drug wars

special reports
interview: andrew chambers


photo of andrew chambers

Chambers was an informant for the DEA for 16 years. He worked all over the country and is responsible for the arrest of 445 drug dealers and the seizure of 1.5 tons of cocaine, and $6 million in assets. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in 2000.
How does the exchange happen between the buyers and the suppliers?

You have a drug dealer who knows the Mexican, and the Mexican will bring the dope in. And when he brings it in, he might have 50 kilos. All 50 kilos might not be all that good. But 40 of them might be good. He'll split that 40 up, give 20 to one guy and 20 to another guy. They are his guys who pay on time. When they say it'll be two or three days, it'll be two or three days. So that money right there is almost accounted for. The other 10 might be dropped in some water, or maybe they're not that potent. So he would push that off to the guys who are not that dependable. But the dope was not that good, so he's not taking a real major loss on it. But the 40 that he's got is high-quality dope, and that has to be paid for.

So now it gets to people in the inner city. Then the guys who got the first 20 starts supplying it to the middle guys, who are buying half a [kilo], maybe two [kilos]. That type of money is usually paid up front. So now you have this Mexican who's still waiting for his first 20 [kilos] to get back, because he has to get that money back to the main Mexicans across the border.

Do the dealers have a form of insurance?

Sometimes a Mexican might say, "Look here, give me your car. Give me something. You got the title to your car?" Because he don't want no car that ain't paid for. And he don't want no Mustang that's a 1970. You know, "Give me something new." It's just a big game, and it's how you're going to play the game, and who are the other persons you're dealing with. . . . The blacks know that the Mexicans have the dope, and the Mexicans know that they need to sell it to the blacks because they're the ones that are selling most of the dope in the United States. . . . When you're dealing with anybody with this type of dope, it's always some funny games going on. Because you know you might get two [kilos] from a guy one day, and then next day, you get two more [kilos]. Well, the third day, you give him two [kilos], and then he don't pay you back. So it's an operation that is not all about being truthful, because it's a lot of games being played. Nobody is saying, "Well, look here, I'm going to let you hold on to my mother while I sell these [kilos]." So it's no trust. It's just how you feel about a guy and what you're trying to make.

Is that where the violence comes in?

Yeah, that's how a lot of Mexicans get killed, because a black guy or somebody else might know that this Mexican is sitting on 20 [kilos]. So when the Mexican comes to talk to them, they'll snatch it, or kill him, trying to find out where the dope is. That's why you have a lot of gunplay. . . .

Can you describe the payment system and the clientele?

You have guys getting 10 kilos on credit, and you have guys that are getting two ounces on credit. So credit is just like credit in the real world: you go until you mess up. And when you mess up, it ain't no more credit. Say a Colombian guy has 100 kilos. If he's not selling them, he broke. But at least he knows if he got rid of them, he knows he's got money coming. So he sets a deadline, he tells the guy, "I'm going to give you 10, have them back in a week or two weeks." And then, what a guy usually does, he'll start paying them off bit by bit. He might say, "Okay, well, here's $50,000, let me go pay it. Here's another $50,000."

Drug dealers know  aint no policeman,DEA, FBI, going to give you a kilo to let you sell it on the street.  So if a dope dealer does that, its got to be legit. This dope dealer is with people who are working. See, you have the welfare people, you have the working people, you got the Social Security people, and you got the people getting paid every day. A dope dealer knows all these people. He's got the guideline to about the working people. So he says, "Okay, Joe works for General Motors. He buys a half ounce every Friday. When he don't get paid . . . he buys a half a ounce every Thursday, but he don't get paid to Friday." Well, you don't mind dealing with Joe, because you know Joe got a job. Joe works every day. Joe is going to get paid Friday. Or you might be dealing with another guy who don't work. You say, "Well, I don't know, I can't give him a half an ounce, I got to give him maybe a little bit less. Because I can take that loss from this other guy."

Then you got the people who get the welfare checks, right? Dope dealers say, "Okay, now, the welfare checks come out the first of the month." So the dope dealer gets all his dope together. He says, "Okay, on the fifteenth, people get their welfare, they cash their checks." He's making money for them two days. It's just like a business, okay? So now he's got the guy, the old lady who gets the Social Security check every month. He knows when she gets that. He's got all the days--he got the whole month planned out on how he's going to sell the dope, and that's what he does. He knows the welfare, Social Security, the guy working at General Motors gets paid every Friday.

People in the 8:00 to 5:00 don't know that's the business to it. The dope dealer, he knows, that's the way it goes. He knows that the people who are in the projects, they get a check once a month. He's counting all his money on that once-a-month day that's going to happen. He needs two days to play with that. Because the check might come on a Sunday, but they're not going to cash it until Monday.

And if you don't pay the dealer?

