El Chapo first came on DEA Agent Jack Riley’s radar in the early 1990s, right before he broke out of prison the first time. The DEA was really occupied with Colombia’s Medellin and Cali Cartels at the time, and the Mexican traffickers were just a loosely tied group of smugglers that were doing a lot of cocaine smuggling on behalf of the Colombians. El Chapo was just beginning to make a name for himself, not only as a mass murderer but as a logistics genius. He was the first guy that really put together a strategy involving the use of underground tunnels to deliver the product from Mexico into certain cities in the United States.
In a new book, Drug Warrior: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo and the Rise of America’s Opioid Crisis, available now, Riley recounts his career as a narcotics officer and the 30-year mission to bring El Chapo to justice. A narco-soldier of the highest order. We spoke with Riley to find out about his career with the DEA, his reaction to El Chapo placing a price on his head, the current opioid epidemic in the United States, El Chapo’s eventual conviction and the DEA’s legacy today.
What made you decide to write a book about your career with the DEA?
I had no intention when I retired, but I had a lot of people push me and say we should tell this story. And also at that point, El Chapo was getting glorified. I wanted to set the record straight and make sure everyone knew just how heroic some DEA agents, policeman and prosecutors were in their pursuit of him. If they had given up, he wouldn’t be sitting in a cell in New York. I’m very proud of the agency and the job it’s doing today around the globe.
When did El Chapo first land on your radar?
He earned the nickname El Rapido, which basically meant the quick one. He was guaranteeing customers that he could have product in the US within 24 to 48 hours. It was the first time we’d ever seen somebody that organised and dedicated to what he was doing. Once he broke out of jail in 1992, he began to expand and take over much of Mexico. He did that through corruption and, quite frankly, just killing people. Violence. Sinaloa grew very quickly as did his influence, both among the traffickers in Mexico but also with the Colombians and the major cell heads that were working for him in the United States.
As he gained power he was also smart enough early on to stay out of the limelight. He pretty much hid on the mountains in Sinaloa and ran his operations from up there with very little fanfare. Later on in his career, he came down off the mountain and went into a couple of highly populated areas, which probably hurt him but helped us. Other than Osama bin Laden, this guy’s the number one bad guy of our generation. He’s responsible for tens of thousands of deaths. I don’t think the American people really understood the extent of his organisation. Sinaloa at its height was clearly the most well-financed and vicious criminal entity we’d ever seen.
El Chapo put a price on your head during the investigation. Explain when you first found out about that, what you thought, and how you dealt with it?
I was promoted to the special agent in charge position in El Paso in 2007, and that’s a pretty big job. It has about a third of the Mexican border as its territory. At that point Juarez was aflame. It was a battle zone. Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel was fighting what was left of the Juarez and the Gulf Cartels. I got down there and was interviewed by a newspaper and I said I’m here to disrupt Chapo, put him in jail and hurt his organisation. He evidently read that and some Mexican officials let us know that they had picked up some information that he’d put a bounty on my head and wanted my head cut off.
In those days, you really had to kind of pay attention. In law enforcement, you get threats from bad guys and you kind of blow it off as part of the job, but that certainly got my attention and we began to do things a little bit differently. I was concerned at the time for all of the employees, agents, and non-agent personnel down there too. It kind of woke us up and showed that this is for real, but it also showed one of the things I was proud of, it also showed that I was getting to him, that we had some operations that hurt him pretty good.
The biggest change in the past 15 years, and one of the things that Chapo and others knew wasn’t happening, is the cops weren’t talking to the cops. The good guys weren’t talking to the good guys. We weren’t connecting the dots, and that’s what they were betting on. We’ve really come a long way now, not just with our Mexican counterparts, but sharing information with our state, local and federal agencies. Making sure we are connecting the dots because that’s the real way to damage an organisation.
What do you think are the elements that are fuelling the current opioid epidemic in the United States? What role do the cartels play in that?
