Mirror Stage

A memoir of working undercover for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

1.

When Edward Follis was nineteen, he heard the Glenn Frey song “Smuggler’s Blues” on the radio. Three lines stuck in his head:

It’s propping up the governments in Colombia and Peru
You ask any DEA man,
He’ll say, “There’s nothin’ we can do . . .”

For weeks, he thought of little else. He talked about the song obsessively with his friends. Finally, he had a moment of clarity. As he recalls in his memoir, “The Dark Art: My Undercover Life in Narco-Terrorism” (Penguin/Gotham), written with Douglas Century, “I said to myself, Fuck it. I’m gonna become that DEA man. Let ’em try to tell me there’s nothing we can do.

Follis joined the Drug Enforcement Administration after a stint in the Marine Corps, and from the moment of his first bust—when he posed as a buyer for a group of Mexican heroin wholesalers—he was “hopelessly addicted to undercover.” During the next three decades, he fought the drug war in Thailand, Mexico, and Korea, and rose to become the agency’s chief representative in Afghanistan. The cast of characters he met along the way could populate a movie set. There was Dragan, “a young Rutger Hauer, six-one, close-cropped blond hair and cobalt-blue eyes,” for whom the D.E.A. put together an entire warehouse of advanced weaponry in a drugs-for-arms deal. “His demeanor remained ice-cold,” Follis writes:

He didn’t say shit. Didn’t so much as nod. And he damn sure didn’t smile. I don’t think he was a white supremacist, but to me, he had an almost neo-Nazi appearance; he held your gaze for too long, and those blue eyes were chilling. I’ve learned with guys who look like that, guys who think they’re bad-asses, you don’t keep your distance from them. You move in closer.

Then, there was Kayed Berro, scion of the infamous Berro clan, from the Bekaa Valley, in Lebanon, and an alleged associate of the Pakistani heroin kingpin Muhammad Khan, who, Follis tells us, was widely feared and never seen, in the manner of “the Keyser Soze character in The Usual Suspects.” In Thailand, Follis went in search of the elusive Khun Sa, the opium warlord known as the Prince of Death. Follis became so fluent in Thai that his Thai girlfriend once exclaimed, after listening to him set up a meeting with a trafficker, “When I listen to you speak, I wouldn’t even know you were white.” He hauled duffelbags stuffed with five hundred thousand dollars in small bills through a secret passageway under Hong Kong International Airport. He stared down an ex-con named Mike, who pointed an Uzi between his eyes, wondering if Follis was who he said he was. (“What are you talkin’ about, Mike?” Follis fired back. “Think I’m a fuckin’ cop or something? . . . How could I be a cop? Listen, man, I’d be in fuckin’ jail for what I’ve done with you so far.”) When one of his informers was grabbed in Kabul, he picked up an M4 carbine, a Glock, and a bowie knife, and took off through the city’s streets in a scene worthy of the “Fast and Furious” franchise:

“Haji up,” I said. We threw on our UC garb: the white cotton tops of the shalwar kameez, black scarves around our faces, and two Massoud caps—tan-colored beret-like hats that were the favored headgear of the Lion of Panjshir himself. I was gunning the gas, on the edge, swerving the heavy armored Toyota as if I’d taken a straight shot of adrenaline. The streets of Kabul swarmed around us like a medieval bazaar. I had tunnel vision, oblivious to the thumping as the side mirrors of the Land Cruiser clipped pedestrians, knocking more than a few to the pavement. . . . Behind us, we heard angry shouting.

Follis wants us to know that the D.E.A. is as wily and tough as the drug traffickers it is sworn to catch:

“Great shop you’ve got—I hear you do nice work,” I said, turning to admire some of the luxury cars and SUVs they were kitting out.
“Yeah,” Ivan Espinoza said, stroking his sparse goatee.
“I also do nice work,” I said, offering a half smile.
“That’s what we hear.”

