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Ex-Chicago DEA boss who helped nail El Chapo seethed at slow action on drug war

On Feb. 14, 2013, (from left) Al Bilek, executive vice president of the Chicago Crime Commission, Jack Riley, special agent in charge for the DEA Chicago field office, and Peter Bensinger, former administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced that Joaquin "El Chapo" was Chicago's Public Enemy No. 1.

On Feb. 14, 2013, (from left) Al Bilek, executive vice president of the Chicago Crime Commission, Jack Riley, special agent in charge for the DEA Chicago field office, and Peter Bensinger, former administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced that Joaquin "El Chapo" was Chicago's Public Enemy No. 1. | AP

On Tuesday, a week after the conviction of Joaquin Guzman Loera, the Mexican drug kingpin known as “El Chapo,” in the biggest drug trial ever in the United States, Hachette Books will publish “Drug Warrior: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo and the Rise of America’s Opioid Crisis” by Jack Riley, who formerly headed the Chicago office of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. The following is excerpted with permission from Riley’s book.

In late February 2012, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald called and said the brass was coming to town: Attorney General Eric Holder was scheduled for a routine visit.

He spoke at Northwestern University Law School, a speech about the war on terror. He made no mention of drugs, crime or cartels.

To me, drugs were the biggest threat facing the United States. Don’t get me wrong: Terrorism was still a major problem. But how do you think terrorist groups fund their operations? Drugs, that’s how.

Mexican cartels didn’t use their profits to fund terrorists. Their drug money went to fuel their lavish lifestyles. But that wasn’t the case in Afghanistan, where most of the world’s heroin was grown. The profits bankrolled the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

I knew why Holder was addressing terrorism. It was in the news. But today Holder was in Chicago, ground zero in a war bigger than the terrorist threat. Couldn’t he see what was going on in Chicago, in President Obama’s hometown? Didn’t he see how the city was being flooded with high-grade heroin?

Chapo was driving down the price of heroin, making it cheaper for people addicted to pain pills to switch. I had been making the case to everyone I could in the DEA and Justice Department that the opioid epidemic was fueling the heroin crisis. But no one seemed to hear me.

The attorney general got to Fitzgerald’s office. Just about all the heads of the local federal agencies were there, including Robert Grant, the supervisor in charge of Chicago’s FBI office.

I had a good working relationship with Grant. He seemed to understand what I was trying to do. At least I thought he did.

Holder asked: “What are you up against? What are your problems?”

Grant told Holder about public corruption cases. I used my time to talk about the collaboration between Mexican cartels and street gangs.

After everyone got a chance to express their concerns, Holder asked if there was anything else on our minds.

Grant spoke up.

“Mr. Holder, I have to talk to you about something,” Grant said, his voice almost a whisper. He had a pained look.

“With all due respect to Jack, I think the war on drugs is a complete bust, a complete waste of money,” Grant said.

Am I hearing this guy right, I thought.

Jack Riley. | Provided photo

Before I had a chance to respond, Fitzgerald pivoted to me, the look on his face said please don’t say anything stupid.

Grant told Holder that, despite all the money we spent, we hadn’t made a dent in the drug problem. We should use the resources someplace else.

Holder didn’t say a word. But that told me everything. He tacitly agreed with Grant.

He may have been the FBI director in Chicago, but Grant didn’t know the streets like I did. He never saw the weeping parents or the hollowed-eyed, desperate addicts.

The meeting adjourned. I left, but someone followed me into the hallway. It was Fitzgerald.

“Do you feel the same way?” I snapped.

“No. Look, Rob was out of line. He says stuff he shouldn’t say. That was a personal thing, and he shouldn’t have brought that up,” said Fitzgerald.

I was having none of that. “Pat, I’ve buried agents and cops. What would Rob say to their widows and families? He’s the head of the damn FBI here. How dare he do that!”

I don’t know how long I was there, but I let loose. “We’re trying to make a difference. We have a new animal on the street now — heroin laced with fentanyl. We have people dying all around us, from drugs and the drug trade, and trying to stop that is a waste of money? I’m disgusted.”

I jumped in my car and headed for Springfield. I had a meeting with agents there, and I wasn’t going to miss it. Every few minutes, my phone rang. It was Grant. I ignored the call.

I never spoke to Grant again.

About two months after the meeting, Grant left to join Walt Disney Company’s Global Security Team. Shortly after, Fitzgerald said he, too, was stepping down, going into private practice. He had done so much good. I’d be losing a partner, someone who truly believed we should be going after the bad guys.

                                                      ***

After years of lobbying, I finally had the funding for a new headquarters for the strike force, a first-of-its-kind headquarters for 70 federal agents, police and prosecutors to work side by side to fight drug traffickers. It was a setup meant to end the idiotic interagency rivalry and miscommunication that had hamstrung investigations for decades.

The Chicago Strike Force building opened in a city where Mexican cartels now supplied more than 90 percent of the narcotics, where street gangs killed each other and bystanders at an appalling rate.

A major focus would be the point of contact between major traffickers and local gangsters, their street-level salesmen.

Traffickers were especially vulnerable because they weren’t familiar with the city.

Gangbangers often used phones that could easily be tapped.

The goal was to arrest suspects, squeeze them to cooperate and move up the cartel’s chain of command from the street dealer right up to the kingpins in Mexico — the kind of investigation that led in 2009 to the extradition of [Sinaloa cartel heir] Vicente Zambada.

                                                      ***

I worked with hundreds of good DEA and FBI agents and cops. And I knew someone who always did the right thing: Leon Lacey, a guy I had taken under my wing.

Lacey was a badass new kind of DEA agent. He could take down bad guys in a dark alley like an old-time cop, but he had all the geeky computer skills of the new, tech-savvy agents.

Lacey was a Chicago guy, rode Harleys, played softball and lifted weights. He had a big network of family and friends. And, most importantly, he was passionate about his job.

Whenever I thought we were just spinning our wheels, that our job was hopeless, I’d think about guys like Leon — honest, intelligent guys who just got up in the morning and did the right thing.

And that is why it hurt me so much when I found out Lacey had lung cancer. Leon didn’t smoke. He was so young and so fit.

I remember the last time I saw him.

He was laboring to breathe. I leaned over and whispered, “I love you, Leon.”

The next day, I got the call: Leon had passed away. He was just 33 years old.

                                                      ***

Authorities escort Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera from a plane in New York in 2017. | AP

For years, I’d said El Chapo was the most dangerous criminal in the world — and the man responsible for Chicago’s escalating violence.

The Chicago Crime Commission agreed. So in 2013 we did something we knew would generate a lot of attention: We named Guzman Chicago’s public enemy No. 1. That hadn’t been done since Al Capone terrorized 1920s Chicago.

The suits in Washington didn’t like it, but I felt we had to make a statement.

I broached it with the Chicago Crime Commission, formed in 1919 to improve the criminal justice system. We decided to make the announcement on the anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The biggest mobster of his time, Capone ordered an attack on George “Bugs” Moran’s rival gang at a North Side garage on Feb. 14, 1929. Seven men died.

That secured Capone’s place at the top of organized crime in Chicago.

The violence and corruption generated by Guzman and his cartel far exceeded that of Capone.

“In my opinion, Guzman is the new Al Capone of Chicago,” I said at a news conference.

I reminded everyone the Sinaloa cartel had trafficking networks throughout the Midwest and was waging an all-out war for turf with rival cartels south of the border, stoking violence that had killed tens of thousands in recent years.

The border might be 1,000 miles away, but El Chapo’s network was so embedded here that Chicago police might as well be working in El Paso. The cartel was the city’s major drug supplier, generating millions of dollars and an ongoing wave of violent crime.

Chapo was still out there. More shipments of dope were on the way to Chicago and the Midwest.

But I wanted to send a message to El Chapo: I am still out here, too, and I am closing in. It’s just a matter of time before you’re behind bars. This time in the United States.

Excerpted from “Drug Warrior: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo and the Rise of America’s Opioid Crisis” by Jack Riley, to be published Tuesday by Hachette Books, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2019 Jack Riley.

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