Interview with Michael Levine
by Paul DeRienzo
November 9, 1991
Causes and Cures
Marble Collegiate Church
New York, New York
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Let 'em Talk | NWO.MEDIA
Send comments about this page to: Paul
Last Modified: Wed 03-26-2002