Interview with Michael Levine

November 9, 1991
Causes and Cures
Marble Collegiate Church
New York, New York
by Paul DeRienzo

Michael Levine is a veteran of 26 years of under cover work for four federal agencies. He is the recipient of many Justice and Treasury Department awards for his work undercover, including the International Narcotics Enforcement Officer Association's Octavio Gonzales Award.

Levine is also the subject of Donald Goddard's book Undercover. Levine retired from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1989, at which time he was group supervisor in the New York office. His first book, Deep Cover, was published in 1990 by Delacorte Press, and is now available in softcover from Dell. His most recent book, released by Dell earlier this year, is Fight Back: How to Take Your Neighborhood, Schools and Family Back From the Drug Dealer. Levine is currently working on his third book, Queen of Cocaine.

PD: How did you become a DEA agent? Was it like Miami Vice?

ML: I was wild, I was a very bad kid from the South Bronx, really bad. By some miracle I never got into heroin. Heroin was already big in the 50's in my neighborhood. My brother David became a heroin addict at 15. I was a wino who joined the military, a very violent kid looking for some direction. In the Air Force I became a boxer.

My odyssey began with a fight I had with another guy in the Air Force, we were both military policeman, it was over a three dollar hat. He stuck a gun in my stomach, pulled the trigger and it misfired. Of course everyone was arrested, the gun was test fired and it fired every time after that.

I considered from that point on, my life a gift, and I became a fatalist. I thought I must be here for something, this was too fantastic that I survived. From that incident evolved someone who was terrified of reaching the end of life, and having to say the words "I wish I had." I wanted to experience everything, I wanted to go everywhere, I wanted to taste everything. I was in a rush to live.

How I ended up in 1965 graduating from Hofstra University, married with a baby, with a degree in accounting, I don't know. I was a very depressed young man when I ran into a buddy of mine who was carrying a little folio in his pocket that read "take the Treasury law enforcement test, be a G-man." I saw a picture of a guy on this folio that looked like James Bond. My imagination went wild, I thought, that's the key to adventure, to leading the good life, and I took the Treasury test.

Incredibly, I found myself on a job with the Internal Revenue Intelligence Division in 1965. My job was working undercover in the Organized Crime Wagering Division. I would ride around wearing a little hat, betting with bookmakers and arresting them. It was a lot of fun but I became very disenchanted and depressed. I kept asking myself if I had been saved for this.

Toward the end of my first year in intelligence, I found out my brother was a heroin addict. The discovery destroyed my whole family and it caused me to jump into the War on Drugs , feet first. I believed in the War on Drugs because I wanted to do something, and I took it as my mission.

I listened to all this inflammatory stuff that "they're killing us, they're dropping white death bombs on our country, they're invading us." I believed all that and I became an undercover agent and started locking up people by the droves. The government credited me with 3,000 arrests until 1977.

PD: Wasn't that dangerous?

ML: I was naive and kind of crazed and angry, I took the drug war very personally, I was akin to a Japanese kamikaze, someone who believes they're on a mission from God.

PD: What was the secret to your success?

ML: As a police lieutenant said many years later, "you know what the thing is with you Levine, you're a guy who should have gone bad, you should have been a gangster but somehow you turned out right." I thought about it and I thought of my youth and the way I grew up and I realized there was a lot to it. I was from the street, the street was in me, there was a thin line between me and the guys I was working on. That line was so thin that drug dealers couldn't see it. The line that separated me from being suspect as an agent was so thin that drug dealers could never believe I was an agent. That's something you can't teach.

PD: How did you wind up doing foreign operations?

ML: I began working undercover in Southeast Asia in 1970 and 1971, just being really good at what I do. I was asked to cover different assignments.

PD: Alfred McCoy who wrote The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia said his book influenced the way you thought about the work you were doing in Southeast Asia.

ML: The first time I ran into CIA and other U.S. influences in this War on Drugs , was an undercover case I did into Bangkok, Thailand in 1971. I successfully conned the hell out of Chinese drug dealers who were also the source of an investigation on a case titled the William Henry Jackson Organization. In essence, a bunch of GI's from Vietnam were buying heroin in Thailand and putting the heroin in dead bodies of GI's killed in Vietnam. They were using the bodies of 19 year old Americans killed in that other holy war as conduits for heroin.

