The Inside Story of How DEA Infighting, Incompetence, and Subterfuge Lost Us the Biggest Battle of the Drug War

By Michael Levine

Delacorte. 316 pp. $19.95


By Max Mermelstein as told to Robin Moore and Richard Smitten

Simon and Schuster. 304 pp. $19.95

EVER WONDER why, every time federal drug agents announce they have busted a major drug ring or seized some giant stash of cocaine, it never seems to make any differnce? Many no doubt assume this shows the futility of our national crusade against the "scourge" of drugs. The supply of white powder abroad seems limitless, the demand here at home never-ending.

Now comes Michael Levine, celebrated and recently retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent, to argue otherwise. The reason we have yet to prevail in the drug war, he writes in Deep Cover, is not that it is unwinnable but that the whole effort is one big hoax, a public-relations exercise staged by mindless politicians and self-interested DEA bureaucrats (or "suits" in the jargon of the street agents). As recounted here, DEA spends much of its time promoting useless foreign adventures and feuding with rivals like the Customs Service. Truly big traffickers, often in league with corrupt foreign officials, get ignored. The drug war, concludes Levine, "is a war of lies, hypocrisy, and self-interest, which like the Vietnam War is being fought with no intention of winning."

Needless to say, Levine is not a man given to subtlety. The publication of his book -- coinciding with a series of press interviews by the author -- has embarrassed DEA and prompted agency officials to strike back. Levine, they contend, is a disgruntled former employee suffering from a terminally swollen ego. Just a year ago, he collaborated on another book about his law enforcement career called Undercover. In that book, Levine was described on the jacket as having "waged war against the drug empire with unrivalled success." In this book, Levine says his 25 years of federal undercover work were "meaningless and had absolutely no effect whatsoever." After spending much of his life as a professional con artist, a cop pretending to be a drug dealer, Levine shifts covers without batting an eye.

But this does not mean Deep Cover should be dismissed. Stripped of its rhetorical hyperbole and score-settling, this may be the most detailed inside account yet of a how a big-time federal drug investigation is actually put together. It is not a pretty picture. Deep Cover tells the story of Operation Trifecta, a joint DEA-Customs investigation of a high-powered drug-smuggling operation shipping Bolivian cocaine to the United States with protection provided by members of the Mexican army and federal police. When the investigation was made public in January 1988 and 12 Bolivians and Mexicans were arrested (including two Mexican federal police commanders and an army colonel), a top Customs official called the drug ring "one of the major narcotics trafficking groups in the world." Levine, who worked the case, says none of the drug ring's leaders was ever touched and evidence implicating top Mexican military officers was never pursued. Trifecta, he says, is the "most fraudulent operation in drug war history."

Levine's explanation of why seems at first convoluted and difficult to follow, but it is worth one's attention. In the beginning, DEA bureaucrats turn down Levine's plan to target the Bolivian laboratories supplying the cocaine (apparently too politically risky). Midway through the investigation, and before anything is made public, Customs secretly brings in NBC television crews to videotape undercover meetings with the drug dealers in a La Jolla, Calif., safe house. DEA feels double-crossed, furious that Customs has maneuvered to get bigger play on the nightly news.

In the end, the two agencies patch up their differences and announce their arrests at a press conference. But not all the key players have been rounded up. One crucial target of the probe, a Panamanian money launderer with suspected ties to Manuel Antonio Noriega, disappears in Panama, apparently having read a newspaper account of the press conference reporting that federal agents are looking for him.

Behind this Keystone Kops tale are recurring -- and disturbing -- themes. As Levine tells it, the DEA attache in Panama City shows no enthusiam for arresting the money launderer and upsetting his cosy relationsip with the Noriega regime. (Remember: Until Noriega's February 1988 indictment on drug trafficking charges, DEA chiefs consistently praised the Panamanian dictator's "cooperation" in the war against drugs.) The DEA attache in Mexico City turns out to be a longtime social and professional acquaintance of the indicted Mexican colonel, Jorge Carranza. U.S. Ambassador Charles J. Pilliod backs up Mexican government claims that all of the military and police officers have long since retired and are of no consequence.

Then there is the curious role played by one David Wheeler, a self-styled movie "screenwriter" who had been busted on cocaine charges in Oklahoma City. Wheeler, reading of Customs Commissioner William von Raab's interest in exposing Mexican drug corruption, had cut a deal with Customs officials to turn them onto the drug-dealing Mexicans federales, becoming the main informant in the case. According to Levine, he was an unreliable con man who flunked a DEA lie-detector test but nonetheless pulled down a cool $285,000 from Customs for his efforts.

Levine's rendition of these events is undeniably flawed. The reader at times wants to know the other side -- what, for example, DEA and Customs officials might say about some of his charges. Levine also shows a chronic inability to get his dates straight. The FBI merger with DEA was in 1982, not 1980. It was last year that the first DEA agent was killed in Operation Snowcap, not 1988.

But by introducing his readers to Wheeler, Levine has performed at least one public service: He has exposed the dirty little secret of drug investigations and indeed much of what passes for "intelligence" in the drug war. Intelligence is a hot item in drug-war circles these days. National drug policy director William Bennett wants to create a $40 million "national drug intelligence center." The truth is, most of this intelligence is little more than than the embroidered tales of dubious snitches out to save their necks.

THIS IS a point worth keeping in mind when turning to The Man Who Made It Snow, the memoirs of Max Mermelstein, written with Robin Moore and Richard Smitten. It is a bit scary to contemplate, but a big chunk of what U.S. law enforcement (and the American public) now knows, or thinks it knows, about Colombia's Medellin cartel comes from Mermelstein. Introduced to the cocaine world by family and friends of his Colombian wife, Mermelstein, a Brooklyn-born engineer, became the cartel's chief distributor in Miami between 1978 and 1985. Or so he says. "In my service to the cartel, I was personally responsible for sending them $300 million in cash and bringing fifty-six tons of the white powder into the United States," he writes in this self-serving and often hard-to-take memoir. "I made it snow in Florida. And I am paying the price."

How credible is Mermelstein? The book jacket carries supporting blurbs from Richard Gregorie, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, and other federal prosecutors. No surprise there. The ever-repentant Mermelstein (now in the Federal Witness Protection Program) makes a good witness, especially against the low-life Colombian executioners and couriers he is usually testifying against.

But whether that means that Mermelstein's fanciful portrait of a monolithic, all-powerful Medellin-based conglomerate should be believed is another story. Many Colombian journalists have long since dismissed this view as too simplistic, reflecting the American compulsion to embellish -- and demonize -- its enemies into larger-than-life monsters. Mermelstein plays to that need. In its cash flow and net income, the cartel "rivalled the profits of General Motors," he writes. Although Mermelstein made a few trips to the giant haciendas of the Ochoa clan, there is nothing in here that suggests he ever saw the books.

Even more difficult, for some readers, will be Mermelstein's attempt to explain or rationalize his service to the Colombians. He says he had little choice because his "control," Rafael Cardona, permitted him to witness a murder and let him live, thereby terrifying Mermelstein into doing his bidding. So for the next seven years, instead of going to the police, Mermelstein does the cartel's work, expands their markets and amasses a fortune. So terrified is he that in 1984 he accepts a contract to execute another witness against the cartel, Barry Seal. (Mermelstein has trouble locating his quarry and other, more efficient cartel hit men do the job instead.)

It is only later, after he is caught, that Mermelstein is suddenly filled with "remorse for the enormity of what I myself did." As the church lady might say, how convenient.

Michael Isikoff covers drug and law enforcement issues for the National section of The Washington Post.