Recruits at the federal boot camp for drug-busters learn how to fire submachine guns, kick in doors, run a computer, pose as dope dealers and, above all else, stay alive.
“Don’t let the bad guy search you. It’s bad precedent,” teacher Gary Wade lectures a class on undercover operations. “And don’t ever give up your piece.”
“I know of no undercover situation where you would give up your piece--unless the guy has a gun drawn on you.”
Wade’s warning is part of a 13-week course at the Drug Enforcement Administration’s academy, where men and women prepare for the nation’s war on drugs--be it on the sidewalks of New York or in the jungles of Bolivia.
‘Hands Behind Your Back’
“Federal agents! Freeze!” a broad-shouldered man barks to a fellow student as the two practice defensive-arrest techniques. “Slowly go to your knees. . . . Lie flat on your stomach. . . . Put your hands behind your back.”
Down the hall, students who begin days with a 1- to 6-mile run or by firing hundreds of rounds of ammunition study the basics--the criminal code, the art of computer-aided investigations, the science of cooking crack.
“You’ll never know as much about the dope business as they do--they live it 24 hours a day--but you got to know enough to think like a dope dealer,” a stern-faced teacher tells students clad in fatigues and combat boots.
Classroom study is mixed with “practical exercises"--mock courtroom trials, simulated surveillance operations and, in a Hollywood-like set called “Hogan’s Alley,” bogus gunfights and drug busts.
“Respect a person’s constitutional rights--and follow the law,” an attorney advises a class. “The 4th Amendment prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. You have to get a warrant.”
Facilities on Marine Base
The DEA academy, which shares facilities with the FBI on the grounds of the sprawling Quantico Marine Base, is billed as offering the most intensive training program of any law enforcement agency on Earth. And DEA agents are widely hailed as the world’s top drug fighters.
“We want to turn out someone who is in outstanding physical shape, can shoot very well, can take care of himself in a fight and yet who remains professional and does the job the way it must be done,” said Robert Bryden, special agent in charge of DEA training. “They have to be able to think and react under pressure.”
The DEA has about 2,800 agents, 300 stationed overseas. At one time or another, all will work undercover in drugs.
Assignments range from destroying clandestine crack labs in Bolivia to infiltrating smugglers on the high seas to raiding crack houses in Miami.
In any given week, there is good chance an agent will draw his gun.
Slaying in Los Angeles
On Feb. 5, on a street in Los Angeles, undercover DEA agent George Montoya, 34, never got the chance. Just a month out of the academy, he and his partner were gunned down in their car by a Thai heroin gang.
“George was an outstanding young man,” said Steven Combs, a DEA firearms instructor whose business card bears a picture of a black pistol.
“Our students, in 13 weeks, will fire 5,000 rounds each. They qualify with the 12-gauge pump shotgun, the M-16 carbine, the submachine gun. They’re good. They have to be. They’re going to be going against very talented people.”
DEA training is constantly updated to keep pace with increasingly sophisticated drug kingpins who reign over multimillion-dollar empires, even billion-dollar ones, with an army of hired guns who shoot first and do not ask questions.
On average, there are two shootings a week involving DEA agents. In the last five years, seven have been killed and dozens wounded or beaten.
Each day, on average, DEA agents seize from drug dealers one automatic weapon. More than one-third of all federal inmates were arrested in cases involving DEA agents.
$500 Million in Assets Seized
Last year, the DEA arrested more than 21,000 people and seized more than $500 million in drug assets--houses, cars, stocks, bonds, yachts, businesses, even a horse farm.
“The American public gets the complete bang for its buck out of the DEA,” Bryden says. Regardless, by most measurements, the United States is losing the drug war.
Drug use, drug deaths and drug violence are on the rise. And cocaine cartels, with budgets far bigger than the DEA’s $450-million one, are willing to spend whatever it takes--in money and lives--to protect their profits.
“We have to be realistic. We do what we can do,” Bryden said. “We’re stretched pretty thin. I won’t even tell you how few agents we have in some cities. It’s embarrassing.
“But even with these numbers we have a lot of impact. We work with state and local police. And we pick up people willing to work hard.”
In Washington there are calls to bolster the assault on narcotics--including some to increase the ranks of the DEA.
Enough to Fill Openings
As the debate goes on, DEA does what it can with what it has and graduates several hundred agents a year--just enough to fill openings. All new agents, after 18 months on the job, return for two weeks of advanced training.