If you don't pay him, it's to a point where, why kill a person and you still ain't got your money? But then sometimes it gets to that point where you know a guy is not going to take no more disrespect from you no more. You know because now what happens is, the word spreads. And then somebody says, "I took 20 [kilos] from Carlos and I didn't pay him." And before you know it, everybody knows that they can get some dope from Carlos and don't pay him. So somebody has got to make an example out of somebody . . . don't mess with Carlos. If you say you're going to pay him, pay him. And if you not going to pay him, you better be trying to call him and tell him why you're not paying him.

How are the drugs moved across the United States?

There's all kind of ways. The Mexicans are really good for what they call trap cars. A lot of guys take cars over to Tijuana, or even in L.A., where you have a Mexican working in an auto shop. Trap cars are where you can put dope in gas tanks. I've seen where Mexicans have hooked up the whole front dashboard of a car where you hit the button and the dashboard comes down, and you have kilos laying all from one end of the car to the other end of the car. They have door panels where you got to put your foot on the brake and put the car in neutral for the door handles to pop open. These guys have talents, but their talents are for the wrong thing. But they have talents to put kilos anywhere. . . .

What was the situation like when you started in St. Louis 15 or 16 years ago?

Crack really was just getting started. It was still mostly powder. I think crack was really just getting ready to start around 1984, 1985. And for some reason, black people had a little bit more know-how about making money. I mean, the white people knew how to do it. But blacks knew how to make it work to a little bit more benefit. . . . Blacks had a little bit more finesse about making it work a little bit better. And then they switched it to crack, and it just went crazy. It was everywhere. It was crack city. You hear different people just talking about crack, crack this, crack that. Crack made everything else look like it wasn't nothing.

Has crack gone away?

No, it's not gone away. It's just that what happens, times start changing. And what happens is, with law enforcement, they start cracking down on crack. Crack gives a stiffer sentence than does powder. So now what happens is guys start learning that crack will get you more years than the powder will. So we better go back to the powder and just start selling powder now, but this crack will have you gone for a long time. It didn't burn itself out. The laws burned it out. So you got dope dealers saying, "I'm not going to do crack no more. I'm not going to sell crack, because crack is a higher sentence. But I'm going to keep on selling the powder."

How are the drugs dispersed from the time they enter the United States?

The Mexican who's across the border, his big boss says, look here, bring it on across to the United States. So he brings it across. And when he brings it across, he usually has another Mexican guy or whatever that's over here in the States. Now they'll bring it to a stash house or location or a warehouse that they got set up. They'll bring it in, and then they'll bring it to the guy who's going to host all this. And he's the one who's going to distribute all the dope out to everybody. When it gets to his place, he's making sure that everything is there. If it's supposed to be 1,000 or 2,000, he makes sure that all the dope is accounted for. Now the mule, his job is done. So he goes back. Now the host guy has the kilos.

The host is the guy who, when the Mexicans bring it over, he brings it over to a guy. And I call him the host, because he has control of all the dope, and he's the one who's making the phone call to different people telling them to come pick up they stash. Say the host has somebody in New Orleans. He'll call somebody and say, "Hey, my people just brought 2,000 keys from across the border. I have them here. Put in your order." Guy puts in his order. He says, "Okay, I want ten kilos." So he says, "Okay, ten kilos. For me to get them there to you is going to cost you $22,000. So $22,000, and then I'm sending somebody with them, so I'm putting on an extra $100 on every [kilo] that I send for my driver." The figure that I'm giving you is just figures; you know they can go high or low, it just depends on what the mule is taxing the guy for bringing them. What it's worth to him to bring them all the way down there, take that chance. So now, the people who the host distributes to come and they pick up their orders, 10 here, 20 here, 30 here, 40 here. And the host is telling them, "You got to have this back in 10 days, two weeks," or whatever.

He's got a little log. He's keeping everything down, who owes him, what owes him, and everything like that. The people who he distributes to are the guys who are selling in the inner city. So now he has a line of people that's buying what they call nine ounces--half a [kilo]--but all that money is coming up. That's no front money; that's being paid when it gets delivered. So it goes from that level to that level to that level, all the way until it hits the street, and then it's right back up the chain. . . .

How does dope travel from L.A. to the rest of the country?

The reason people come is because they know it's cheaper here in LA. You got people driving with their wives or their girlfriends, or saying they getting ready to go to Disneyland on vacation, and got a car full of kids. They're going to Disneyland, but the boyfriend or the girlfriend or whatever is going to go meet the supplier and get some dope, and then take it back to his home state with the kids in the car.

You might have a cousin or you might know somebody . . . I want to say that, to a point, dope dealers have like a little union. They all know each other in some type of way or some type of form. He might have some friends, and two of his friends got some relatives in Memphis. So the two guys here in L.A. say, "You know my buddy is coming down from Memphis, he's trying to get something." And the guy will say, "Okay, well, bring them to me." So the guy will come up from Memphis. It's all about word of mouth, who you know. It's not like you're just coming out here and you got a sign on your shoulder, saying, "Hey, I'm looking for a kilo. Can anybody help me?" It's not like that.

You have a Colombian guy and he's trying to find that connection. He's got 100 kilos that he don't mind saying, "Okay, look here. I'm going to give you one kilo to let you know that I'm for real." So the guy takes it. Nothing happens, because the drug dealers know that ain't no policeman going to give you no kilo. DEA, FBI, nobody, they're not going to give you a kilo and let you go sell it on the street. So if a dope dealer does that, then it's got to be legit.

If he fronts you one, then next time you might buy one. He might front you two more. And that's how you get started. That's how you build that relationship. Before you know it, you're buying five or ten kilos, paying for half of them, and getting fronted the rest. And the Mexican or the Colombian guy, oh, he loves it, because that means you come to see him every week. And every time you come to see him, you're bringing him $100,000, $50,000, whatever. And then you just build a great little relationship...

Isn't it dangerous to keep a couple of million dollars in cash in a house?

Yes, but you can't do nothing else with it. Can't take it to the bank. Usually, the people I dealt with, somehow they keep it in the ground. I knew one guy who built a safe and put it in the ground. All the money was in the ground in a big old safe. . . .

In your experience, over the last 15 years, has it become easier or harder to get drugs on the street?

The difference is that people are a little bit more leery of you. It's easy to get it, but people ask more questions now than what they used to. They used not to ask no questions. . . . It's not harder to get. It's easy to get it.

Did you ever feel that maybe you've just helped keep the price of drugs up?

No, what I've been doing is to let people know that what they're doing is wrong, and you can get caught now. That's the issue. You can get caught. This is not free. A lot of times people think that you can do this and nothing is going to happen. You selling crack to kids, and mothers losing their houses, mothers losing their dignity and all this, and you think you won't get caught, but you will. . . .

But if drugs are still available everywhere, what good have you done?

You have to put some kind of effort out there to let people know that this is a dead end, that this is not right.

Does it help to lock them up?

Yes, because that's the only way they're going to learn. . . . If you got a problem with going to jail for 20 years, and you don't want to go to jail, then you shouldn't be selling this dope. You need to get you a job. Because this game here that you're playing will get you put in jail for the rest of your life. And then you're in jail, the first thing you think about, you be like, "Wow, I really didn't have to do that."

You are black. A disproportionate number of the people who go to jail for drug violations are black. How do you deal with that?

There's all kind of ways you can look at that. Because what happens is that you have a black guy selling dope. And the black guy, he's going to let you know that he's selling dope by him hanging in the streets, wearing all the fancy clothes, driving the cars, spending, $5000, $6,000 on rims for cars, a $4,000 music system that you can hear four blocks away.

Now the white guy, he's a little bit more laid back. You know, he wants to go buy a car from the wreck yard, put it in his driveway, and then go to Home Depot somewhere and buy some tools and work on it. He's not going to be seen. He's going to try to put his money in to some type of savings or something like that. He's not going to go to his backyard and dig a hole and put his money in there. That's where a lot of black guys get caught up, because they advertise...

I hear that you grossed over $2 million. How did you get paid?

Right. It's just a percentage, of property, jewelry, houses, cars, or whatever. If they were going to pay me pennies, I think I would have done the same thing. I might not have done it that long, but I believe I would have done the same thing. It's not a money issue, because I have kids. And I would hate for one of these guys to be selling crack to my daughter or my son.

But how much did you make over the 16 years?

They say two million. It could be less, it could be more, I'm not sure. I haven't really took the time out to give it an exact count.

The criticism of you is that you committed crimes you didn't admit to when you testified in cases.

That's what they said. They said that because I didn't say that I had been arrested for traffic tickets. I didn't know at that time that traffic tickets were an issue. . . . I was working when I got the solicitation. How can you be around a bunch of dope dealers and police grab you and you say, "Hold on, I work for DEA." So you kind of got to take the tab a little bit, and just go with it. You can't burn your undercover role. That's what I'd been doing.

I thought that it was better for me to take the little hitch on the solicitation than to say, "Hey, I work for DEA," and blow the cover. . . . A guy told me that if he knew that the money that I made, he would be doing it. You need more people out there like me to deal with these guys. Say the host knows he could have made $2 million. Don't you think he would have told the Colombian boy or the Mexican boy over there? He'd give him up quick. But he don't know that. You don't have billboards up saying, "We need informants." But if they knew what I did, it'd be a lot more dope dealers in jail; a lot more.

Because you were paid well?


How much did you get paid?

How much I got paid? I think they said two million. I don't know. It's a funny situation, but that's what it takes. This is what you have to fight these people with. You can't fight these people with this being nice.

home · drug warriors · $400bn business · buyers · symposium · special reports
npr reports · interviews · discussion · archive · video · quizzes · charts · timeline
synopsis · teacher's guide · tapes & transcripts · press · credits
FRONTLINE · pbs online · wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation.