One hot day last May, his red hair slicked back and his biker boots splashed with mud, Joe Clarke sauntered into a repair shop on Chula Vista’s main drag wearing a body wire. Though the shop resembled most of the other ramshackle grease pits in this ragged-ass city near the Mexican border, it was anything but ordinary. Its owner happened to be the feared president of an organization that Clarke and his FBI handlers had been working for weeks to infiltrate: the wearers of the black and white, the Mongols motorcycle club, a chief rival to the Hells Angels and a major methamphetamine supplier in Southern California.
At first, everything seemed cool. Clarke commiserated with B., a senior Mongol with a shaved head and a silver spike inserted through his pierced lip. The proud owner of a $20,000 Indian Spirit, Clarke had quietly slipped into the Mongols’ world a month earlier, at a bar the club frequents in Imperial Beach, and was already going on runs down Interstate 5, even riding point in the middle of the pack. A convicted felon with thick packs of muscle on his six-foot frame, Clarke figured he could handle bikers, any bikers, on his own terms. “If I get the first punch in,” he says, “problem solved.”
But as Clarke spoke with B., that confidence drained from his body like beer from a shot-up keg. Breaking a cardinal rule of surveillance, the feds had parked their gray van with tinted windows in plain sight near the shop’s front door a short time before Clarke’s arrival.
That busload of bozos is trying to get me killed, he thought.
Any biker worth his colors can pick out a fed’s ride without bothering to scrape the smashed bugs off his goggles, and B. was no exception.
“Dude, get the fuck out of here,” he hissed. “It’s not a good time.”
“I didn’t see anybody,” Clarke lied.
“Hit the ramp,” B. insisted. “If you get a tail, give us a call.”
This wasn’t the sort of greenhorn operation Clarke expected from the Bureau. For the past seventeen years, he’d been one of the government’s most reliable confidential informants. Working as a snitch, Clarke had helped officers from virtually every federal and state agency make 350 drug cases across Southern California, taking more than 100 pounds of methamphetamine and cocaine off the streets and halting the manufacture and distribution of hundreds of pounds more. The evidence he gathered put dozens of bad guys in jail, from small-time drug dealers working the San Diego shipyards to major meth manufacturers with ties to the Mexican mafia. If you work drugs in San Diego County, a place heavily infected with them, you know Clarke. “He’s a natural,” says a man I will call Tim, a senior California narc who has been a controlling agent of Clarke’s for more than a decade. “Best informant I’ve ever had.”
Often sent on the toughest and most dangerous missions, snitches like Clarke are the foot soldiers in the War on Drugs. Indeed, without the audio- and videotape they bring back from the front lines, the war could not be fought at all. Under draconian mandatory-minimum sentencing laws enacted by Congress in 1986, minor drug offenders suddenly found themselves facing up to twenty years in prison, without the possibility of parole, simply for possessing small quantities. Unless, that is, they agreed to rat out their associates in return for a reduced sentence. Thanks to the “Just Say No” doctrine of Ronald Reagan, an entire society of informants was born, and small-time dealers such as Clarke discovered that they possessed something even more valuable than drugs to sell: information. Snitches in federal drug cases — many of them former users and known liars — now receive as much as $100 million a year for their services, plus millions more as a percentage of the drug money they help to seize.