Betrayal, by drug lords and DEA agents

April 29, 1993|By Peter Gorner | Peter Gorner,Chicago Tribune

Ambition, savagery and betrayal -- the stuff of great investigative reporting and great storytelling. David McClintick blends them admirably in this massive study of the drug wars.

As he showed in "Indecent Exposure," his classic investigation of Hollywood and Wall Street corporate seaminess, Mr. McClintick is one of the best in the business.

A one-time investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal, he spent the last several years piecing together the saga of one of history's most ambitious and dangerous undercover drug operations.

Operation Swordfish -- so named because the Drug Enforcement Administration wished to spear the "big fish" among the Colombian mafia -- was secretly launched in 1981.

It was to become the model for other complex undercover efforts to penetrate the top echelon of the Latin American drug mafia and their serpentine banking and financial networks that have expanded in the United States, Europe and Asia.

To lure the money, the DEA created a front -- Dean International Investments, a bogus firm in Miami. Then, to bring in the business, the DEA needed a certain kind of spy.

He was Robert Darias, a Cuban emigre and CIA-trained Bay of Pigs officer who through his shrewdness and determination was able to lead the DEA to the heart of this tangled and violent network -- a world where someone will kill you for $50.

How the government repaid Mr. Darias, as meticulously reported by Mr. McClintick, is another lesson in deception and betrayal.

The scam hinged on Mr. Darias' relationships to two women: his boss, Carol Cooper, a talented and rather staid DEA agent from a small town in Illinois; and Marlene Navarro, Paris-educated, tough and guileful, who was chief of operations and finance for a syndicate of Colombian drug barons.

As Mr. Darias nurtures the latter's trust and learns the intricacies of her secret enterprise, Operation Swordfish disrupts and immobilizesthe trafficking network and seems bound for glory.

But then a vicious battle for control erupts among rival DEA agents, and Mr. Darias is forced to resort to extraordinary means to protect himself. He begins to tape-record just about everything he says to anybody.

What wonderful grist for the investigative reporter's mill! Mr. McClintick had access to more than 375 hours of Mr. Darias' tape-recorded conversations with his targets and control agents.

With amazing dialogue and vividly colorful scenes, Mr. McClintick presents crooked bankers, narcotics traffickers, Keystone Kops, heavies, and now and then a hero.

Theirs is a world without laws, a world of people living under life-threatening pressures, pursuing ambitions in ways that reveal not only their own characters but also those of the institutions that shaped them.

Mr. McClintick especially deplores the pettiness and bureaucratic infighting among government agencies that make

the drug effort so often self-defeating.

It is a pleasure to read elegant reporting like this. Maybe investigative reporters should skip newspapers altogether and head directly for books.

Mr. McClintick may be pointing to the future of his trade.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Swordfish: A True Story of Ambition, Savagery, and Betrayal."

Author: David McClintick.

Publisher: Pantheon.

Length, price: 606 pages, $25.

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