drug wars

special reports
interview: edward heath


photo of edward heath

Heath was DEA's agent in charge in Mexico for over ten years. His primary target was Felix Gallardo--a Mexican drug trafficker known as Numero Uno. Heath also was involved in coordinating the Mexico-United States relationship on drug issues. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in 2000.
A United States ambassador recently said that Mexico is the "world headquarters for the drug trade." Do you agree?

No. I think you would still have to look at Colombia. I don't think you can look at Mexico as the center. Colombia, because of its unique combination between the guerrilla movements and the growers and the clandestine laboratories obviously has to be number one around the world. They're the ones that produce the cocaine that goes through Mexico. They're also supplying markets in Europe and other places. So I wouldn't say Mexico is the center. It just happens to be in the way.

Is it true that Mexico's narcotics trade has origins in the United States?

There was, in fact, a lot of marijuana and opium grown in the United States. And when, it was declared illegal by the Congress under the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914, a lot of these people moved down to Mexico. And remember, the first users--or abusers--of opium--were the Orientals, the Chinese, who were living in the United States. And a lot of them went into Mexico, and started using opium. It was not something that was really being abused by the upper-echelon people. So consequently, the drug abuse was something that was in the ghettos--the poor people--and nobody really particularly gave that much care to it.

But for the most part, the United States was unconcerned about Mexico's drug involvement until the 1960s. What happened then?

Remember that the French Connection was broken in the late 1960s. And almost overnight, the Mexican brown heroin controlled the market in the United States. By 1970, ninety percent of the heroin used in the United States was Mexican brown heroin. Something had to be done. There was an alarm. The law enforcement community around the United States recognized this. And, in fact, through the local governments, federal agencies and all that, the cry of "We have to do something," was very evident.

So eventually Richard Kleindienst, a deputy attorney general under Richard Nixon, meets with Mexican officials to discuss the problem.

He had an agenda of 16 points that the Mexicans could cooperate with the United States' agencies to try to suppress the traffic of primarily Mexican brown heroin. We met at the foreign relations secretary's building. And we all discussed a better way to cooperate, exchange information, what the Mexicans were going to do, what we were going to do. We decide that we would meet again in six months and we would review what we had done in the past six months--almost like a report card.

What happened?

The meeting took place again six months later in Mexico City in the latter part of July. And we found out that the Mexicans had basically done nothing. They were gracious hosts, but nothing had been done. On the US side, Mr. Kleindienst very briefly gave an account of what the United States had done. And when there was no response--any kind of response--from the Mexican side except listening to our accounts, the meeting was closed.

Was Kleindienst angry?

Yes. There was no reason to discuss any further. And the result of that was Operation Intercept.

What was Operation Intercept?

The narcotic traffickers  nobody was really stopping them.  They were driving around the city with guns.  Some of our informants had been killed. Later on, the US delegation got together, and we discussed what had happened. Mr. Kleindienst was very disappointed. He felt that the attorney general's office or the foreign relations office was not sincere, and declared that they were going to initiate an operation. I had no idea what operation he was referring to. But it was Operation Intercept. Operation Intercept was not closing the US border, as most people think. But it was searching every car that was going to cross the border. And so, consequently you had a tremendous outcry on both sides of the border--the US merchants, as well as, of course, the Mexicans, protesting the treatment of trying to cross the border within a short period of time and having to find out that you have to wait hours and hours. The object was that there was a lot of Mexican brown heroin in the streets in the United States. Something had to be done. And we were expecting that the Mexicans would do something when asked. We were asking a favor: "Cooperate with us." And when that cooperation was not forthcoming, then drastic action was taken.

What was the reaction? Did they do anything?

Well, of course, the Mexican officials were hurt, insulted, if you can interpret that. Immediately there was some action taken through the embassy to start a dialogue of cooperation.

Conversely, you had a quite different experience in Panama and Manuel Noriega.

In my early weeks in Panama assigned as head of the office, I did meet with Noriega on several occasions. And he said, "Well, what is the problem? Or where is the problem? Can you identify it here in Panama?" And I did. . . . I looked through the files and there were several people that I considered to be involved in narcotic traffic. Not very high-level people, but people that were more of irritant in the area. I gave the list to him, and he took it. And he said, "We'll look into it."

What happened?