We know from some of the intelligence information we’ve developed – and it came out in the trial – that those guys foresaw the dependence on prescription drugs and the connection to opioids. If you are prescribed drugs and abuse drugs, at some point the doctor won’t write the prescription, and you can’t get the pharmacy to fill it. You can’t go to your grandmother’s house and steal it out of her medicine cabinet ’cause that’s all gone, but you’re still addicted. That leads to the long dark road of using heroin. In Chicago, we saw Sinaloa hook up with nearly 100,000 street gang members who did nothing but put the dope on the street, where you’ve got people addicted to prescription drugs moving into the heroin and fentanyl.
I think there are a couple of things that caused it. Number one, the medical community really wasn’t up to date in terms of how they should prescribe it. A doctor told me a number of years ago that at one point med school students would receive about eight hours of pain-management instruction. I also think congress’s cosy relationship with the major pharmaceutical companies has really put a dent in DEA and other law-enforcement agencies going after these companies criminally. You can fine Cardinal Health $150 million, and they write a cheque. It’s like taking a truckload of narco-dollars from Chapo, it’s the price of doing business.
What we really need to do in the US is to go after the CEOs of those companies who knowingly and continually break the regulations and laws, and put ’em in jail. A millionaire CEO in a Brooks Brothers suit is not going to do well in the prison yard playing kickball with some felons. It’s gonna send a message that they’ve got to be held accountable. Congress has got to re-evaluate its relationship with the pharmaceutical companies and the lobbyists. That’s the root of a lot of the problems. Also, people didn’t want to believe there was an addiction problem in their high school or their neighbourhood. And we’ve come a long way on that obviously, but what we’ve got to do now is we’ve got to concentrate on education.
I’m not talking about sending a uniformed officer into an elementary school, and saying “drugs are bad” to third graders. No, I’m talking about reaching out to the people that are most at risk, our young adults, our young professionals, people who find themselves in the grips of addiction, and want to do something about it. We’ve got to get people into treatment who want it. I’m not talking about repeat violent offenders, or drug dealers, who can be handled in the institutions. The federal government needs to put some money behind that if we’re ever going to get ahead of this.
You spent over a decade hunting El Chapo. How did his capture, being extradited to the US and being convicted make you feel?
For me, it was the Super Bowl. So many years chasing a guy, seeing what he did to our cities across the country, seeing what he did to heroic DEA agents and policeman all over the world. He’s where he belongs. I know the case, I know the evidence, I know the prosecutors and I know the agents. He’s not getting out of jail. I was prepared to retire the last time he got caught but I knew if we didn’t get him extradited something was going to happen, and indeed that’s what happened. We had already been pressuring the Mexicans for a quick extradition. I think his last escape was kind of a national embarrassment for Mexico. And I think that everything was moving in the right direction. So, the day that we put him on a plane to bring him up here was my last day. I retired right after that.
The DEA has been blamed for the war on drugs and more. What do you think the DEA’s legacy is today?
One of the things I did when I was the Acting Deputy Administrator, I wanted to raise the profile of DEA in the media, because I think many people misunderstand it, or just don’t know what it is. That’s likely because of the way we have to work, we kind of work in the shadows in dangerous areas, and do undercover work and those types of things. But what’s really important to understand about DEA is we are in 225 cities small and large in the United States, but we’re also operating in about 80 offices in 64 countries around the world. Our work overseas with the host countries, where much of the narcotics are produced and transported from, is really important for us to stop the supply and flow of drugs into the United States.
Currently, I think we’re down about 1000 agents from our authorised ceiling. One of the things I’d like to see is this administration give us the money to fill those positions. Give ATF the money, give the border patrol the money, because our ability to do things is really hampered by the number of guys and gals we have. It’s a money thing as much as anything, but I think one of the legacies of DEA is that it’s a small agency, and it’s done tremendous work in terms of bringing major bad guys around the world to justice in the United States, and that’s what they fear most.