Interview with Michael Levine
|from The People's Spellbreaker
edited by John DiNardo
In today's program, we'll be hearing a special interview, conducted by Paul DeRienzo, with former United States Drug Enforcement Agency officer Michael Levine.
MICHAEL LEVINE: I was a very wild kid from the South Bronx. Really bad. By some miracle I never got into heroin. Heroin was already rampant in the `50s in my neighborhood. My brother David became a heroin addict at fifteen. But I was a wino -- a wino who joined the Military. I was a very violent kid, looking for some direction. In the Air Force, I became a boxer. I was still looking for direction, for some meaning in my life.
The odyssey began with a fight that I had with another guy in the Air Force. We were both military policemen -- dog-handlers. It was over a three-dollar hat. He stuck a gun in my stomach -- pulled the trigger. It misfired. Of course, everyone was arrested. The gun was test-fired. It fired every time after that. From that point on, I considered my life a gift. And I became, I guess .... I don't want to sound too Shirley MacLaineish, but I became very much a fatalist. I thought: "Well, I must be here for some reason, because it was just too fantastic that I should survive that."
Again, in searching for meaning in my life, what evolved out of that incident was someone who was really terrified of reaching the end of my life and having to say the words: "I wish I had done it." I wanted to experience everything. I wanted to go everywhere. I wanted to taste it. I wanted to visit every country. Because, at that moment, I realized that that Arab saying, "Any day is a good day to die," is very true. So I was in a rush to live.
How I ended up in 1965, graduating from Hofstra University with a degree in acccounting, married with a baby -- I don't know. I was a very depressed young man. But again, fate stepped in. I ran into a buddy of mine who was carrying a little folio in his pocket, and it said: "Take the Treasury Department law enforcement test. Become a G-man." I saw a picture of a guy on this folio who looked like James Bond. And there goes the wild imagination of young Michael Levine: "Wow! That's it. That's the key to adventure -- the key to living the full life." I took the Treasury test and, incredibly, I found myself on the job with the Internal Revenue Service Intelligence Division in 1965. My job was working undercover in the Organized Crime Wagering Division. That is, I would ride around wearing a little hat, betting with bookmakers and arresting them for violations of the fifty-dollar wagering tax, which was kind of a joke. I mean, it was a lot of fun. But I became very disenchanted -- depressed. I said: "Was I saved for this?"
Toward the end of that time, in my first year with intelligence, we found out that my brother was a heroin addict. I won't go into the whole thing, but the discovery destroyed my whole family. And, at that point, my brother had been a heroin addict since he was fifteen. He was then twenty. At first, it amazed us that we didn't know. I then jumped into the "War on Drugs," feet first. I was fighting to get into it because I believed that I wanted to do something: "This is what I was saved for!" I took it to be my mission. And I listened to all the words -- all the verbiage of politicians -- all this inflammatory stuff: "They're killing our children. `THEY,' they're dropping white death bombs on our country. `THEY' are invading us with powder." And I BELIEVED all of that. And I got into the "War on Drugs" -- became an undercover agent -- started locking up people in droves. A man, Donald Goddard, wrote a book about me called UNDERCOVER wherein the Government itself credited me with three thousand arrests up to 1977.
PAUL DeRIENZO: How dangerous was that?
MICHAEL LEVINE: I was naive and kind of crazed, and angry. I took the "War on Drugs" very personally. I probably was someone very much akin to a Japanese kamikaze or someone who believes that they're on a mission from God. As crazy as it is to look back now, I have to admit that that's what I felt -- that I had been "saved" for something, and that nothing was going to hurt me.
PAUL DeRIENZO: What was the secret to your success? Were you particularly good at undercover work?
MICHAEL LEVINE: The secret to my success was ..... A police lieutenant, with whom I worked many years later, looked at me, after I had done, in one day, something like four or five undercover buys from different groups -- from Hispanics, from Blacks, from Whites -- and he was covering me along with my group. He said: "You know what the thing is about you, Levine? You're a guy who should've gone bad. You should have been a gangster. You should have been in jail. But somehow you turned out right. And that's why you're so ..." [convincing]. And I thought about it, and I thought about my youth and about the way I grew up, and I realized that there was a lot of truth in what he said. I was FROM the streets. The streets were in me. There was a thin line between me and the guys who I was working against. And that line was so thin that drug dealers couldn't see it. Do you understand? The line that separated them from me as a suspected agent was so thin that drug dealers could NEVER believe that I was an agent. And that's an attitude .... that's something you can't teach.