Well, about three weeks later he called me and he said that the problem is over, that they had reacted. They had found the people, and he said that we "didn't have any problem anymore in Panama." I asked him, "Well, what did you do? Are they in jail?" He said, "No. we got them in a helicopter and took them out to the cannery, on one of the islands that are close to Panama City, which is infested with sharks, and we threw them in. And that took care of the problem."

Effective drug law enforcement. But in Mexico, the drug trade was producing big-time smugglers. By the late 1970s, when you're stationed back in Mexico, there's Felix Gallardo. What made him so powerful?

He was one of the most important narcotic traffickers that Mexico's ever had. He's a person that, unlike other narcotic traffickers, was very astute. He's smarter than most. He was a person that didn't necessarily take these crazy chances like other people have taken. He was not the type of guy that would answer, for example, violence with violence all the time. He was an organizer. . . . But this was not a person that wanted to attract fame or attention to himself, as some others have tried. They'll go around, they'll call themselves by a particular name. They'll go around brandishing guns and right away they'll have the big Blazers and all that sort of thing. He was not like that. He was one that wanted to control, coordinate, but very quietly. Sure, he was, the power--no question about it--and had the contacts with the authorities. But, he did not want to bring that much attention to himself. Felix Gallardo was a little bit different. And that's what makes him so important.

Did he bring together politics, the police, and the criminal organization all in one? Is that the idea?

He had the relationship with the law enforcement community. And he had, of course, the relationship with the trafficking organizations. That's what made him so important. He was able to bridge this and use it to his own good.

Some of this protection was from police and judicial officials. Is it true that some officials essentially purchase their posts so they can take pay-offs from drug traffickers?

Throughout this time, there has been the so-called plaza system, where people will ask for the better locations--for example, along the border--because they get paid a little bit more along the border. So consequently there are arrangements that go on as far as trying to get to these places. Obviously, living in the major cities like Monterrey, or Guadalajara, is better than some little outpost someplace. So that is what you call the plaza system, or where people vie for these areas. And this is nothing new. It's been going on for many years.

In most cases, the person goes there without any equipment--without any radios, without any cars. The person who was there before takes all of that with him to his next post, okay? You don't have any money to buy information, because that's basically against the law in Mexico. So all of these things, all of this paraphernalia, is gone. You're there with typewriters and a secretary, and in some cases they're gone. So you first go to your buddies, for example, the state police, and other federal agencies, to kind of help you. There are the businessmen that'll help you. There are people that will help you because they expect something in return. And of course, there's going to be that element that is going to help you because they want to buy cooperation from you, or protection, and this is the criminal element.

So by the early 1980s, your number one target was Felix Gallardo. How had his operation grown?

In the beginning, we did not know the, the magnitude of his operation. We considered him very important; no doubt about it. We had a lot of intelligence on his operation, but not to the extent that we later found out--that he was highly organized with a lot of resources and a tremendous amount of contacts in Colombia. He was primarily specializing in the traffic of the cocaine that was coming in from Colombia. At one time, his operation was responsible for $30 million a month. That paid for a lot of favors, as well as getting his operation even broader throughout Mexico.

What was Mexico's drug trade like then?

Guadalajara was the center of activity for the drug traffic in Mexico. Crime was running rampant. There were several people who were being killed, and nothing having to do with DEA at all. There were assaults in the street. Citizens were being killed. The narcotic traffickers were becoming very powerful, and nobody was really stopping them. They were driving around the city with guns. Some of our informants had been killed. And in fact, one of our agent's car was machine-gunned. At that time, although we knew this was serious--there was no question that this was a serious situation we were involved in--we still had what we thought was the support of the attorney general's office and/or the director of the Federal Judicial Police. The traffickers got so powerful, with so much impunity going on in their disregard for law enforcement, that they took on the kidnapping and murder of one of our agents, Enrique Camarena. . . .

You've been shot, right? I'm saying you put your life on the line. People in your family have been killed.

My brother. He was an agent, a DEA agent. I've been in five gun battles and was shot, very seriously one time.

A lot of your colleagues and your friends in the Mexican police have lost their lives.

We've lost a lot of them. We lost a lot of agents in Mexico. There've been a lot of casualties.

Some people would say there a light at the end of the tunnel. Or is it a train coming at you?

It's hard to tell. Hard to tell. If it's a train, you'd better step out of the way. And if it's a light, you'd better accept it and say, "Thank you, God."

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