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Failed Drug War? : Books: Former undercover agent Mike Levine accuses DEA of mismanagement, risking lives.

<i> Stephen, a Washington-based free-lancer, writes often for View. </i>

For 25 years, Michael Levine, a former star undercover agent for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, avoided recognition because his life depended on it.

The wrong use of a slang term or a flicker of a tense eyebrow would have been enough to blow his cover and get him killed on a Harlem street or in the tropical heat of Panama, where he operated in disguise to bring drug criminals to justice.

But now, Levine, 50, is seeking exposure.

He is doing so despite, he says, personal risk, because he thinks the DEA has an enemy greater and more destructive than any drug dealer he’s come across: The enemy within.

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The problem, says streetwise, tough-talking Levine, is “the suits.”

Suits-- that’s Levine’s slang for those who hold bureaucratic and management positions at DEA. They are people who have no firsthand experience in the drug war and are unwilling to listen to the agents who do, he says. The cost of that has been agents’ lives and the failure to solve the drug problem, he claims.

He has documented his criticism in “Deep Cover: The Inside Story of How DEA In-Fighting, Incompetence and Subterfuge Lost Us the Biggest Battle of the Drug War” (Delacorte Press), which has appeared on the New York Times best-seller list.

The book is dedicated to Enrique (Kiki) Camarena, the DEA agent fatally tortured in Mexico in 1985 after his memos describing the danger he faced were ignored by DEA management. His tragedy received national media attention when he was murdered and recently was the subject of the NBC miniseries “Drug Lords.”

Levine, however, alleges that there has been no proper investigation as to why Camarena’s death was allowed to happen.

“The people in charge were made to look like heroes in the miniseries,” Levine says. “Actually, nothing has changed as a result of Camarena’s death.

“I really believe that Enrique Camarena would have written this book had he lived,” says Levine. “I know that by writing a book like this I will be tempting some dangerous forces. I’m more frightened of the suits than I’ve ever been of drug dealers.”

It’s not as though Michael Levine is easy to scare.

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The subject of a 1988 biography, “Undercover” by Donald Goddard, Levine’s life reads like a major motion picture waiting to happen. Widely acknowledged as being one of the DEA’s most effective undercover agents, Levine risked his life countless times as a consummate actor who infiltrated the world of drug traffickers at all points on the criminal spectrum--from desperate small-time Harlem dealers to the sophisticated South American businessmen who run the drug trade. Over a quarter of a century, Levine is credited with putting more than 3,000 criminals behind bars.

Now a self-described whistle-blower, Levine is turning the energies he once reserved for catching criminals against his former bosses.

Although agents working for the DEA are discouraged from speaking to the media, Levine is able to speak out now because he retired from the agency in 1989, after being injured while on a New York drug raid.

The drug war, he asserts in his book, is a sham, designed to “mislead and manipulate the American public. The sad truth is that our drug war is driven by political forces, bureaucratic rivalries, inept management, corruption and deceit.”

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Discussing Operation Snowcap, an American quasi-military effort to stop the flow of cocaine at sources in South America, he says it has done nothing to stem the drug tide. Instead, he cited recent newspaper reports stating that coca production has increased 12% among the four coca-producing nations: Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador. While undercover, Levine says, he has heard Bolivian traffickers laugh at U.S. drug-fighting efforts.

In “Deep Cover,” Levine details his own experiences with what he calls DEA’s “inept” management. His book describes the treatment he says he received in Operation Trifecta, a drug investigation Levine terms “the biggest and most bizarre undercover case in the history of law enforcement.”

The operation, as he describes it, was “a plan that could have smashed the top drug violators in (Panama, Bolivia and Mexico) with one blow.” He says it could have produced the “first really damaging blow to the cartel in drug war history.”

It began with the arrest of a small-time dealer who turned informant. In September, 1987, the investigation gathered steam when it became apparent that the informant could lead DEA officials, including Levine, to some of South America’s most powerful drug lords.

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Five months later, Operation Trifecta ended with the arrest and trial of seven major South American drug traffickers.

But, Levine asserts, the operation could have accomplished much more, such as providing some of the first significant DEA intelligence about La Corporacion-- the Mafia-style organization that is the drug world’s ultimate power.

“The suits” at DEA, however, did not come through with the backup he and his fellow agents needed on the case, says Levine, who accuses:

* The U.S. Customs Service, which worked with the DEA on the case, of treating the informant who triggered Operation Trifecta in an excessively generous and possibly illegal fashion.

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* DEA managers of risking his and other agents’ lives by refusing to provide a safe undercover house in Panama where they could trap major drug dealers in bogus transactions; DEA managers instead insisted on using the Panama City Marriott, a place where the Bolivians knew DEA agents stayed, he says.