The Chinese drug dealers, who really bought my act, wanted to invite me to a laboratory in Changmai, where they were producing hundreds of kilos. This was a time when the biggest heroin seizure was the French Connection, 65 or 67 kilos of heroin.

Here are people inviting me to a factory that produces hundreds of kilos of heroin a week and mysteriously I was instructed not to go and the case was ended with the Chinese dealers in Bangkok. I was told that there are a lot of things I didn't understand, there were other priorities, and of course I accepted that because I was the good soldier. What I point out with Alfred McCoy's book is that even if I'd had his book in my hand in 1971 and 72 - a book that clearly pointed out why I was not allowed to go to Changmai - what an incredible thing that is to accept - that my own government could protect people who were using the dead GI's as heroin conduits! How could I accept that? If I'd had McCoy's book in my hand I would have considered it an un-American thing to read. That's why I can understand what happens to young men who are in law enforcement, why they refuse to look at the reality of the situation. It's just too much for Americans to accept, it's too much for young narcotics agents. You don't take a j ob like this for Civil Service security, you take it because you believe in it and most of these guys do believe. When events happen, and they are told that there are priorities they don't understand, and when they see around them things like Oliver North, who had 500 pages on drug trafficking in his notebooks, they don't want to accept this because to accept it is to realize that your career is a lie.

PD: So then you were assigned to South America?

ML: In 1978 I was stationed in Buenos Aires, Argentina as the country Attache for the Drug Enforcement Administration, and I covered Argentina and Uruguay. This was during the year of the dirty war, La Guerra Sucia, when the Argentine hit squads were disappearing any number of young Argentines for being political activists.

I was there on a Holy Mission on the War on Drugs , and I was as focused on the War on Drugs as ever. Blind to anything else, I was there for my country to protect the American children from the White Death.

I've been criticized as being a low level DEA employee which is not true. During my two years in Argentina, I was the senior law enforcement representative in the southern cone. the FBI closed their office and I fielded their work, Bolivia closed down the DEA operations, and I fielded their work, so I was the senior man during these years.

I quickly penetrated an organization called the Roberto Suarez Cocaine Organization that offered me thousands of kilos of cocaine a month when the biggest drug seizure at the time was 240 kilos of cocaine. The first man I met was Marcelo Ibaez, who was an ex-Minister of Agriculture in Bolivia, and who told me there was a man named Roberto Suarez who was putting together all the drug producers in Bolivia under one umbrella organization which later became La Corporacion, the General Motors of cocaine.

I went to DEA and asked for funding and approval to set up a sting operation and I was called a liar. I was told that RobertoSuarez wasn't in the computer, neither was Marcelo Ibaez. I went to the CIA and checked his name and they had nothing on him. Of course, three or four months later on 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace called him the biggest drug dealer who ever lived.

There had to be something wrong at that point, but I continued to persist. At one point I was accused of trying to run a scam on DEA to get an all-expense paid undercover trip up to the States. But I kept meeting with these Bolivians, still pretending to be a half- Sicilian, half-Puerto Rican drug buyer and representative of the Mafia.

Eventually I forced DEA into setting up a sting operation which they did all they could to destroy, but I managed to rally a team of undercover agents, who like me, didn't believe that anybody could go against an operation like this. We got the support of elements of the Bolivian government, the Lidia Gaylor government, who were, in 1980, genuinely anti-drug, to carry out a huge sting operation. It ended with the seizure of about 1,000 pounds of coke.

I paid $9 million to Jose Roberto Gasser, one of the richest and most powerful Bolivians, from one of the most powerful Bolivian families, a family that had long been linked to the World Anti-Communist League and the CIA. He was arrested leaving the bank with my $9 million along with Alfredo Gutierrez, a man who was in the DEA computer as one of the biggest drug dealers in the world.

Before I could get back to Argentina, my post of duty, the United States Attorney in South Florida, the man who is now prosecuting Noriega, Michael Sullivan, released Gasser without putting the case before a grand jury. These details will be in my forthcoming book, Queen of Cocaine. I couldn't write this in detail with the chronology of my life in my previous book Deep Cover (Dell) for reasons I'll explain.