I still teach narcotics undercover for a company. The thrust of my teaching is to keep these guys alive. I try to teach young police officers involved in it that: Hey. This isn't for real. If you want to do it -- if you want to take any satisfaction from it, you can take satisfaction from the fact that you're taking bad people -- murderers and rapists, who happen to be drug dealers, off the streets. Okay, in that sense, go ahead out there and risk your butt. But if you're in this business thinking that you're going to save the youth of America from "the white death", I advise you to find another career because you're going to end up dead! It's very dangerous.
PAUL DeRIENZO: How did you wind up doing these foreign operations?
MICHAEL LEVINE: Well, I began working undercover in Southeast Asia in 1970 and `71. Just being really good at what I do, I was asked to do different assignments.
PAUL DeRIENZO: I spoke to Alfred McCoy, and he mentioned that he talked to you afterwards and told you about his book, and that that book influenced the way you thought about the work you were doing in Southeast Asia.
[JD: "THE POLITICS OF HEROIN IN SOUTHEAST ASIA", by Alfred McCoy, has been the bible on U.S. drug trafficking. However, I understand that its sequel, "THE POLITICS OF HEROIN: C.I.A. COMPLICITY IN THE GLOBAL DRUG TRADE" is even better.]
MICHAEL LEVINE: Well, what happened was, the first time that I ran into CIA and other U.S. influences in this "War on Drugs" was on an undercover case that I did into Bangkok, Thailand in 1971, going into 1972. There's no way I can tell you the whole story, but let it end with this: I successfully conned the hell out of Chinese drug dealers who were also the source of an investigation of drug dealers on a case titled, "the Herman Jackson Organization." In essence, Herman Jackson and a bunch of G.I.s from Vietnam were buying heroin in Thailand and putting the heroin into dead bodies of G.I.s killed in Vietnam, and the bodies were being funneled through Thailand and then home to the United States. And they were using the bodies of our 19- and 20-year-old young men, killed in that "holy war", as conduits for heroin.
Now, at that time, young Michael Levine, young undercover agent -- I'm dealing with the same people who are supplying that [Herman Jackson] group. The Chinese drug dealers, who really bought my act, wanted to invite me to a laboratory in Chang Mai where they were producing hundreds of kilos. Now, this was at a time in our history when the biggest heroin seizure was "the French Connection", sixty-five or sixty-seven kilos of heroin. Now here are people inviting me to a factory that produces hundreds of kilos of heroin A WEEK!
Mysteriously -- strangely, I was instructed that: "You're not going!" The case was ended right at the point I had gone to; that is, at the Chinese dealers in Bangkok itself. Arrests were made. A lot of publicity. The United States Government told the American Public: "Another great Drug War victory." I was told: "There are a lot of things you don't understand. You see, there are priorities." And, of course, I accepted that because I was, again, the "GOOD soldier".
Now, Al McCoy's book came out around the same time. Now -- when I look back, when I talk about Al McCoy's book and my experience, what I point out is that even if I had Al McCoy's book in my hands in 1971 and `72 -- a book that pointed out CLEARLY why I was not allowed to go to Chang Mai .... WHAT an incredible thing that is to accept! That my OWN government could protect people who were using our DEAD G.I.s -- dead young Americans as heroin conduits! HOW could I accept that?! It was just too MUCH! What can I give you as a comparison? It's a man who's been married to a wife who doted on him for twenty years (well, at that point in my career it was seven or eight years) whose fidelity he never questioned; and then suddenly coming in and finding her in bed with, not just the postman, but the butcher, the dogcatcher, ..... It's just too much for you to accept as real. Had I had Al McCoy's book in my hands, I would've 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 this situation. It's just TOO MUCH for Americans to accept. It's too much for young narcotics agents to accept. You don't TAKE a job like this for civil service security. You take it because you BELIEVE in it! And most of these guys DO. And then, when these events happen, and they're told: "This is a priority that you don't understand. You just go ahead about your business" .... and when they see, around them, things like Oliver North, who ..... It's really funny; he's got a book out. I don't even want to say the title -- but I looked in the index and he's got three pages devoted to drug trafficking; yet, in his OWN notebooks (he's got twenty-six-hundred-page notebooks) he's got FIVE HUNDRED pages of NOTATIONS about drug trafficking. There's something he's not TELLING us. You know? So, when young agents see things like this .... when young agents see that people like Oliver North and Lewis Tams were banned from Costa Rica for DRUG running, it's HARD for them to accept. They consider this like: "Well this is a plot. We don't want to believe this." Because, to accept it and to believe it is to accept that your career is a LIE! Your chosen goal in life is a total lie.
PAUL DeRIENZO: Then you wound up in South America. Why don't you tell us about your book, "DEEP COVER" [Delacorte Press, New York, 1990.]
MICHAEL LEVINE: There'll be another book out called "THE QUEEN OF COCAINE" that will cover, in detail, these years. In `78, `79, `80, `81, I was stationed in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was the country attaché for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. I covered Argentina and Uruguay. This was during the years of "the dirty war", "la guerra sucia" when the Argentine hit-squads were disappearing any number of young Argentines for being political activists. And I was there on a holy mission from the "War on Drugs," -- as focused on the "War on Drugs" as I ever was. I was blind to anything else. I was there for MY country, to protect the AMERICAN children from "the white death." And I quickly penetrated an organization called "the Roberto Suarez Cocaine Organization."
I should say that, during my years in Argentina ..... of course, I've been criticized as being some sort of a low-level DEA employee, which is not true. During my years in Argentina -- during two years -- I was THE senior U.S. law enforcement representative in the southern cone. The FBI closed their office. I fielded their work. Bolivia closed down the DEA operations. I fielded their work. I was THE senior man!
So I penetrated the Roberto Suarez Cocaine Organization. It's an INCREDIBLE story. But let me put it this way. I was being offered THOUSANDS of kilos of cocaine a month, at a time when the then-biggest drug seizure was two hundred and forty kilos of cocaine, on a casual stop by border patrolmen. They found it in the trunk of a car. The first man I met was Marcello Ybanéz, who was the ex-Minister of Agriculture of Bolivia, who told me there's a man named Roberto Suarez, who was now putting together ALL the drug producers in Bolivia under one umbrella organization, which later became "La Corporacion," the General Motors of cocaine.
Now, I go to DEA and ask for funding and approval to set up a sting operation. And I'm called a liar! I'm told that Roberto Suarez isn't in the computer. Neither was Marcello Ybanéz. I go to the CIA and check his name. They have NOTHING on him. Of course, three or four months later, on SIXTY 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 desist. The lie .... I was, at one point, accused of trying to run a scam on DEA -- getting an all-expenses-paid undercover trip up to the States.
I kept meeting with these Bolivians, still pretending to be a half-Sicilian, half-Puerto Rican drug-buyer, representative of the Mafia. Finally, I literally forced DEA into setting up a sting operation, and they did all they could to destroy the case. But they set up the operation. I managed to rally a team of undercover agents who, like me, didn't believe that anybody [in the U.S Government] could go AGAINST an operation like this. We got the support of elements of the Bolivian Government, the Litiagala [sp?] Government -- who were genuinely, then, in 1980, ANTI-DRUG! -- to carry out a huge sting operation that ended with the seizure of about a thousand pounds of cocaine, with me paying nine million dollars to José Roberto Gasser, one of the richest and most powerful Bolivians from one of the most powerful Bolivian families -- again, parenthetically, a family that had long been linked to the World Anti-Communist League and the C.I.A. He was arrested leaving the bank with my nine million dollars, along with Alfredo Cutucci Gutierrez, a man who was, in fact, in the DEA computer as one of the biggest drug dealers in the World. And before I could get back to Argentina, my post of duty, the United States Attorney in South Florida -- a man who is now prosecuting Noriega, Michael Sullivan, RELEASED Gasser without putting the case before a grand jury. He just dropped all charges!
Again, these details will be in a forthcoming book [QUEEN OF COCAINE]. Some of it is in DEEP COVER. But I'll explain why I didn't write this in detail with the chronology of my life.
Gasser goes back to Bolivia, publishes a full-page replica of his release, making a laughing stock of the American "War on Drugs". Where? Not in America, but where it really counts: in South America. Within months, Alfredo Gutierrez is released -- walks free. So the biggest drug sting in history -- as it was called by Penthouse Magazine and others -- was left without any of its defendants. The American People were the only ones who didn't know that.
Now, what do these people do? José Roberto Gasser, Roberto Suarez, Gasser's father, Edwin Gasser, have a meeting with the Military. They begin to foment what became "the Cocaine Coup", the 1980 Bolivian Revolution, in which, for the first time in history, drug dealers -- the people I was investigating, the people I had indicted, the people I had arrested -- NOW TOOK OVER THEIR COUNTRY!
During that coup, all the people who had helped DEA with this sting were either exiled or killed or tortured. During my time in South America, I learned that the CIA was a supporter of this revolution. Then, it seemed really clear to me -- at least I had a strong circumstantial-evidence case -- that that was why Gasser was released in the first place. How else would he be released? There was no other logical explanation!
So, at that moment, I began, for the first time in MY LIFE, to see the truth! In SPITE of everything else, I had no CHOICE, but to look at the truth! And that is that this "War on Drugs" was not for real.
