From Searching Tunnels to Undercover at a Rave…
Last Updated: Wednesday November 22, 2023
This is the second installment in a series of profiles featuring DEA special agents, diversion investigators, chemists, and more. Learn about the tough but fulfilling, fascinating, and vital work these DEA personnel do, as well as the many different ways to get involved in fighting drug misuse.
Note: Some profiles will be anonymous, so as to protect the identity of agents in the field.
What motivated you to join the DEA?
My father was in drug enforcement, so while in college, I took a paid internship for the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement (BNE). I was able to see what agents really do on a day-to-day basis during that time. I enjoyed the undercover operations, the raids, and the street operations. I found the work exciting and that was my first motivation. Most of my mentors at BNE recommended I start my career as a police officer on the street to gain that special type of experience. I did just that and was a police officer for the San Diego Police Department for three years. During that time, I applied to the DEA, as I wanted to specialize in drug enforcement on the federal level, as well as have the ability to work overseas. I started my career with DEA at the age of 25. I loved working as a police officer and would give the same advice to anyone looking to become an agent. Nothing compares to street experience and it will only make you a better agent when you are ready to make the transition.
I knew that DEA was right for me because I didn’t want a job that stayed the same throughout my career; I wanted variety without having to change jobs. With DEA, I specialize in drug enforcement. That is our job. I have worked in enforcement, I have observed in helicopters, I have been an undercover agent, and I have worked in a foreign country living abroad for four years. I’ve crawled in underground drug tunnels. I’ve conducted air and sea operations. And after 11-plus years, I have moved to a third location, learning an entirely new specialization for my job series, and I am nowhere near the end of my career. The opportunities afforded to motivated agents are endless.
What does an average day as a special agent look like for you?
The special agent job varies based on the position and location you are in. When I was starting out in a general enforcement group, my days consisted of listening to wires, being on surveillance, conducting buy/bust operations. We never knew what was going to happen, which keeps everybody on their toes! I also participated in my fair share of undercover activity, which was always exciting because there’s an added element of danger with the unknown.
When I was assigned to the Tijuana, Mexico office, I would often meet and coordinate with our Mexican counterparts to share information and help them prepare for operations. Days could vary from boring meetings, searching tunnels and not knowing what was around the next corner, or super intense operations where you knew a gunfight would happen going after some really bad dudes. I would also travel within Mexico, the U.S., and other countries to participate in coordination meetings and meet with my sources to further my investigations. Furthermore, I gained the experience of working with the State Department.
I’m currently assigned to Diversion Operations in Headquarters. At Headquarters, I primarily assist the field diversion investigators, agents, and task force officers in furthering their investigations.
What has been your proudest moment as a special agent thus far?
Capture operations of foreign fugitives are something that I am particularly proud of. Capture operations are difficult in general, as it is hard to find people who do not want to be caught. Capture operations in a foreign country without actually being present at the operation site are even more complicated. First, you have to build enough trust with your foreign counterparts so they are willing to put themselves in a dangerous situation, and second, but just as important as the first, you have to have a reputation of providing accurate information. With foreign counterparts, no one will work with you if they do not trust you. That is why I always felt extremely proud when my counterparts worked with me to locate and arrest fugitives.
How can young people who wish to become a special agent best prepare themselves for the job?
From a recruiting standpoint, you would need your degree or specialized investigative experience. I have both of those, as I mentioned, making me a solid candidate. Speaking a second or third language will only make you more attractive. On the personal side, I would prepare physically by running, doing pushups, and being otherwise physically fit. On the mental side, I would prepare to be away from your family for a while and be able to work and train with a tight group of 50 people you may or may not like for about four months. You have to be prepared not to live in your ideal location, but know you can get there with time. Prepare yourself for working long hours, driving long distances, and being available to your group 24/7. Being an agent is not easy and maintaining a balanced personal life is difficult, but it can be done and it is very much worth it.
The synthetic opioid fentanyl – often mixed into other drugs – is now responsible for tens of thousands of American deaths per year. How has the fentanyl epidemic changed your job?
As I mentioned, I worked previously in Tijuana, Mexico and presently in Diversion Operations. From my experience in Mexico, I know that the cartels are using fentanyl as cutting agents to not only pills but to other drugs, such as cocaine. I have spoken on the phone to parents after their son took a pill from a farmacia (pharmacy in Mexico) and did not wake up the next morning. I have always had a “just say no (to drugs)” approach, because if you don’t take drugs, you have no risk. More than ever, I push this approach, as young people who want to experiment are dying at a rapid rate. Is it worth it? Is your life worth it? I’m more than certain that anyone can have a good time without drugs aiding them. Try it and make sure you wake up the next morning.
At Headquarters, I have the opportunity to talk to students who visit about this and I cannot stress it enough: just say no. There is absolutely no guarantee that any drug you are taking or would take is safe. Drug dealers don’t care about your welfare; they’re just in it for the money.
Aug. 1 Profile: Meet Special Agent Dave