Letter to a Chronicle reporter on his fluff interview with a DEA agent

Hunting Kingpins
Small-time dealers don't interest the DEA these days
- Sam Whiting
Sunday, January 9, 2005

Special Agent in Charge Javier Pena has not been in the San Francisco Field Division long enough to get pictures up on his office wall. But he's managed to get down to the Mission BART station and pick out the main heroin dealer, just to prove that at 48 and with 20 years in the Drug Enforcement Administration, he still has the touch.

What's your jurisdiction?

I oversee the DEA's field operations for San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Redding, Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Bakersfield. It's about 250 agents.

How'd you decide to go into this line of work?

I was a deputy sheriff in Laredo, Texas. There was an announcement. It was better pay. I didn't even know what DEA was all about.

So what is it all about?

We go after drug-trafficking organizations. There's a myth that we're after the users, the peddlers on the streets. We go after major organizations. I joined for a couple of years, and then I liked it.

What do you like about being a DEA agent?

It's fun, the infiltration. I did a lot of undercover work when I first came on.

How dangerous is that?

I remember once in a hotel room in Austin, Texas, negotiating over some heroin. Before we started the deal, the guy puts a gun to my head and says, "If you're a cop or this deal doesn't go, you're gone. We're going to blow your head off. "

What happened?

He was a Mexican trafficker from near Laredo. With me growing up on the border and knowing the bars, I said, "Hey, have you ever been to this bar?" He took a liking to me and put his gun down.

So the gun was sitting on the table?

Once they delivered the heroin to us, I was able to get the gun before he got it.

How many years did he get?

I think he got about 10 years. I'm sure he's out now.

You never worry these guys will come looking for you?

I don't. It's just part of the job.

What was your longest assignment?

I spent nine years in Colombia. I was co-case agent on the Pablo Escobar investigation.

Who was Pablo Escobar again?

The most notorious drug trafficker in the world in the late '80s, early '90s.

What happened?

After nine years, he finally ended up getting killed by the police in December of 1993.

What are the DEA priorities in San Francisco?

The main one is medicinal marijuana. It's legal here to buy marijuana, which contradicts federal law. The other main priority is methamphetamine.

Is meth as big as cocaine or heroin?

Moneywise, it is. Methamphetamine in our area is No. 1. Heroin is No. 2, and then cocaine.

What about pot clubs?

What we're seeing is these dispensaries are not in it for the health benefits. They're in it to make money.

Do you see progress in the drug wars?

I see it with the young kids, starting in the elementary schools. At the high school level, I think it's too late.

Did you experiment with drugs in high school?

No, I never did. Our big thing was drinking beer in a pickup truck out some dirt road.

Not even to maintain your cover?

Never did. That's another fallacy. We tell them, "Hey, I'm in this for the money."

They believe that?

With your cartels, those people do not use drugs and they don't let their employees use drugs. It messes up the business.

Kind of takes the romance out of it?

It's not like in the movies where it's always fun, girls, action. Nothing like that. It's a lot of long surveillances. I've worked a lot of Christmases and New Year's. But it's rewarding when you finally put the cuffs on the bad guys.

E-mil Sam Whiting at swhiting@....

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noon8window.pdf (36 Bytes)

noon8window.pdf (36 Bytes)