The Not Schapelle Corby Post

This post is not about Schapelle Corby and my reasons are somewhat similar to Simon.  I don't have the time and patience to sift through the evidence; without that kind of work, you don't need my off-the-top-of-my-head and most-probably-very-ill-considered pronouncements.  There is plenty of that out there already.

This post is really a story of one of my job experiences with the Drug Enforcement Administration in New York City, from which I will draw two lessons for my readers.

One day in the late 1980's, I was resting in my New York City apartment.  At around 11am, the telephone rang.  It was from the Drug Enforcement Administration agent who was my regular contact for Chinese-to-English translation work (see this previous post Translation and its Discontents about my career).  He explained, "I know that you don't normally interpret in person for us, but we have an emergency situation here for which we must have an interpreter present.  Can you please please please help us just this once?"

Not having any better to do at that moment, I said "Okay."  Two DEA agents came to pick me up in an unmarked car and we headed off to the Queens district, which is right across East River from Manhattan.  We drove around in circles in one neighborhood for a while.  The agents explained to me that there was a meet between two undercover agents and a target person.  The two undercover Chinese-speaking agents were posing as drug buyers, while the target Chinese person was supposed to have a large stash of heroin imported from Thailand.

After some time, the message came over the radio that the parties were ready to make the transaction in the parking lot outside a restaurant.  At that moment, my two agents put on their bullet-proof vests and took our their guns.  I was in the backseat, and all they told me was: "If there should be any shooting, just duck low!"  What did I get myself into?  

Our vehicle went screeching into the parking lot with three other DEA vehicles.  The agents jumped out of their vehicles with their guns out.  The target person was completely surprised and his hands went up in the air in a flash.  The agents handcuffed him and took possession of his car in which the alleged heroin was stashed in the trunk.

The target person was then placed in our vehicle.  He was seated in the backseat next to me, hands cuffed behind his back.  I took the Miranda warning card out and I began to read in Chinese:

You have the right to remain silent and refuse to answer questions. Do you understand?
Anything you do say may be used against you in a court of law. Do you understand?
You have the right to consult an attorney before speaking to the police and to have an attorney present during questioning now or in the future. Do you understand?
If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish. Do you understand?

At the end of each statement, I paused and waited for the target person to acknowledge that he understood me.  After this preliminary step was completed, our caravan headed back to DEA headquarters on the west side of Manhattan.  There was no conversation during the trip.

When we got there, the target person was taken out, sent to a cell and searched.  I had to be in attendance to tell him what to do during the search.  I won't go into those details, so you will just have to use your imagination.

Then the interrogation began, but not before I repeated the full Miranda rights for the target person.

You have the right to remain silent and refuse to answer questions. Do you understand?
Anything you do say may be used against you in a court of law. Do you understand?
You have the right to consult an attorney before speaking to the police and to have an attorney present during questioning now or in the future. Do you understand?
If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish. Do you understand?
If you decide to answer questions now without an attorney present you will still have the right to stop answering at any time until you talk to an attorney. Do you understand?
Knowing and understanding your rights as I have explained them to you, are you willing to answer my questions without an attorney present?

The opening statement from the DEA agent-in-charge was something like this: "We have arrested you along with what we believe is heroin.  As far as I am concerned, I have completed my case and I will get a merits commendation for having done a good job.  I don't have to care about anything else.  As for you, if you expect to get some leniency, you are going to have to cooperate and time is running out fast.  If you have anything to say, you better say it now.  There is no point of telling me what you know three years from now, because it will be too late.  So what have you got to tell me?  Specifically, who will you give the money to after you receive it from the other party that was also arrested today?"  [Note: The DEA field agents pretended to arrest the undercover agents as well]

This is the same speech that the agent-in-charge must have given many times before.  Immediately, the target person spilled his guts.  He said, "I was instructed to collect the money and contact XYZ at this telephone number."

As soon as the DEA agent-in-charge heard that, he got up and left the room.  We sat and waited for a few minutes before he came back.  The agent-in-charge asked no further questions.  He only said, "The interview is over" and the target person was sent to a detention cell.  I was allowed to go home, having done my job with the eternal gratitude of the Drug Enforcement Administration for helping them out.