* DEA of being too cheap to supply agents with the money to front a $5-million, 1,000-kilo cocaine buy; the lure of $5 million, he asserts, would have brought “high Mexican officials” running to Panama for face-to-face negotiations, which would have provided vital intelligence and significant arrests.

* DEA of botching investigations in Mexico and San Diego, resulting, he says, in top Mexican officials escaping arrest.

* DEA and Customs of failing to coordinate their work, leading to interagency conflicts that pitted agents against each other, risking lives.

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Frank Shults, DEA chief of public affairs, declined to comment in detail on Levine’s allegations: “We’re not going to get into a debate with Mike Levine or with anyone else about the specifics of the book, because we’re not going to distract ourselves from (our) mission.”

Shults said “a private citizen” may write anything he wants, but added of Levine: “It’s unfortunate that he chooses to take on all of the former colleagues, or unfortunate that he chooses to take on this agency.”

For Levine, this time of going public is an uneasy one.

“You can’t do what I’ve done for 25 years and be real happy about it,” he admits. “It’s really nerve-racking.”

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He says he is not the only agent dissatisfied with the results of Operation Trifecta. He says his partner, Customs agent Jorge (George) Urquijo, backs his criticisms and fears the consequences of Levine’s decision to speak out.

“The prevailing feeling in DEA,” Levine explains, “is of a great lack of respect for its own leadership. Look at Camarena. He writes memo after memo saying, ‘This is crazy. We’re going to die.’ And no one listens to him. So who is his real enemy?”

Levine is a formidable man, someone not to be encountered from the wrong side of an interrogation table. He is more than 6 feet tall and is a karate black belt for whom working out is almost as much a way of life as a hobby. A former semiprofessional actor, he has mysteriously plastic features, which he says take easily to disguise.

Levine is adept at camouflage and with street life, because he learned about it growing up in the South Bronx. His late father was a loan shark who married six times, he says. His younger brother was a heroin addict who committed suicide as a result of his addiction. Levine says his brother’s death has been a major motivating factor in his undercover work.

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Possibly to compensate for the chaos he grew up in, Levine is a perfectionist in his professional life. He does not suffer gladly people who make mistakes or who are less dedicated than he has been in his career, which has taken him on investigations in Thailand and the Middle East.

Levine, who blames his work dedication for a failed marriage, entered law enforcement with the Internal Revenue Service intelligence division after a turbulent stint in the Air Force. Seeking more action, he left the IRS for an assignment with the Treasury Department’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau. In 1966, he went undercover as a motorcycle gang member, work that led to a record bomb seizure.

Levine later joined the then-new DEA, going undercover to crack a case against corrupt agents who sold to criminals the names of fellow agents. The case led the DEA, which later put Levine in its classrooms as an instructor on undercover techniques, to restructure its internal security.

Levine says he has come face to face with a humbling truth--that his and other agents’ personal courage and efforts have not won the drug war.

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“After I recognized the futility and ridiculousness of the drug war--how undercovers aren’t going to win it--I made it my personal mission in teaching undercover that, whatever you do, it’s not worth your life,” he says.

He says that the one way to win the drug war is to concentrate on mandatory treatment programs for drug users.

“Rather than force addicts to go into drug programs, we’d rather invade Panama,” Levine says.

He counters charges that he is merely a frustrated agent by noting that he received a management job when he became DEA’s top official in Argentina and Uruguay from 1978 to 1982.

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Besides, his love is undercover work, he says. “It’s as addictive as the drugs that run it. The better I got at it, the more exotic the fantasy the government would pay for.”

Thus was born Levine’s most spectacular role: Luis, the bejeweled Mafia front man of Operation Trifecta. He acted that part to the hilt, he says in his book: “I made my grand entrance as Luis Garcia-Lopez, dressed in solid white from head to foot with diamonds and gold on my hands, wrists, and around my neck.”

Wearing sunglasses--even indoors--Levine negotiated in the fluent colloquial Spanish he learned from his Puerto Rican girlfriend in the South Bronx. In a videotape, Levine, in disguise as Luis, appears totally at ease with three South Americans, as hidden colleagues record the proceedings. “I’m loving every minute of it,” he says.

Now that Levine is retired, he says he has only to worry about the enemies he’s made with his book. He plans to concentrate on a writing career and has completed drafts of two novels.

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But he seems to know it can be complicated for an action man to start thinking too much: His world of Good Guys vs. Bad Guys has already changed into a frightening morass where the villains, for now, wear gray suits.


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