Gasser goes back to Bolivia and publishes an account of his release, making a laughing stock of the American drug war and within months Alfredo Gutierrez is released. So the "biggest drug sting in history" as it was called by Penthouse magazine, was left without any defendants, only the American people didn't know that.

Now what happens, Jose Roberto Gasser, Roberto Suarez, and Gasser's father Erwin Gasser, have a meeting with the Bolivian military and begin to foment what became the Cocaine Coup, the 1980 Bolivian revolution in which for the first time in history, drug dealers now took over their country. During that coup all the people who helped DEA in the sting were either exiled, killed or tortured. I learned that the CIA was a supporter of this revolution and that's why Gasser was released.

At that moment - for the first time in my life - I had no choice but to look at the truth, that this drug war was not for real .

Then I began to complain and I wrote a letter to the media. A month later I was put under a very heavy personal investigation that went into every corner of my life.

I was falsely accused of everything from black marketing to playing my radio too loudly in the American Embassy. No stone was left unturned in trying to make me an incredible person and destroy my career, my reputation, my credibility. I managed to survive that, but they did frighten me into keeping my mouth shut.

I was forceably transferred up to the U.S., where I was put undercover in an operation called Operation Hun, which was even more of a fiasco and scandal then the Suarez case. During my entire time undercover in Operation Hun, I was kept under investigation by DEA, and I was frightened to death. During this same investigation we learned that my daughter had become a cocaine addict. Most of my attention then went into getting a hardship transfer back to New York, and to forget everything that happened to me. I didn't want to believe what I had just lived through for the previous five and six years.

I probably would have gone to the end of my career keeping my mouth shut had not Operation Trifecta happened at the end of 1987, and the events described in the book Deep Cover. When Deep Cover happened, that was the straw that broke the camel's back , and I decided I had to speak out.

PD: Have you been threatened because you decided to make these allegations public?

ML: It's such a sad commentary to spend almost 26 years of your life as a government agent, believing in what you were doing for a good part of that time, and then come to the realization that I have to be more afraid of my own leaders then I ever was of a drug dealer.

I've been threatened throughout my life, but one of the scariest threats that I've ever had came in the form of advice from a friend of mine in DEA, who is now one of the high level people in DEA. He called me during the hottest part of their investigation into me, when I was criticizing the government. To fully understand what he said, I need to tell a quick little story.

Sandy (Sante) Bario was a DEA agent who was sent to Mexico. I considered him to be one of the top undercover agents in DEA. He became involved in all kinds of CIA-type operations with drugs, and eventually ended up being arrested while smuggling drugs. I won't even comment on whether he became corrupt or whether the whole system is so corrupt that no one can go into it without becoming corrupt.

Sandy was being held in a jail on the Texas-Mexican border when he took a bite of a peanut butter sandwich in the jail. He fell down in convulsions and went into a coma. The initial tests indicated that Sandy had been poisoned with strychnine. He died three or four weeks later and the final autopsy said death by asphyxiation on a peanut butter sandwich, he choked on the sandwich. That's incredible.

Half the DEA agents I knew believed that he was either offed by some covert agency in the government, or possibly some elements within DEA. I didn't want to believe anything like that, I couldn't believe anything like that. Cut to several years later, and here I am under investigation, criticizing my own government, and a DEA official calls me and says, "Mike I like you, remember a peanut butter sandwich". "Are you kidding?" I said, and he replied "Not at all, I'm only telling you this because I like you". He and I never spoke again.

PD: What was Operation Trifecta?

ML: Operation Trifecta was a three-pronged probe into the top of the drug world. It went into La Corporacion in Bolivia, where myself and another undercover agent, Jorge Urquijo, made a 15 ton cocaine deal with people who were producing 400 kilos of cocaine a day in their lab. They were only a small part of this corporation. In the course of this operation we met the top money launderer in Panama, Remberto Rodriguez, where we were instructed to make our first $5 million payment. Rodriguez was a man we then believed was closely linked to Noriega, when the Panamanian dictator was being protected by the United States. This was three months before Noriega's indictment.

