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El Narco: Meet DEA Agent Daniel

An excerpt from GlobalPost correspondent Ioan Grillo's new book on the drug war.

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This is the first of three excerpts from Ioan Grillo's new book, "El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency," released by Bloomsbury Press on Oct. 25. In the book, Grillo interviews an American agent who infiltrates a drug cartel. Turns out, life inside is sometimes just like the movies. Editor's note: Strong language used throughout the excerpt may not be suitable for all readers. 

“All my life I’ve tried to be the good guy, the guy in the white fucking hat. And for what? For nothing. I'm not becoming like them; I am them.” — Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco, 1997

When DEA agent Daniel saw the movie “Miami Vice” at a cinema in Panama City, Panama, his heart jumped through his mouth. In the film — a remake of the iconic 1980s cop series — detectives Crockett and Tubbs run an elaborate sting operation on Colombian cocaine traffickers. Wearing their trademark white suits and t-shirts, they pose as freelance drug transporters so they can arrange to move a cargo of the White Lady, and then seize it. It sounds like a funny contradiction: cops transporting drugs so they can bust them.

But that is exactly the same sting Daniel was trying to set up in Panama in real life.

Daniel was also meeting Colombian cocaine barons, and he was also posing as a freelance drug transporter. After months of careful infiltration he was close to convincing the gangsters to put three tons of cocaine on a DEA-controlled ship sailing out of Panama City. It was the bust of a lifetime. And then Miami Vice hit the theaters.

If these gangsters see it, Daniel thought, he was dead.

“That was bad. I saw it and I was like ‘Ain’t that a motherfucker.’ We were completely compromised. This is bullshit. This is the same fucking thing we are selling. Because agents made that movie. That it is why it is so fucking solid. It is very, very close.

“Then you have to grow some balls. Fuck the movie. This is me. I don’t fucking care. That is the way I saw it at that time: make or break.”

Such a sting may sound like rather sordid business. It is. Drug busting is a grimy game. And in the modern drug war, it has become downright filthy. Agents have to get down in the trenches with psychotic criminals to get ahead of them. They have to recruit informants close to these villains. And they have to know how to use them to stick the knife in.

The huge drug busts aren’t made by luck and brute force. They are about intelligence, about knowing where the shipment is going to be or which safe house the capo will be hiding in next Tuesday. Only then you can send in the marines to start blasting. And this intelligence, as drug agents have found after four decades in the war, usually comes from infiltrators or informants.

Many narco kingpins are behind bars or on the concrete full of bullets because of treachery. And this makes gangsters so extremely violent toward suspected turncoats. In Mexico, they call informants soplones or “blabbermouths” and like to slice their fingers off and stick them in their mouths, in Colombia, they call them “toads.”

Related: Mexico's latest killers, the Mata Zetas

But once kingpins are extradited to the United States, many become toads themselves, super toads. They broker deals to give up other kingpins and tens of millions of dollars in assets. And then drug agents can make more busts and bring in more villains; and the jailed capos can write their memoirs and become movie stars.

This prickly prosecution process has been developed over four decades of the war on drugs, and it is crucial to understanding the future of El Narco in Mexico. Because a key question is whether Mexican and American agents can beat the beast of drug trafficking down by arrests and busts. DEA chiefs and the Calderon government keep pursuing this tactic. It has been hard and there have been a lot of casualties, they argue, but if they keep at it, then justice will prevail.

With their reign of terror, cartels often appear like invincible organizations, impervious to attacks from anything that police or soldiers throw at them. But if