Swordfish: A True Story of Ambition, Savagery, and Betrayal
The “war on drugs” of the 1980s was good for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In 1981, the agency’s annual budget was not quite $200 million; by 1992, it had grown to more than $800 million. Having outgrown its longtime headquarters in a weatherbeaten office building in downtown Washington, the DEA in 1989 moved into a sleek tower in Arlington, Virginia, across from the Pentagon. By 1992 it had working for it 2,832 drug agents, 428 intelligence specialists, 421 investigators, 214 chemists, and 2,313 clerical workers. Across the country, DEA agents are staking out airports, patrolling highways, tapping phones, and prying into bank accounts. Abroad, the agency is active in fifty countries on five continents. It conducts paramilitary raids, spies on government officials, destroys crops, and gathers intelligence—missions every bit as secretive and sensitive as those of the CIA.
Yet despite its size and power, the DEA has largely escaped outside scrutiny. Unlike the CIA and the National Security Council, which were investigated in connection with the Irancontra affair and other scandals, the DEA came through the 1980s with its reputation largely unscathed. The national consensus about the evils of drugs, and of those who trafficked in them, provided the agency with a sort of protective shield. Newspaper reporters—who rely on DEA agents for information about drug operations—rarely looked beneath the agency’s surface, and even the best books on the drug trade, like Desperados, by Elaine Shannon, and Kings of Cocaine, by Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen, had only good things to say about the organization.
By contrast Swordfish, by David McClintick, looks closely into a DEA undercover money-laundering operation, and the results are disturbing. Bitter personal feuds, fierce battles over bureaucratic turf, tensions among agents from different ethnic groups, corruption, laziness, and stunning incompetence—in McClintick’s account the DEA appears to be almost completely out of control. The agents in it seem to despise one another more than they do the narcos, and to spend as much time plotting against the FBI and IRS as they do against the traffickers. Agents are sent to the wrong address, financial documents are misplaced, money vanishes.
McClintick’s portrayal of the DEA seems all the more damning for the thoroughness of his research. A wellknown reporter whose last book, Indecent Exposure, uncovered scandals in Hollywood, McClintick spent ten years on Swordfish. The book, which is six hundred pages long, ends with a postscript on “Sources and Methods” which journalism schools might consider passing out to students. While working on the book, McClintick rented an apartment in Miami Beach, where, for months, he spent eighthour days with his chief source, a DEA informant named Robert Darias. During the money-laundering operation, Darias had secretly recorded hundreds of conversations with his handlers at the agency, as well as with the traffickers, and he and McClintick went over them sentence by sentence.
“Darias would arrive at my building each morning, give an assumed name to the security guard, and I would admit him,” McClintick writes. “The interviews moved slowly; we had to transfer his original recordings of conversations with control agents and targets from his tapes to mine. When I asked questions and he commented, we would stop his tape and record the questions and comments on my tape between the raw conversations.” McClintick ended up with a taped chronology of Operation Swordfish 375 hours long. He also had the run of the DEA, interviewing agents and executives in Miami and Washington, Europe, and Latin America. He had access to classified DEA reports and to wiretap transcripts, and spoke frequently with one of the main targets of the operation. On top of it all, McClintick traveled to Colombia to conduct first-hand research on the drug trade. No DEA operation, it seems safe to say, has ever been chronicled in such detail.
Yet, for all that, McClintick has missed the real significance of Operation Swordfish, and its implications for federal drug enforcement.
In the late 1970s, as huge amounts of cocaine were coming into the United States, the DEA was puzzled about how to respond. Since its founding, in 1973, the agency had concentrated on arresting street-level dealers and seizing shipments of drugs. Undercover agents posing as distributors would arrange deals with traffickers, then grab the bundles as they were about to be handed over. The DEA became good at this, and every year the volume of seizures would grow. The overall effect, however, was minimal. The more cocaine the DEA confiscated, the more the flow seemed to increase. By 1980, it was clear that a new strategy was needed.
Among those assigned to work it out was Tom Clifford, the DEA’s chief of intelligence in Miami, the main US entry point for cocaine. At thirty-four a rising star at the agency, he conceived the idea of an operation that, rather than seize individual shipments, would seek to infiltrate the upper reaches of the Latin drug mafia. To do this, Clifford hoped to attack the traffickers where they seemed most vulnerable—their assets. Taking in vast amounts of cash, the narcos were desperate to launder it. Clifford had the idea of setting up a dummy investment company that would offer to open foreign bank accounts and transfer money into them undetected. When clients came to the company to do business, their conversations would be secretly videotaped. The information thus collected would be used to build cases against these and other traffickers, leading, it was hoped, to the heads of the trade in Colombia. “In the end,” McClintick writes, “if everything worked, the DEA would arrest and prosecute as many drug financiers as it could implicate and would confiscate as much of their money and property as it could identify.” Clifford sent a proposal to Washington, where it was eventually approved. “Operation Swordfish,” the venture would be called, for “spearing the big ones.”
In the spring of 1981, Clifford set up Dean International Investments (a name incorporating the initials of the DEA) and rented a modern suite of offices in which to house it. Several experienced agents were brought in to staff the bogus company. To have any real chance at success, though, Clifford knew he needed a Latin front man who could gain the traffickers’ trust. He soon found Robert Darias. Dynamic and self-assured, elegant and street smart, Darias “looked like a Castilian gentleman, with a perfect Roman nose thrown in,” McClintick writes. Born in Havana in 1934 into an influential family, Darias fled to Miami shortly after Castro came to power. After extensive training by the CIA in guerrilla warfare, he participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Captured by the Cubans, Darias served twenty months in prison before being ransomed by the US government. Back in Miami, he went into business and got rich. In the late 1970s, however, he was convicted of tax evasion and forced to spend seventy-six days in a federal prison. Owing the IRS some $200,000, Darias decided to offer his services to the DEA as an informant—or, in McClintick’s more melodramatic language, “a narcotics spy.”
Darias was eventually installed as the senior vice-president of Dean International. For his efforts, Clifford promised to pay him $5,000 a month and to give him the use of a government car. A few days later, though, Darias was informed that he would receive only $4,000 a month and would have to use his own car. Feeling betrayed, Darias decided to keep an “unchallengeable record of everything the agents said to him in the future about his mission.” Provided with a small, gray Sony tape recorder to record his phone calls with the traffickers, Darias began taping his conversations with the DEA agents as well.
From the start, Darias had little trouble attracting clients. Among them was a Colombian woman in her midthirties named Marlene Navarro, called “Hummingbird” by her friends. Navarro was “a slender woman, very small, barely five feet,” McClintick writes, “but her figure was stunning, her grooming exquisite, and her manner engaging.” She had “big brown eyes, moderately short, expertly coiffed brown hair, and wore designer clothes.” Navarro had lived in Paris (where she attended the Sorbonne) and in Israel (where she converted to Judaism) before settling in Miami in the 1970s. After obtaining a degree from the University of Miami, Navarro was hired by a Colombian cocaine trafficker to supervise his US operations. Money-laundering was one of her tasks, and it was this that led her to Robert Darias.
Darias gradually convinced Navarro to bank with Dean International, and before long she was relying on him for much more. When burglars broke into her apartment, she asked Darias to buy her an alarm system. Wanting a new TV set and VCR, she asked Darias to choose them. In need of a bullet-proof vest, she asked Darias to pick one out. Eventually, the two were spending so much time together that the DEA was swept by rumors that they were lovers. (McClintick accepts Darias’s denials on this score.) Throughout, Darias was recording their every conversation for use as evidence against her.
Five months after they first met, Navarro, meeting Darias at a Miami coffee shop, finally let drop the name of her boss. He was Carlos Jader Alvarez, a trafficker based in Bogotá. Darias “managed to conceal the excitement he felt” over this revelation, McClintick writes. “Marlene Navarro had just placed her boss—and herself—at the center of one of the most notorious drug-smuggling syndicates in Latin America.” The discovery of this “definitive link” galvanized the DEA, McClintick writes. The agency “had never been able successfully to infiltrate the top levels of a narcotics syndicate as important as Alvarez’s.” Moving to “take advantage of the new opportunity that Robert Darias had provided,” the DEA agreed to devote many more resources to Clifford’s scheme. It also sent out a classified agency-wide teletype holding up Operation Swordfish, McClintick writes, as “a model for the entire DEA.”
In Swordfish, McClintick tries hard to establish the importance of Carlos Jader Alvarez, or padrino (“god-father”), as he occasionally refers to him. Navarro “was the chief financial officer of one of the largest narcotics syndicates in South America, reporting directly to the godfather himself,” McClintick writes. The DEA “had an unprecedented opportunity to build a case against one of the most significant narcotics lords in Latin America, Carlos Jader Alvarez.” Operation Swordfish was “the US Government’s most ambitious effort to date to penetrate the drug mafia of Latin America.” The Swordfish targets were “the most significant drug lords of Latin America—rich, violent, ruthless people responsible not only for a major share of the narcotics in the United States but perhaps for a major share of the homicides in South Florida.”
To further build interest in Jader Alvarez, McClintick embarks on a subplot about the kidnapping of three of the trafficker’s children. Aged five, six, and seven, the children were seized on the way to school in Bogotá one day in October 1981 by members of the M-19 organization, a well-known Colombian guerrilla group. The children were transported to a remote hideout in the Andes Mountains and held there pending payment of a $5 million ransom. Reluctant to pay the full amount, Jader Alvarez eventually decided to send out his own security squad to kidnap members of the M-19 and torture them in order to extract information. Ascertaining in this way the location of the hideaway, Jader Alvarez dispatched a search party, only to find that the children had been executed months earlier. Alvarez had the kidnappers taken deep into the jungle and tied to a tree, where they were left to be eaten by wild animals.