I wish to draw two lessons from my experience in this case.  First, this says something about the Schapelle Corby situation.  My DEA agent-in-charge could not care less about how the target person got hold of the heroin.  The man was caught red-handed with the heroin in his car trunk, and the case was a success.  An amount of  heroin to the value of 2 million US dollars was seized in that case and it was a major feather in the cap in the career of the agent.  He did not have to do anything more -- unless the arrestee could offer him even more feathers for his cap.  The arrestee could claim that unknown parties put the heroin in his car trunk, but the agent-in-charge and the prosecutor would have just shrugged and no jury will ever believe that.  If Schapelle Corby had been caught bringing marijuana into the United States, the federal agents would not want to hear any explanation that the drugs were inserted by baggage handlers or whatever, nor would any jury buy into that line of defense.  I have also sat on a New York City grand jury and heard over one hundred narcotics cases, and it is the same old story from everyone.  My grand jury issued indictments for all the cases that came before it.  That is all I will have to say on this issue.

Second, there was a more general lesson for all you potential drug dealers out there.  Here, I don't mean nickel-and-dime dealers.  My DEA group did not work on any case involving less than 30,000 US dollars in street value.  Anything less than that threshold would be left to the state and city narcotic teams.  So we are talking about big money here.  The mystery of the above case that you have read so far had to be, "Why did the DEA agent-in-charge stop the interrogation?"  Didn't you think that he could have followed the money trail and nailed the proverbial Mr. Big who never personally went near any drugs himself?

Ah, there was a very good reason.  As soon as the agent-in-charge heard the name provided by the arrestee, he went out of the room and confirmed that it was a money launderer.  More importantly, this money launderer was in fact working for an operation mounted by another DEA task force.  As far as this agent-in-charge was concerned, he wanted to know nothing more about the money laundering operation from the arrestee, because it was more productive for the DEA to have the money launderer continue his operation safely to sweep up more 'bad guys.'  So this arrestee was screwed because he had nothing to trade with.  He may want to talk, but the government will not listen.

The even more general lesson was this.  The Drug Enforcement Administration had many field operations out there, with confidential informants (CI's), cooperating witnesses (CW's) and undercover agents (UC's) in every phase of the drug distribution chain.  It was likely that anyone out there allegedly involved in drugs was part of some DEA operation, to the point where these people kept running into each other.  The most successful narcotic dealers are the ones whom no one ever hears about.  They are the ones who have the secure channels and they have no need for contacts with the outside.  If they are wholesale distributors, then they have reliable, secure suppliers and they have reliable, secure buyers.  They never need to talk to anyone outside, and that is precisely why they are successful.  Their organizations are impenetrable because they are isolated and disconnected from anything else.  When you go and play mahjong in a gambling den and someone talks big about his 'business,' you are almost certainly looking at a DEA operator.

This also explains why the drug problem persists in the United States.  The DEA does everything it can, but only within the known world of drug distribution/selling.  The business is still dominated by unknown and unknowable figures that the DEA cannot penetrate.

Postscript:  You may be curious as to whether I am permitted to talk about these cases.  This particular case is more than 15 years old already, so it won't make a wee bit of difference to anyone.  More generally, I was never subjected to any security clearance process in my work.  I never signed any confidentiality agreement.  The only thing that I ever signed away was the copyrights for any work that I do for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Perhaps 9/11 changed everything, but I have not done this line of work in more than a decade.

Additional Free Advice:  If you are a successful wholesale drug distributor, you can make millions of dollars a month.  But you can't take that bag of cash and deposit it at your local bank.  Your bank is required by law to report any cash deposit of more than US$10,000 per day.  But you need to launder the money to make it legitimate.  Usually, this means that you must have a cash-based business.  For a Chinese person, that might mean operating a Chinese restaurant which is expected to take in a lot of cash every day.  But you really really need to pretend that you are actually making a go at the restaurant business.  The counterexample is one of New York City Chinatown's most famous drug distributors, who had the nerve to buy three restaurants in the heart of the New York City Chinatown (around Mott Street and Bayard Street), but operate them with staffs which produced lousy food and held bad attitudes towards customers.  I have been to one of them, and the waiters seemed mad that I was giving them work to do.  Within weeks, everybody in Chinatown knew that these were money-laundering operations, because there was no other way to explain lousy food and bad service in a Chinatown restaurant!  The people's eyes were bright and clear as snow in this instance.