This is Follis describing the time he posed as an L.A. private eye turned hit man, hoping to be hired by a pair of Mexican drug traffickers looking to assassinate a D.E.A. special agent. Follis was in full private-eye-turned-hit-man costume: long ponytail, black loafers, button-down shirt, dress slacks. He continues:

Wasn’t the first time I’d played the role of a hit man. When you’re selling yourself as a killer for hire, you never start off saying anything too direct—“I can body that guy” or even “I can do him.” That’ll raise the bad guys up instantly.
You speak in an understood criminal code: innocuous-sounding phrases, half-finished statements, and knowing glances.
“I hear you have some issues here,” I said. “Heard you have an infestation.”
They nodded, warily.
I kept glancing around the tinting shop. “I’m the kind of guy—Well, I know how to eradicate disease.”
“Yeah?”

2.

In the 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the historian Richard Hofstadter described the psychological characteristics of what he called “movements of suspicious discontent.” Such groups, he said, share an interpretation of history centered on personality. They focus on people, not systems, and the object of their suspicion is “clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving.”

Hofstadter observes, “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts a projection of the self; both the ideal and viagra sales online the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him,” and he goes on:

The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.

The paranoid crusader is not disdainful of his enemy. He is in awe of him. Hofstadter quotes that staunchest of cold warriors, Barry Goldwater: “I would suggest that we analyze and copy the strategy of the enemy; theirs has worked and ours has not.”

Follis began his career in the Marines, and the Marines operate by very different principles from those of the D.E.A. In a fascinating history, “Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps” (2012), the historian Aaron O’Connell points out that, before the United States entered the Second World War, the Marine Corps was the least popular branch of the military services: only five per cent of young men considering a military career listed the Marines as their first choice. In response, members of the Corps’s leadership embarked on a course of identity creation. Working with Hollywood and the media, they recast the Corps’s reputation for boorishness and violence as an ethic of courage and loyalty. The Navy and the Army talked about equipment and technology; the Marines talked about character. The Army, by the end of the war, was known for its impersonal bureaucracy. The Marine Corps made itself the most family-friendly of the services, reaching out to the wives and the parents of enlisted men. Toys for Tots—which became one of the biggest children’s charities in the country—was a Marine Corps operation. O’Connell writes, “They privileged the collective over the individual, venerated sacrifice and suffering, and spoke often of their service’s unique sense of community.” The Marine Corps advanced its goals by differentiating itself from its competitors and adversaries.

But undercover work—which Follis believes to be at the core of the D.E.A.’s mission—is based on assimilation, not differentiation. The father of undercover police work, the early-nineteenth-century French detective Eugène-François Vidocq, was a former criminal. He began by selling his talents as an informer to the Paris police on the ground that it took a thief to catch a thief. When he formed the Sûreté Nationale—the plainclothes state-security police—he staffed it heavily with other ex-cons. Covert police action is based on the notion that sophisticated criminals operate according to a code and a logic that are inaccessible to an outsider. The criminal is brilliant and devious. We need to look and think like him in order to catch him. Theirs has worked and ours has not. Undercover policing, in its idealization and emulation of the objects of its suspicion, is paranoid.

In “The Dark Art,” all of Follis’s targets are amoral supermen. “He carried himself like a true Ibo prince: dignified, impeccably dressed in a tailored tan suit and gleamingly shined oxblood shoes,” Follis writes of a Nigerian drug dealer. We are told that Dragan, the young Rutger Hauer, had a doctorate. He came to one meeting wearing a “hand-tailored suit, with Italian loafers, striped silk tie.” Follis befriends a heroin trafficker turned D.E.A. informant known as Philip the Armenian: “Nobody I’d then met—and nobody I’ve met since—had the connections, the savvy, and the swagger of this guy. The Armenian was highly educated, knew seven languages—all of them like a native-born speaker.” It was through Philip the Armenian that Follis met Kayed Berro, who, he says, was then living in Southern California, finishing up a master’s degree in engineering at U.S.C. while running a vast heroin operation.

Follis would tail Berro from his house to the engineering library on the U.S.C. campus and sit patiently outside, awed by the long hours that his quarry spent there. Berro’s wife was an opera buff. He dressed beautifully. “He was a Lebanese Renaissance man,” Follis writes. “He spoke flawless English, and his Arabic was about as beautiful as any Arabic I’ve ever heard.”

To catch a man like Berro, you have to enter Berro’s world. “I knew I could match Kayed Berro’s smarts and sophistication, with a dose of my own street swagger,” Follis says. So he pulled his hair back in a ponytail again, and, from the D.E.A.’s fleet, picked out a candy-red Corvette that had once belonged to a major heroin dealer. “Driving it at high speeds on the freeway made me feel like a major trafficker,” he writes. Berro and Follis became friends. They shared confidences. “I’ve thought about it a lot in the intervening years,” Follis says. “What I admired about him, I suppose, is that I saw a lot of me in him.” It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts a projection of the self.

Later in “The Dark Art,” Follis mentions something that happened when he was making a case against the Juárez cartel, in Mexico. Through one of his informers, he procured nine “crystal clear” audiotapes of two of the cartel’s leaders. Then the D.E.A. brass in Virginia accused him of staging the tapes, “complete with fabricated voices.” Follis shrugs off the episode. But it shows the extent of the paranoid culture at the D.E.A. Apparently, it was not difficult for Follis’s bosses to imagine that one of their most trusted agents might be tempted to slip into the role of Mexican drug lord. Nor was it difficult for them to imagine that someone versed in “the dark art” of undercover work could pull it off—could write, act in, and produce a nine-part set of audiotapes in which he staged the private conversations of two of Mexico’s biggest narcotics kingpins. You almost wonder whether Follis took the accusation as a compliment.

3.

In 2006, the job of D.E.A. country attaché in Afghanistan opened up. Everyone in Follis’s family urged him not to apply. But Osama bin Laden was thought to be in Afghanistan, and Follis saw the country as ground zero in the war on drugs and terrorism. He woke one morning with a clear resolve:

You know what you need to do. If you have any chance to do this guy, Ed, . . . you’ve got to do this. Everyone else wants you to put your career first, but you’ve got to go to Kabul.

Afghanistan occupies a peculiar place in the international drug trade. As recently as 1980, it accounted for just two hundred metric tons of opium—a tiny fraction of the world’s production. That number rose to fifteen hundred and seventy tons in 1990, after the chaos of the Soviet occupation. But it was in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that the country’s position as the world’s center of opium production was solidified. By the time Follis got to Kabul, the country’s opium production was more than eight thousand tons a year—more than ninety per cent of the global output.

In a recent paper, three Norwegian economists—Jo Thori Lind, Karl Ove Moene, and Fredrik Willumsen—argue that there is a direct connection between war and the surge in Afghanistan’s drug economy. “Opium is more drought resistant than wheat, the main alternative crop, and opium does not require road transportation,” they write. “Military activities that destroy infrastructure such as irrigation and roads therefore make opium relatively more profitable.” The three prove their point by showing that, the more fighting there was in any particular region, the likelier its farmers were to switch from wheat to opium.

Because a large share of the opium profits were flowing to the Taliban, the United States instituted efforts to reduce opium production. But, as the economist Jeffrey Clemens has shown, those efforts were most effective in government-controlled areas and least effective in Taliban-controlled areas. So, as the U.S. spent more to eradicate poppies and to encourage farmers to plant other crops, the share of the opium trade that went to the Taliban increased. In 2004, Taliban regions accounted for forty per cent of Afghanistan’s poppy production; by 2010, that share had risen to ninety per cent. In other words, the fighting in Afghanistan accelerated the country’s drug trade, which enriched the Taliban, which caused the U.S. to launch an effort to eradicate poppy cultivation, which enriched the Taliban still further, which caused the U.S. to step up its assault on the Taliban’s territory, which caused more farmers in Taliban territories to switch from wheat to opium, which accelerated the drug trade.

This was the mess that Follis inherited when he arrived in Afghanistan. But in “The Dark Art” there is little consideration of the broader context of the war on drugs. When Follis describes his work in Mexico, he speaks of the fact that many tens of thousands of Mexicans have been killed in the drug war there. It never occurs to him that the war on drugs, which had consumed his whole career, might have contributed to that violence. In Afghanistan, his job was to control a drug trade fuelled in part by his own country’s attempts to control the drug trade. But that paradox does not seem to interest him. As Hofstadter writes, “The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will.” Follis’s world is not shaped by markets and incentives and institutional choices. It is the product of bad guys in fast cars and sharp outfits.

So what does Follis do in Kabul? He ends up befriending one of the baddest of all Afghanistan bad guys, a “mountain of a man” named Haji Juma Khan Mohammadhasni. HJK, as Follis calls him, was a close associate of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. The D.E.A. suspected him of giving hundreds of millions of dollars to the Taliban. Follis would meet him for long dinners at HJK’s favorite Persian restaurant in Kabul, where HJK would eat one kebab after another and speak learnedly of Afghan history and culture. When HJK had a cancer scare, Follis whisked him to Washington for treatment. They watched “The Passion of the Christ” together on Follis’s laptop. They talked about God and their faith and puzzled over Jesus’ saying, “My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.”

“Strange as it sounds, the hours I spent undercover with HJK were becoming a source of solace: an escape from the stress of embassy politics, the constant infighting and war of wills,” Follis writes. As embassy life grew more strained, he began to have fantasies of a simpler existence: “Half waking, half dreaming, in my single bed in the embassy, I could see myself running away to live the rest of my life with HJK.”

When one of the top C.I.A. agents in the region accused Follis of withholding crucial intelligence that he had gleaned from his undercover sources, Follis came close to the brink. HJK would never treat him that way:

Little wonder then that I’d lie there in my Spartan bedroom almost every night, dreaming of running away with HJK, lost in clouds of desert dust, rolling through those badlands in caravans of SUVs. Sounds strange but—compared to the amorality and treachery of these spooks—I felt more at ease in the world of guys like HJK. . . .
There was a warmth to his manner, openness in his laughter, a sophisticated charm. A skeptic could say that it was all charm—a master manipulator at work. But I’d like to believe there was something deeper at play.

Follis watched HJK fingering his iridescent prayer beads and recalled the hours he’d spent with his rosary beads, growing up in St. Louis: “I’d inwardly smile as he did it, too, thinking, This guy is just a version of me.”

The final section of “The Dark Art” is entirely about the unravelling of Follis’s relationship with HJK. Follis learns that the Pentagon has put HJK on its hit list. Frantic, Follis asks for ninety days. He gets sixty. He telephones HJK and tells him to come to Jakarta. The D.E.A. charters a Gulfstream V. The two friends meet at the airport and share a bittersweet reunion, and then Follis hustles HJK onto the Gulfstream for the long ride back to the United States, where he arrests him. “I have to take his life away from him to save his life,” Follis explains. (HJK has contested the charge against him and is awaiting trial.)

Culture, O’Connell writes, serves to differentiate and discipline: “it operates by policing the boundaries within and between groups. It provides signs and rules for what is ‘inside’ or ‘outside,’ normal or abnormal.” But undercover cultures have no signs and rules, no bright line between normal and abnormal. The hunter dresses like his prey. They fall in love. And, when the relationship comes to an end, hearts are broken.

“In my right ear I felt the kiss-like warmth, his breath faintly scented with roasted cauliflower and jasmine tea,” Follis writes of a cherished moment that he and HJK spent together. They were in a mosque in Kabul. They had prayed, side by side, on their knees, for more than an hour. Then HJK—alleged opium king and friend of the Taliban—embraced him:

For the first time he used the Dari word to address me.
Baradar.
Even today, I can feel the wiry barbs of his black beard pressing into my cheeks.
“You’re more than a friend, Ed,” he said. “I love you today as my brother.”