MICHAEL LEVINE: Well, I began to complain. And my complaints went unheeded within DEA. I wrote a letter to the media. A month later, I was mysteriously put under investigation -- a very, very heavy personnel investigation. It went into every corner of my life. I was falsely accused of everything from black marketeering to "playing my radio too loud in the American Embassy." This is on paper. And no stone was left unturned in trying to make me an incredible person. No stone was left unturned in trying to destroy my career, my reputation and my credibility. I managed to survive that, but they did frighten me into keeping my mouth shut.
I was force-transferred up to the U.S. from where I was put undercover in an operation called "Operation Hun", which was even more -- more of a fiasco -- more of a scandal than 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. So most of my attention then went toward getting a hardship transfer back to New York. I wanted to just forget everything that had happened to me. I just didn't want to believe what I had just lived through for the previous five to six years. And I managed to get a transfer back to New York.
I probably would have gone to the end of my career keeping my mouth shut, had not "Operation Trifecta" happened at the end of `87. And "DEEP COVER". When "DEEP COVER" happened, that was the straw that broke the camel's back, and I decided that I'd have to speak out. I couldn't keep my mouth shut.
I think that there are two books which every American should read before they even think of voting. One is "COCAINE POLITICS" by Peter Dale Scott, and the other is my own book ["DEEP COVER", Delacorte Press, 1990] which I would GIVE to every American, if I could afford it, and could afford to stop looking over my shoulder. It's such a sad commentary to spend almost twenty-six years of my life as a Government agent, believing in what I was doing for a good part of that time, and then coming to the realization that I have to be more afraid of my own leaders than I ever was of a drug dealer.
PAUL DeRIENZO: Did you receive threats?
MICHAEL LEVINE: Yes. 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, who called me during the hottest part of their investigation into me, when I was criticizing the Government. I guess I'll have to tell a quick, little story that will clarify this comment that I'm about to tell you.
Sandy Barrio was a DEA agent who was sent to Mexico. I considered him a well-motivated -- one of the top undercover agents in DEA, who became involved in all kinds of CIA-type operations with drugs. He was involved in "Operation Silver Dollar". He eventually ended up being arrested, smuggling drugs himself. He was held in jail on the Texas-Mexican border. He was a senior official when he was arrested in Mexico where, of course, there is no such thing as law and order -- really; and where the "War on Drugs" is really not a drug war. It's really just a drug economy. And Sandy was part of that. 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.
But Sandy took a bite of a peanut butter sandwich in the jail, fell down in convulsions, 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," that he choked on .... which was incredible! In DEA, half of the DEA agents I knew believed that he was either offed by some covert agency in the Government, and possibly by some elements within DEA. I didn't want to BELIEVE anything like that. I COULDN'T believe anything like that.
Now we cut to several years later, and here I am under investigation by DEA, criticizing my own government. And a DEA official calls me and says: "Mike, I like you. Remember -- a peanut butter sandwich!" And I said: "ARE YOU KIDDING??" He said: "No, not at all. And I'm only telling you this because I like you." And he and I never spoke again.
So that was probably one of the most chilling threats I ever got. And it wasn't a threat. It was a guy I know, who really liked me. And .... yeah, it's such a sad commentary, that, by criticizing your government ..... I think I earned the right to criticize my government's "War on Drugs" because I laid my butt on the line -- twenty-five years in it. And then, to have to be afraid for either my freedom or my life FOR criticizing my government -- that's such a terrible, sad thing.
PAUL DeRIENZO: Operation Trifecta. Briefly, what was that?
MICHAEL LEVINE: Operation Trifecta was a three-pronged probe into the top of the drug world. It went into "La Corporacion" in Bolivia, where myself and a team of undercover agents (actually, one other undercover agent, Jorge Ochijo, who was still with U.S. Customs in California) .... we made a fifteen-ton cocaine deal with people in this corporation who were producing four hundred kilos of cocaine a day in their lab. Just think about that: four hundred kilos. And they were only a small part of this huge corporation. In this same operation, we met the top money launderer in Panama, Ramberto Rodriquez, to whom we were instructed to pay our first five million dollar payment. This was a man whom we believed was closely linked to Noriega, when Noriega was being protected [by the U.S. Government]. This was three months before Noriega's indictment. We then met with the grandson of the man who wrote the Mexican Constitution, a Mexican colonel, Colonel Carranza. I bribed him with a million dollars to land the first shipment of cocaine, from Bolivia, in Mexico and to get Mexican military protection in ferrying that load up to the United States.
The case, in all three countries, was truncated by my own government's actions. We were not allowed to go any further than we went. That's when I wrote "DEEP COVER". Then I retired from the Agency.