McClintick has researched the kidnapping episode as exhaustively as he has everything else in Swordfish. In all, he made six trips to Colombia, visiting all the spots in Bogotá and the mountains where the kidnapping and subsequent events occurred. Accompanied by a Colombian journalist and two former members of the Colombian national police, McClintick tells us, he rented a team of mules and retraced the kidnappers’ route high up into the mountains. “We camped overnight at the shack…which had served as the kidnappers’ initial hideout after leaving Bogotá,” McClintick writes. “The next day we hiked up the mountain into the jungle to the site of the final hideout and the climactic events of the Kidnapping.”
Such meticulousness has enabled McClintick to tell the kidnapping story with considerable verve. Unfortunately, he gets so wrapped up in the narrative that he misses its main point. The capture of Jader Alvarez’s children was part of a wave of kidnappings carried out by Colombian guerrillas during that period. The most highly publicized victim was Marta Nieves Ochoa, a sister of Jorge Ochoa, a drug lord in the city of Medellín. Soon after she was seized, in November 1981, more than 200 of Colombia’s top traffickers convened a war council, at which they agreed to set up a common defense fund and form a vigilante group, called Muerte a Secuestradores (MAS)—Death to Kidnappers. During subsequent months, MAS carried out a fierce war against the guerrillas, in which it succeeded in rescuing a number of the hostages, Marta Nieves Ochoa among them.
Having discovered the value of cooperation to stop kidnapping, the traffickers saw the advantage of acting together in business deals as well. Although they had loosely coordinated their smuggling activities in the past, they now began working together more systematically, and Medellín quickly emerged as a key center for the trade. As Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen reported in The Cocaine Kings (1989), “MAS marked the consolidation of the Medellín cartel.” That cartel would quickly revolutionize the smuggling of cocaine into the United States, moving shipments of previously unimaginable size.
DEA officials got a glimpse into the new situation in March 1982, during a routine customs inspection of a Colombian cargo plane arriving in Miami from Medellín. Poking into cartons labeled “jeans”, they discovered 3,906 pounds of cocaine—more than four times as much as the previous record. The DEA was stunned. Until that point, it had estimated the total annual shipments from Colombian at thirty tons a year. Now, having found nearly two tons in one shipment, they realized that the overall volume of imports was no doubt in the hundreds of tons.
Carlos Jader Alvarez’s organization was thought to ship ten tons a year—a small fraction of the total. And that fraction would shrink further as Pablo Escobar, Carlos Lehder, Jorge Ochoa, and the other Medellín barons came to dominate the trade. In the sea of cocaine smugglers, then, Jader Alvarez was a mere minnow. Nowhere, however, does Swordfish hint at this. The book makes virtually no mention of the Medellín cartel, or of the changes sweeping the Colombian cocaine world. To do so, of course, would undermine the importance of Operation Swordfish and, hence, of the book.
McClintick is equally fuzzy in discussing the effects of the operation. The agency had very high expectations for Swordfish. A federal prosecutor associated with the case wrote in an early memo that it had “the potential to immobilize many of the major traffickers in South Florida by stripping them of their assets after causing their conviction on multiple counts.” On that assumption, the agency invested huge sums in the operation. Dean International was in business for nearly two years, and during that time it dominated the activities of the DEA’s Miami office. Simply to wiretap Marlene Navarro’s phone required the services of forty agents, many of them imported from other cities. Lasting seven weeks, the wiretap logged more than 2,000 calls, filling 311 Maxell 90-minute tape cassettes, each of which had to be transcribed and translated. “You wouldn’t believe the work it’s generated,” one agent tells Darias. “You’ve basically got the entire office working on this right now. And we can’t keep up with it. It’s driving us nuts.”
In the end, the agency was able to arrest Marlene Navarro and Carlos Jader Alvarez. After fleeing the US when she realized she was under surveillance, Navarro was traced to Caracas, where she was living under an assumed name and was having an affair with a justice of the Venezuelan Supreme Court. Two DEA agents flew to Caracas in an unmarked plane, kidnapped Navarro, and brought her back to the US. After the longest federal trial in the history of Florida’s southern district, she was sentenced to thirty-two years in prison. Carlos Jader Alvarez, extradited to the US from Colombia as part of a government crackdown on the drug trade, was sentenced to forty-five years.