We then met with the grandson of the man who wrote the Mexican constitution, Mexican Colonel Jorge Carranza, and I bribed him with $1 million to land the first shipment of cocaine from Bolivia in Mexico, with Mexican military protection to ferry the load up to the States. The case in all three countries was truncated by my own government's actions. We were not allowed to go further then we went, and that's when I wrote Deep Cover, and then I retired from the agency.

PD: What is the subject of your most recent book?

ML: It's called Fight Back: How to Take Your Neighborhood, Schools And Family Back From The Drug Dealer (Dell). The books's premise is that we have been fooled into aiming our efforts in the wrong direction. We have an $11.5 billion budget that's mostly going against this war against drugs, war against the Medellin Cartel, war against Manuel Noriega. After my 25 year career, I concluded that the $11.5 million was wasted, as was the $8.5 billion last year.

$200 million was recently spent to bring Noriega to "justice" , and what happened is that before his seat was cold, the drug situation, according to my sources that are still within the DEA and who still contact me, is much worse than when Noriega was there. We have to conclude that the $200 million was wasted money.

If you add all the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been spent in this War on Drugs , what you'll find is that if we hadn't spent one nickel in the last 25 years the situation would not be any better or any worse. It had absolutely no effect, it was wasted money. The thrust of Fight Back is that the only way to fight back is to take away this notion that a supply side War on Drugs works at all. To examine what communities have done that actually works, that hurts the drug economy. To examine what cultures like Japan have done, that quickly devastated the drug economy without going to war against drugs. To see if we can get these programs operating around the country, and in essence take the War on Drugs out of the hands of the suits, the lying politicians, the bureaucrats, and into the hands of the people, and local police and local communities, where we will effectively destroy the drug economy.

Chief of Police Reuben Greenberg of Charleston, South Carolina is one of the examples I cite in the book. He said "You've got to attack it as a business. Drugs don't shoot and drugs don't fight, you can't go to war against drugs. Although our leaders would have us go to war against drugs forever, because that will maintain the bureaucracy and the drug economy. A hell of a lot of people want that drug economy to continue."

What Chief of Police Greenberg did was to instruct his police officers to go down in the street, and not make any arrests. They called it a shadowing operation. They would stand around near the drug dealers and followed them. They found that the users, 80 to 90 percent of whom are affluent buyers from outside the community, who are afraid of exposure, just turned around and left. Within a year, without making any arrests, Chief Greenberg significantly reduced drug related crime.

If we tell hard core drug abusers like my baby brother David, that it's not their fault, then you're adding fuel to the fire, you're giving an impetus to the drug economy. If we don't aim any of our anti-drug efforts at this affluent majority market, giving them license to feel they're victims of this influx of drugs, just like the black community, we're adding fuel to this fire.

We should target the affluent drug buyers like the Morris Avenue block association in my native South Bronx, where the community took to the streets with video cameras and bullhorns, and frightened away drug buyers. They were able to kill the drug economy in their neighborhood. It's the dollars of the affluent users coming into poor neighborhoods that bring the bullets, those dollars are what's keeping the Medellin Cartel in business, what's keeping La Corporacion in Bolivia in business, the drug cartels in Peru in business.

One of the reasons I wrote Fight Back, was that I heard of a poll taken, showing that the majority of Americans are willing to give up their rights under the Constitution to win the War on Drugs . I said, it's time to fight back. If we change this Constitution, a guy like Mike Levine criticizing his government wouldn't exist. Fight Back is intended to stop this madness, to stop this militarization, to stop this erosion of our Constitution.

It can't begin by waiting for George, it has to begin on the street level. Communities banding together and not making it a racial issue, making it an issue for communities - black and white - to not accept the drug economy.

If it were the car business, the dumbest thing we could do to stop people from driving and buying cars is to go after the board of directors of General Motors. As long as there are people out there who want to buy cars, they'll go underground. But if we start seizing cars and we start publicizing the names of these people who have been untouchable, you'll see demand quickly drop to nothing. The same thing will happen if we make drug buyers accountable. I'm talking particularly about cocaine, not marijuana, because even though I'm against legalization of drugs, marijuana is a good case for possible legalization, but not cocaine, crack and heroin.


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