistry classes he rethought his options and switched his major to criminal justice. Then he saw a campus posting for an internship with the DEA. Trouville had never heard of the agency Richard Nixon created in the summer of 1973. It was to be a "superagency" to lead the war on drugs that Nixon had declared two years earlier after soldiers in Vietnam developed heroin addictions at an alarming rate. Trouville did some research and applied for the internship: "I didn't get the job. But later, they had a job for an intern in Washington, and I got that." While many of his generation began experimenting with all manner of drugs and otherwise turning on, tuning in and dropping out, Trouville, along with two other Northeastern students, one of whom would become his wife, inaugurated the new anti-drug agency's Washington internship program. It never occurred to Trouville to join in mind-altering experiences. "My father would have killed me," he says. Instead, he was having a different kind of transformative experience. Although he was an intern in the intelligence bureau at DEA, "they let me sit over with the senior agents that were at headquarters," he recalls. "I was just soaking it up. I would go to breakfast with them. When they let me, I would go to the gym with them. If they'd let me go out with them at night, I'd go out with them. It just got my blood going, and I said, 'This is what I have to do for a living.' Fortunately, I got hired. "I wanted a gun and a badge, and I wanted to get on the street and just rock and roll. I swear to God it wasn't anything deeper than that," says Trouville.

Cowboys, Guns and Cocaine

In 1979, as Trouville was moving to Miami, Colombian drug dealers were moving there as well. Carlos Lehder, a trafficker with a head for business and an enthusiasm for wild parties, began buying up property on Norman's Cay, an island in the Bahamas that would become the main transshipment point for cocaine from Colombia into the United States, through South Florida. Lehder, a key player in what would become Colombia's Medellin cartel, helped create an organization that would wreak havoc on Miami for years.

The first drug case Trouville was involved in after he arrived netted a pound of cocaine. It was considered a good case. Within six months, the deals were for hundreds of kilos at a time. "It just blew up on us," he says. In those days, junior agents like him were nobodies. Senior agents ruled and junior agents did what they were told to do. Assigned to Group 3 (the division consisted of four groups back then), Trouville set out to prove himself. "Nobody would say 'hello.' They didn't know who you were; they didn't trust you. I had a senior partner who wouldn't even talk to me for the first month. That's just the way it was. You had to earn your stripes." When agents seized a large cooler full of cocaine one night, they didn't have anyplace to put it-so unprepared were they for the influx of drugs that was about to overwhelm them. So Trouville, as the rookie, was assigned to sit outside the lockup with a shotgun and guard it until morning.

Cubans largely controlled the drug trade in Miami then, but Colombians, no longer content to be just suppliers, wanted to take over. The violence that came with the conquest earned Miami the highest murder rate in the nation by the early 1980s. The floodgates opened, and cocaine and marijuana started pouring into South Florida-trawlers and go-fast cigarette boats carried drugs up the Miami River on their way to Maine; airplanes full of coke and marijuana landed regularly on airstrips around Okeechobee in the middle of the state. The country was flooded. DEA was swept along.

At the time, DEA agents used evidence containers, about the size of a two-gallon plastic bag. "It's the standard DEA evidence bag," Trouville recalls. "You put things in and seal it and follow a lot of procedures. You could use that bag for pretty much any of your cases because anything you seized would fit in a bag like that. Well, starting in the early '80s, nothing fit in that bag anymore. We had to start using boxes and crates."

The violence also exploded. An afternoon shootout between competing drug gangs at the Dadeland Mall garnered this headline in The Washington Post on Aug. 13, 1979: "Crazy Colombians Rain Dope on Florida, Feud Over Millions." The story described Miami as a "free zone: Murders are common, arrests are few. Traffickers easily come up with, then leave behind, bail-bond money in six figures; it is little compared to their earnings. Aliens construct a maze of identities with passports perfectly forged in Colombia. Colombian crewmen arrested time and again in international waters with tons of marijuana return soon after their deportation . . . and behind it all is cash, vast amounts created from marijuana shipped in by the ton, pure cocaine in wholesale lots, and millions of 'downers' stamped out in tablets in Colombia by an old pharmaceutical die-and-punch."

Trouville recalls a shootout on Quail Roost Drive-not DEA's finest hour. It was one of the first "reverse" cases DEA ever did, where agents sold drugs to traffickers and then arrested them. At least that was the plan. The undercover agents were not prepared when the dealers attempted to steal the drugs by posing as police, complete with fake badges. A lot of gunfire was exchanged and one of the dealers was killed. "Looking back, we weren't doing it all that well, safetywise. After that, DEA initiated all kinds of regulations on how you need to do these things," he says.

It was heady stuff, says Trouville: "To be 21 years old and to be living on the street with these guys in Miami back then was like living in a candy shop."

Shift to Mexico

DEA and other law enforcement agencies got smarter about combating the drug trade in South Florida. The agency developed better relationships with local and foreign law enforcement. DEA tripled the size of its operation in the region and by the mid-1980s, pretty much had shut down the pipeline through the Bahamas by a mix of better police work, improved interagency/ international cooperation and stronger interdiction operations with military support.

As the Caribbean became less hospitable to drug traffickers, the Colombians began moving more of their operations westward, running drugs through Mexico and into Southern California. Trouville was there, too, in Los Angeles in 1988, following a two-year stint as an instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga., and a two-year assignment to Cochabamba, the coca capital of Bolivia, where he opened the first DEA office.