The DEA demands brains and brawn. For each spot at the academy, there are more than 100 applicants. Screening a prospect takes two years.
About 25% of those picked are former cops and 15% are military veterans. All are college graduates. One in four has advanced degrees and one in five speaks a foreign language. About 10% are women.
Students must pass a series of written exams and meet physical fitness requirements that involve running, sit-ups, pullups, wrestling, boxing and swimming. They also must be able to shoot to kill.
“There are no timid people in this place. They’d be eaten up alive,” said DEA special agent Bob Parks, an academy administrator and public affairs officer.
For those students who make it--about 94%--the starting salary is $23,000 to $29,000, depending on education level. The pay for a street agent can go up to about $50,000.
‘Like Being the Top Gun’
Among the current class of 44 students is a 31-year-old former military air traffic controller who worked his way through college as an aerobics instructor. Like most of his classmates, he has thick arms and a barrel chest--plus a zest for life and a desire to contribute.
“I like to live on the edge. This is like being the top gun. You’re right there. It’s something you’ll experience and nobody else. You can walk away and say: ‘I did my job. I put the guy behind bars.’ ”
Another student, a 34-year-old psychologist and former Marine, said: “I went into psychology primarily for the money and I got bored. When I decided to join the DEA, my friends said: ‘What are you, crazy?’ I said: ‘You know me. I like excitement.’
“I was ready for the p.t. (physical training). I’ve always been athletic. But I was surprised by the academics. This is tougher than graduate school.
“The danger of being the agent is always in the back of your mind. But you build up your confidence through training. And you develop a real confidence in each other.”
Short Woman Sharpshooter
He makes special reference to a 5-foot woman student who has become an “Annie Oakley” on the firing range. “Say we were going to bust down a door. I wouldn’t have any hesitation of having (her) on my team, especially after seeing her handle a shotgun.”
The DEA does not permit the students to be photographed. Upon graduation, all will eventually work undercover.
The female sharpshooter is a graduate of San Diego State University, where she majored in languages. While waiting for admission to the DEA academy, she sold jewelry, perfume and clothes.
“They (the DEA) gave me an extra six months to think about it. I told them this is want I want to do. Drugs are everywhere. You see it with your friends. It destroys so many lives. I wanted to do something to help,” she said.
“My parents’ reaction, initially, was to be a little wary. But I explained the program. They are very supportive now. Of course, they’ll be a little scared along the way. That’s only natural. Even we are. You have to be.”
One man, asked if he expected to make a difference in the war on drugs, expressed the sentiment of the student body: “Yes sir. Or I wouldn’t be here.”
Quote From Perot
Bryden greets each new class of students by reading them a quote from Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot on the type of employees that the hard-driving oilman demands:
“I want people who are smart, tough, self-reliant, have a history of success since childhood, a history of being the best at what they’ve done, people who love to win.”
Bryden says: “I tell the class, ‘You’re exactly what H. Ross Perot is looking for. I know he can pay you a lot more. The good thing is that you didn’t come here for money. You came because you believe in what you are doing.’ ”
In addition to producing drug agents, the DEA academy trains about 300 state and local policemen a year at the academy, plus another 10,000 or so at its field offices. It also helps several thousand foreign lawmen overseas.
The 2- to 3-week courses cover advanced work as well as some basics--such as, at the DEA academy, how to stop a car and remove armed drug dealers from the vehicle.
“You in the car--put your hands up,” shouts one of six lawmen, with guns drawn, standing behind the doors of their unmarked cars. They are performing a simulated car stop. “Driver, turn off the ignition and throw out the keys.”
Response From ‘Bad Guy’
“How do I know you’re a cop?” snarls the driver, playing one of three “bad guys.”
“Put your hands up,” shouts the lead lawman.
Slowly, the driver and front-seat passenger get out, hands raised, and walk backward toward police. They drop to their knees and are handcuffed. But the lawmen are unable to get a third “bad guy” out of the back seat.
After initially dropping his gun, he grabs it and opens fire--with blanks. Two officers, standing on opposite sides of the car, return fire and end up shooting toward each other.
“You guys did a lot of things well. The commands were strong. . . . But at the end, you got caught in a cross-fire,” instructor Chuck Franklin said. “We teach come from the same side. Again, for safety.”