ROBERT DARIAS had fallen on hard times. He had been convicted of evading taxes on real-estate profits and owed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) more than $200,000. Desperate for money, he offered to spy on drug traffickers for the United States government.
Darias's activities are the backbone of David McClintick's new book, "Swordfish: A True Story of Ambition, Savagery, and Betrayal." The Clinton administration would be wise to study this story as it evaluates how to apply the $13.4 billion committed annually by the US to keep drugs off America's streets.
McClintick chronicles a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) scheme devised by one of its agents in Miami in the early 1980s. As part of Operation Swordfish, the DEA set up a phony corporation to infiltrate drug cartels and target leaders.
The operation gladly accepted Darias's offer to become an informant. Trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in espionage and an officer in the force that invaded the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1961, Darias fancied himself well-suited for undercover work. When he volunteered his services, he told DEA agents he was familiar with several drug traffickers in South America, because he had sold them electronic equipment. He also said he knew people in US banks who helped drug traffickers launder money.
The DEA agents and Darias targeted several people involved in the drug trade, including Marlene Navarro, a multilingual Colombian who was the American banker for Colombian drug lord Carlos Jader Alvarez.
Darias became friends with Navarro and taped their conversations. He also taped his conversations with other "targets," as well as those he had with the DEA agents.
The tapes later provided McClintick with material for his book. A professional journalist, McClintick interviewed Darias while listening to his tapes. He also held extensive interviews with Navarro and several of the DEA agents.
But the story, told mainly from Darias's point of view, seems sympathetic to the informant. Although Darias claims his motives were altruistic, he does owe the US government money, and he did try to gain leniency for his crimes by becoming a spy.
Questionable, too, are the motives of the other participants in Operation Swordfish. The taped conversations between Darias and the DEA agents record their petty quarrels - they all wanted to be in charge of Darias and in charge of the operation.
And there was competition among various US agencies - the FBI, CIA, Customs, and IRS were involved in different investigations and undercover operations involving many of the same key players. There were even DEA agents who sold information to Colombians about Operation Swordfish.
Despite the fact that many arrests were made, the quantity of drugs on the street has not decreased, nor has the quantity of drugs coming into the United States.
"Swordfish" concludes that the war on drugs should continue, despite its flawed operations. McClintick spotlights those flaws but does little to suggest changes. Still, his research could enlighten US officials on the depth and breadth of drug corruption.