If South Florida in the early 1980s was the Wild West, Los Angeles in the late 1980s was Chicago before Eliot Ness caught on to Al Capone. A lucky tip would lead to what remains today the largest drug seizure on U.S. soil, and a turning point in DEA's understanding about how the cartels were pushing dope into the United States. It began with a pointer from a businessman who noticed things weren't quite right at a warehouse in an industrial park in Sylmar in northern Los Angeles. A local-federal interagency task force established a surveillance operation; Trouville was the senior DEA agent on the ground. When two men were picked up after leaving the warehouse and

Cops Found

20 kilos of cocaine in the trunk, they got a search warrant for the warehouse. What they found stunned them: "There, amid plastic owls, plaster figurines, piñatas and a painting of Christ walking on water, were boxes containing thousands of one-kilo packages of cocaine, stacked in piles up to 8 feet tall. Stacked against one wall, in cardboard boxes and black gymnasium bags, was approximately $10 million in cash, most of it in $20 and $100 bills," according to a Sept. 30, 1989, report in the Los Angeles Times.

The total haul: more than 21 tons of cocaine, with a street value of $6 billion, and more than $12 million in cash. DEA estimated the seizure represented about 5 percent of the world's annual production of the drug. It also represented a breakthrough in DEA's understanding of how the cartels were operating. The Colombians were paying Mexican traffickers cash to move cocaine through their previously established marijuana and heroin routes, but there were disputes over payments, and cash and coke were stacking up at the central distribution point while they sorted things out.

Operation BAT

DEA estimates that it costs the cocaine cartels 40 percent of every load to ship drugs through Mexico (after the Sylmar bust, smugglers are no longer paid in cash, but in a percentage of the shipment), and only 15 percent to 25 percent to ship through the Caribbean. But DEA, with a lot of help from the military, has made running drugs through the Caribbean much harder than running drugs across the Mexican border. That's why 80 percent to 90 percent of the cocaine that comes into the United States arrives across the border with Mexico, despite the costs to the cartels.

Last year, when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld proposed pulling Army Blackhawk helicopters out of Bahamas-based counternarcotics missions in the Caribbean, DEA pushed back hard. Without the Army, DEA would have only a single helicopter of its own, along with three Coast Guard helicopters, to participate in Operation BAT (short for Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands), which is largely responsible for forcing smugglers into more costly operations through Mexico.

"It was very painful for me when they made the decision to withdraw. I did everything I could, and I fired up headquarters and they did everything they could," Trouville says. "We thought initially we could talk the secretary of Defense out of it, but he was adamant. And I'm sure he had his reasons."

Rumsfeld's reasons were Afghanistan and Iraq. With Army and Marine helicopter assets stretched thin in the global war on terror, the war on drugs wasn't the Defense Department's priority. But the Florida congressional delegation, along with the president's brother Jeb Bush, who was then Florida's governor, prevailed upon the administration to reverse course. The Army still plans to withdraw its Blackhawks by this fall. But under a congressionally brokered agreement with DEA that's still being worked out, the Army will give DEA three smaller helicopters, provide night training to DEA or contractor pilots, and annually transfer to DEA more than $3 million in support funding over the next five years-money that was allotted to the military for counternarcotics operations.

More than any other DEA field division, Miami depends on the military for support, and the Navy and the Coast Guard routinely act on DEA intelligence to intercept drug shipments at sea. There are fewer military assets supporting DEA now than there were 10 years ago, but seizures are considerably larger because DEA has become much better at developing good intelligence to direct the intercepts, Trouville says: "Now [traffickers] are sending their folks out past the Galapagos Islands and then up into Mexico. That's how far out they're going." On March 17, in a joint operation involving Homeland Security, the Justice Department, the U.S. military and the governments of Panama and Mexico, the Coast Guard seized more than 21 tons of cocaine off the coast of Panama after intercepting the Panamanian-flagged ship Gatun; 11 Mexican nationals were arrested and extradited to Tampa for prosecution.

Traffickers have moved into uncharted territory as well: the Internet. More buyers and sellers are finding each other in cyberspace. In February, a DEA task force shut down about 15 pharmacies operating out of Tampa, pushing OxyContin, a narcotic painkiller, and other drugs.

"A lot of us have children and this has always hit close to home with me," Trouville says of DEA's mission. He and his wife, Mary Ellen, an analyst at DEA, have two grown daughters and a 16-year-old son-all drug-free, he says. "We talked to our kids about drugs every day. They went to school knowing what DEA policy was. I knock on wood and thank God every time I think my children have turned out well. I think how they could have turned out. If we weren't here, I worry about what it would be like. That's why Internet pharmacies bother me so much. A 9-year-old child sitting in front of his computer screen who grabs mom's or dad's credit card can have oxycodone delivered to his door. It's electronic drug dealing and we're not going to stand for it."

If Trouville gets discouraged by the never-ending cat-and-mouse game of drug enforcement, he doesn't show it. "I have no problem with motivation. I loved this job when I came on, and I love this job now. We have a great deal of success. It's like putting highway patrols on the highway. You can't stop everybody, but if they weren't there everybody would be speeding."

Drug Hauls

Marijuana and cocaine remain the big targets of the drug war, but methamphetamine and narcotic painkillers such as OxyContin are on the rise.

2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
Marijuana 2,670,733 2,423,291 2,705,291 2,460,937 2,427,937
Cocaine 230,729 257,493 257,496 364,966 382,419
Methamphetamine 8,736 5,451 8,483 6,879 10,487
Heroin 5,491 6,100 5,269 4,059 3,777

Source: Federalwide Drug Seizure System

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec