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An Inside Look at Federal Narcotics Enforcement

Three ex-agents tell their tales

Drugs, Cocaine, Snorting

Snorting Cocaine on August 27th, 1973.

Dick Loek/Toronto Star via Getty

The names, places, dates and circumstances of the episodes related in this story have been changed to protect the innocent and give the guilty half a chance. Only Sergio Borquez, Jerry Laveroni, Pat Saunders and Wayne Caristi’s names are for real. However, the incidents happened exactly as they are related.

This story started last April with a letter addressed to the editor of Rolling Stone:

Dear Sir,

We are both former federal narcotics officers with the Los Angeles office. We are interested in discussing our former employment and how it is practiced.

R. Patrick Saunders, Jerry Laveroni

The message was scrawled in ballpoint across a notebook page. Attached was Saunders’s typewritten, Xeroxed resume, listing the high points in his training and career with the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

The thread leading out of that note has stretched over seven months and countless conversations with Saunders, Laveroni and, as time progressed, Sergio Borquez. Former federal narcotics agents, they tell their stories in the voice of the law as it is spoken on the streets.

At first sight, Laveroni is a beast. A thick neck spreads into 12-gauge shoulders. But the arms are what holds the eye: Folded across his chest, each could hide a good-sized shopping bag. Jerry Laveroni sits in a chair like a man not to be fucked with.

In person, folks trust Jerry because they’re afraid not to. That kind of act buys a lot of dope in the right circles.

The last job Jerry held before joining the law was in Hollywood on several segments of The Wild, Wild West series. Laveroni usually played the heavy who leads the rascals’ charge into town. When the western lost its sponsors and Laveroni was faced with a five- or six-year scuffle to make it as an actor, his wife told him to try the Sheriff’s Office. He was always talking about crime and crooks so it made sense just to go ahead and be a cop. In 1970, the LASO gave the rookie a beat in West Hollywood so when Laveroni got bored with the black and whites a year later, he jumped at the bureau’s recruiting poster. By now, federal narcs had been renamed the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, but the pitch was just the same. No more desk sergeants and flashing lights, no more traffic tickets and uniforms. Jerry Laveroni had little traffic deciding. He would join the top cops who wore classy suits and went straight for the crooks.

First he would have to learn the trade. To do that, Laveroni was sent to the National Training Institute at BNDD headquarters in Washington D.C. The classes were on the 11th floor of a building at the corner of 14th and I streets with a savings and loan on the ground floor. The trainees stayed in a hotel around the corner and started class at eight in the morning. Five days a week, they were taught courses like “Initiation and Development of a Drug Investigation,” “Stimulants,” “Depressants,” “Radio Procedures,” and “Report Writing 1 and 2.” Justice Department attorneys were imported to explain the law and the rest was taught by field agents on temporary assignment. If he’d only read the syllabus, Laveroni might have thought he was back at Valley State.

On his first full day in school, Jerry was approached by the senior agent in charge of physical training.

“I understand you’re a pretty bad motherfucker,” the agent commenced.

“I don’t know about that,” Laveroni sidestepped.

“Well, you’re agent leader,” the senior went on, “so you’d better be.”

The agent leader was head trainee and led all the rest through their exercises in the gym. Eighty recruits were divided into four groups called Red, Green, Blue and Yellow. Each group had a leader and Laveroni was over them all. Jerry’s assignment required him to work directly with the counselors. Recognizing the limitations of the classroom, the school assigned a full-fledged agent to each class as a big brother. At night in the hotel, the veteran narc gave advice and answered questions. As a rule, he was full of valuable tips. On the day the attorneys covered the laws of search and seizure, big brother cleared up all the confusion. “Don’t worry,” the counselor advised one trainee, “when you get back to your region, you don’t have to hassle with all this shit. You’ll do what you want and get away with it. Just learn to cover yourself.”

At the time, Laveroni had no idea how right the agent was. Jerry was too busy being the class honcho to go into details. Each day as they scissored back and forth doing jumping jacks and pushups, Laveroni led the singing. The prospective agents sang songs about being a capital B, bad narc, born standing up and talking back, an evil dude from Class 22 that never let any junkies get away. When they were done, the class prepared for their mock shootouts. At the bottom of the stairs, trainees made a line and waited. One at a time, they were called forward, given a 25-pound weight for each hand and sent running for the top. Three flights later, the students reached a room where they were issued a gun and ammo. As they loaded, the instructor told them the situation in the room next door. Behind that wall, there were two dealers, the undercover agent, a pregnant hostage and assorted hangers-on. When it came time to go in, the room was dark. As the lights flashed on, each trainee was to get off the best blast he could at the silhouette targets. Laveroni still laughs today as he remembers. “A lot of guys,” he chuckles, “shot the pregnant woman.”

Laveroni wasn’t among them. He did very little wrong in school. At the end of the Training Institute’s ten weeks, Jerry Laveroni was named number one in his class and presented with an award by Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. As top trainee, he was given his choice of assignments. “The bureau,” the director explained, “keeps an eye on its top agents.” With his career off and running, Jerry headed back to L.A.

He’s been disappointed ever since. The job was not like the one he imagined. “It’s unprofessional,” he explains today, shifting to the front of his chair. “Everybody is fairly intelligent but everybody is more job-security conscious than they are enforcement conscious. There’s no professional administration or internal respect. The saying in the L.A. office went like this: big cases, big problems; little cases, little problems; no cases, no problems. With an attitude like that, everybody is running around covering their ass. They’re more concerned about their private lives than they are about the organization they represent. There are agents who are GS-12s,” he complains, “Who never made a case. Myself, I made more cases in my fucking group than anybody ever did and I was the only one who wasn’t making a regular promotion. If you have the right type personality with nothing to make your fellow agents or supervisor jealous of you, you’re going to survive. If you’re sunny side up, they’re gonna step on you.”

Laveroni has no doubts he was a good cop. The rub, he figures, was that he never had much company.

For Sergio Borquez there were no crusades; righteousness isn’t written into the Civil Service Code. “Sarge” Borquez had a job that happened to include putting people in jail, that was all. To live, people work; to get ahead, people work hard and getting ahead is the name of the game. It doesn’t take long in a room with Borquez to figure out the creed is there.

Born in Mexicali and raised in El Centro, Borquez approached his life as a man starting at the bottom, pointing up. Sergio was five years old when the Borquez family crossed the border through America’s back door, but that was old enough to know that the people of northern Mexico called such journeys progress. With that faith, Borquez graduated from San Francisco State after his discharge from the 82nd Airborne Division. The next step was to look for work. With an interest in law but none in law school, Sarge found his way to the lobby in the San Francisco Federal Building, stood at the directory and copied down all the federal agencies that used detectives. Borquez figured his best bet was being a cop for the big bird that made it all possible, a federal agent with a shiny badge and a paycheck every two weeks.

Now, at the end of 14 years on the job, Sarge would jump at a chance to start over. “I was too young then,” he explains, “to understand what federal service for a Mexican meant. I had the idea at the time that you just work hard and get ahead but you don’t. After a while, you begin to wonder about yourself. Then it gets to a point where you know they’re screwing you because you’re a Mexican. I finally had to figure,” Sarge shrugs, “that it was better than picking cotton.” Like all survivors, Sergio Borquez learned his lessons as fast as he was able.

Starting in 1961, Sarge was taught at the hands of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The narcs were hiring, Borquez needed work and even figured being an agent would be interesting. He knew nothing about dope but was ready to become an expert. From the first day at work, Sarge burrowed into the trade the way the boss figured a brown man should.

It was well known around the office that Mexicans looked just like junkies and the narcs were excited now that they finally had one working on their side. Young Sarge became what is known in the profession as a “cage agent” and stayed that way for the greatest part of his career. The name grows from the claim that the same job could be done by monkeys. Just open the cage, send it for a banana, and put it back in its iron box.

Other agents would figure out who they wanted to bust and then go fetch Sarge. The agents who held his leash got the credit for successes and Borquez got his ass in a vise for failures. Which didn’t bother Borquez as much as the fact that he never got a chance to do anything else. When he wanted to learn surveillance and the other tricks of the trade, Sarge had to train on his own time and spent most of the Sixties moonlighting a second shift with hopes of getting off the bottom of the bureau. Every now and then it left the man from Mexicali feeling like cannon fodder.

And for good reason. When a deal goes sour, the first one caught in a crack is the Mexican who was run up front. Getting in and out of the openings in a dope deal is a snake’s job and Sarge got so he could slither with the best of them.

Sensing the future was electronic, Sarge had learned the trade in his garage late at night. Borquez tinkered with tiny wires, soldering guns, and read all the manuals he could find. For practice, he bugged his living room. When the chance came, Sarge was in just the right spot to jump.

The opportunity was called the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1968. The legislation’s Title III, “Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance,” set forth for the first time circumstances under which wire and oral communications could be intercepted. Cast as “an indispensable aid to law enforcement,” Public Law 90-351 allowed the courts to authorize taps if they had “assurances that the interception is justified and the information will not be misused.” For Sergio Borquez, the legal language meant a bigger meal ticket. As the region’s technical officer, GS-13, he made $24,000 a year with overtime. Sarge had become a crackerjack soundman and an expert at the long-distance listen. BNDD wanted to get into the wires as soon as possible and only Borquez could fill the post.

The rest of the office had no doubts the Mexican knew his job once they’d seen his work. There are, Sarge explains, two basic kinds of taps: legal and illegal. Within the domestic United States and in possession of a court order, the legal ones are simple. The silver box you see on an occasional telephone pole is called a “B Box.” In it are all the numbers of a certain section of the telephone grid. Each number has what is known as a “pair,” two electrical connections through which current and conversation pass. If there is an unused pair in the B Box, the phone company assigns it to the bureau, two wires are run between the suspect’s pair and the government’s, and the narcs have what amounts to an extension on somebody’s phone. That extension is run to a house or apartment rented nearby, just like installing a new listing. Instead of the traditional receiver, the wires are fed through a capacitor, into a tape recorder and onto the court records.

The ones with no legal cover are a little harder to pull off. The work in the B Box can be done without the phone company’s knowledge, but not for too long. B Boxes have workers in and out of them and a tap is hard to disguise from trained eyes. Transmitters are the best bet in that situation and there are two kinds: the ones that use batteries and the ones that take their juice straight from the line. Using the phone company’s current is dangerous because it can distort the phone’s reception if the bug draws too much. When batteries are used, they must be changed every week. These bugs broadcast an FM signal with a standard range of 2 blocks. They are commonly installed on or two poles from the suspect’s house and monitored in a car or van. If you’re really into it, you can place a transmitter inside the receiver in the house. The standard model can be activated by dialing six of the number’s seven digits and then blowing a special whistle into the mouthpiece. That tone opens the line up, as though the number had been completely dialed and answered, but doesn’t ring the phone. Left that way, the receiver becomes a microphone picking up all over the room. When asked if he ever did any of those inside the country, Sarge shakes his head from side to side.

Sarge could get into the line every time and that connection manufactured a lot of numbers in BNDD books. “People pour out their lives on the telephone,” Borquez explains. “If you were to tap someone’s phone, the typical thing is you’re going to hear everything, their whole life, even more than you can remember or use. They lay out everything. The thing is that goddamned phone runs right out of their house. You can do it anywhere from the first pole on out of sight.”

Narcotics enforcement isn’t a job like the pictures in your high-school civics book either. Pat Saunders noticed that right off. Saunders hired on as a believer; not the kind thirsty for junkie blood but the suburban brand, one of the faithful who grew up with plaster houses, Catholic schools, and Jack Webb. To Saunders’s way of thinking, the law was something no one could live without and he didn’t mind taking the work.

Somewhere between the printed page and the stucco avenues along the racetrack, Pat lost his faith. Today he feels tricked, used, and takes it all personally.

“When I became an agent,” he explains in a slow voice, “I thought I was out there stopping the flow of narcotics, being an aid to society, helping people out, taking it off the street and all that. I just didn’t realize how crooked the bureau was and how people really don’t care. I think I believed all the propaganda I read. I felt really bad that I would go to somebody and say, ‘Hey, I’m somebody I’m not and I want to buy some narcotics and I’m not an agent.’ I felt bad deceiving people and I felt bad busting people. It still makes me feel guilty. I shouldn’t have been an agent. I don’t like to lie to people and trick them and stuff. It’s a hypocritical way of living and I don’t like to live that way. After a while, it’s all just a lie. You don’t know the truth from a lie, you’re so used to it. I began to figure I was just a big fraud. And I think the bureau’s a fraud. They’re a corrupt, unethical organization. I think they ought to be looked into and they ought to be stopped.”

Until it caught up with him, Pat Saunders wore the same badge as all the other narcs in Los Angeles. In 1970, when he joined, working for the police just seemed the best way out of his situation. Saunders’s wife was pregnant and going to school paid no bills. Pat’s first step was to LASO where a tour of duty at the jail convinced him to move on as quickly as he could. BND