And so the “rich, violent, ruthless” organization of Jader Alvarez was dismantled. The practical effect, however, was negligible. The record seizure of 3,906 pounds of cocaine in 1982 was quickly surpassed. In 1986, for instance, 6,900 pounds of cocaine were confiscated in West Palm Beach. In 1987, 8,700 pounds were seized in Fort Lauderdale, and, in 1988, 9,230 pounds were impounded in Tampa. Then, on September 29, 1989, an astounding 44,080 pounds—twenty-two tons—were discovered in a warehouse in Los Angeles. This was twice as much cocaine as the Jader Alvarez organization was thought to ship in an entire year. By then, the average wholesale price of a kilo of cocaine—more than $40,000 in the late 1970s—had dropped to well under $20,000. As far as the larger goal of drug enforcement is concerned—reducing the availability of drugs in the country—Operation Swordfish would seem to have been a complete failure.
That did not deter the DEA, however. As McClintick notes, “Swordfish became a model for progressively more ambitious and complex undercover efforts to penetrate the top echelon of the Latin American drug mafia and its serpentine banking and financial networks as they expanded in the United States, Europe, and Asia.” In 1984, for instance, Tom Clifford helped set up Operation Pisces, aimed at infiltrating and dismantling two trafficking groups associated with the Medellín cartel. During three years, it made use of no fewer than seven dummy companies similar to Dean International. In the end, more than 400 people were arrested (“none at the exalted level of Carlos Jader Alvarez,” McClintick adds). Another venture inspired by Clifford, Operation Green Ice, led to the arrest of more than 200 traffickers and money-launderers in 1992. Despite it all cocaine continued to flow into the country in larger and larger quantities.
What does David McClintick make of all this? After ten years of investigating the DEA, of poring over its files and cables, of interviewing its agents and informants, he has arrived at some curious conclusions about the war on drugs. “Critics of these undercover investigations, and of government efforts to combat the supply of drugs in general, argue that the operations are futile because they have had no discernible effect on the drug flow, which has increased since these investigations began in the late 1970s,” he writes, adding:
I strongly disagree. To me, that argument is akin to arguing that efforts to investigate and curb international terrorism should be stopped because they have had no discernible effect on terrorism, whose incidence continued to rise for a number of years in the face of intense efforts to stop it.
It is often difficult to measure the effect of efforts to combat crime. However, we as a society do not enact and enforce laws against what we define as crime solely to reduce crime. While that is an important aim, we also enact and enforce these laws because they affirm and protect our values as a civilized people. That, it seems to me, is our only moral course, whether the laws reduce crime or not.…
I believe the smuggling of heroin, cocaine, and other such lethal substances into the United States, and their sale to our citizens, particularly our children, is as heinous an activity as international terrorism and should be treated accordingly by the criminal law.
In other words, we should continue to invest vast sums—currently about $4 billion a year—in federal drug-control efforts, even if there exists not the slightest shred of evidence that those efforts actually reduce the amount of drugs on the nation’s streets. To argue for so futile a policy at a time when drug treatment facilities in the United States remain over-whelmed seems doubly dismaying.
Swordfish is a disappointing book in other ways as well. The Darias tapes too often seem a bore, as McClintick becomes bogged down in aimless dialogue and extraneous detail. McClintick’s characters can barely make a trip to the bank without McClintick taking note of it. “Robert met Marlene at the Coral Gables Burger King on Alcazar Avenue, off LeJeune Road, next door to the Avant-Garde just after her hair appointment,” he writes in a typical passage. McClintick’s efforts to glorify Robert Darias—a “citizen hero,” he calls him, when in fact he seems interested mostly in making a buck—gives the book a disingenuous tone. Its lurid James Bond-like language is no more convincing. (“Guns, danger, and purposeful violence had been part of the fabric of Robert’s life from his earliest days in Cuba.”)
In one respect, however, Swordfish is a valuable document. By virtue of his dogged research, McClintick has produced an extensive record which, however unwittingly, calls into question the fundamental assumptions that have guided federal drug policy for the last decade.
Will that policy change as a result of the change in administrations? A strong signal to that effect was recently sent by Janet Reno. Speaking at a May 7 “drug summit” sponsored by Congressman Charles Schumer, the attorney general boldly questioned the effectiveness of our current approach. Drug interdiction, mandatory minimum prison sentences, the ability of the criminal justice system to combat the drug problem—Reno called for a reevaluation of all these and more. Describing drug abuse as symptomatic of a “deeper problem” in American society—the fact that “we have forgotten and neglected our children” over the last thirty years—Reno called for programs to combat teen pregnancy, expand prenatal care, and provide summer jobs. Coming from an attorney general, such words were all the more telling.
Putting them into practice, of course, is another matter. And, on that front, Swordfish is far from encouraging., As it unintentionally shows, the notion that we can prevent drug abuse by organizing elaborate undercover operations and pursuing foreign drug lords remains a powerful American illusion.
Stuck in Traffic February 3, 1994