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      Operation Snowcap

      Bungling In Bolivia
      Bob Pilgrim

DEA agents get involved in a lot of strange and exotic stuff that published books have never been able to do justice to. In this case, truth was stranger than fiction. Few agents ever anticipated when they signed on that day they would be dressed in camouflage and humping through the steamy jungles of South America and South East Asia chasing drug lords and narco traffickers on their home turf. These preemptive paramilitary operations preceded the Iraq war by decades. And although the agents served in an "advisory" role, it was a war and an ugly one at that. Clandestine labs and airstrips were the primary targets, but people guarded these facilities tenaciously and lots of lead was exchanged when contacts occurred.

Frank White took a connecting flight from La Paz and landed at a remote jungle town called Trinidad, home sweet home for the narcotic traffickers and their small armies.

True to form the Suits had done a deplorable job in fulfilling mission requirements. Like many government bureaucrats, the Suits believed that agents could handle anything ever given them without a scintilla of specialized training. At first, headquarters' only criteria were fluency in Spanish and many agents who considered language proficiency a career enhancer now cursed their talent. With only a few days of slapped together training, the agents were airmailed to their respective jungles. In short order, the Suits were aghast when agents began to refuse their assignments. This was a serious affront to the head shed and the Suits initial reaction was to send a flurry of threatening teletypes to the field offices reminding them that they had the power to send agents anywhere in the world. This pompous hysteria backfired when the agents prepared to challenge this erroneous assumption in court. With their pin stripped backs to the legal wall, the Suits appealed to volunteers t! hat would receive five weeks of language training and 10 days of field-work. Better, but still way off the mark. The Suits idea of adequate armament was a five-shot snub nosed .38 Special, preferably loaded with 148 grain wadcutters for shooting comfort, tucked into their Brooks Brothers waistbands and topped off with a pair of Gucci loafers.

With Frank's boots on the ground, he was stunned by the agent's total lack of situational awareness. Several years prior, a DEA agent in Mexico almost single handedly destroyed an entire drug cartel. However, the Suits never anticipated that there would be retaliation. One morning, cartel remnants remodeled the agent's car that was parked in front of his home with a thirty round magazine. Still the Suits slept. Shortly thereafter, the agent was snatched off the street on his way to have lunch with his wife. For days the cartel members tortured him before they heaved his broken body into a garbage dump. His wife thought that he had been called away and was unable to notify her, because this had happened before during their tour of duty in that country. Despite the heightened level of threat, the agent was unaccounted for nineteen hours before anyone took any action. Finally, DEA HQ began rattling cages at State and they in turn pressured the Mexican police to take action. How! ever, the Suits expression of grief took the form of a golf tournament. Yep, annually the Suits gather on the green to smack a little ball in commemoration of those who have fallen in the line of duty. This moronic mindset was projected to these agents and took the form of indifference, complacency and tactical ineptitude.

The Trinidad Command Post was one in name only. It was a super soft target-a literal death trap. Only one agent was packing and the rest of their meager firepower was locked in a footlocker. Worse still, agents when traveling to neighboring villages often went unarmed. Frank, always respectful of Mr. Murphy stuffed as many rounds as possible for his pistol into his gear. Snowcap agents seemed to lack even basic survival skill awareness and did little to lower their profiles. They ate at a variety of restaurants, but frequently telegraphed their movements by calling ahead to make reservations. There was no tracking or emergency contact system for personnel. The attractive female agent went to dinner wearing cut off jeans and after the meal planned on going solo on the town. The Trinidad team bragged about the food as if they were on a government-funded vacation. Frank rained on their parade when he asked if they had any idea what was in their food? Puzzled over his question, ! he explained that the least of their concerns might be someone who hated them spitting in their order during preparation, or worse. They protested and didn't think that would ever happen because, "They like our business and we tip well." Another blatant security blunder manifested it self when a male agent stopped to convert dollars, pulled out a roll of green in front of all the street scum witnessing the transaction. It was a gold plated invitation for them and Smith & Wesson to ask for a donation.

Instead of returning to a secure compound for the night, it was back to a wide-open hotel. The agents had no emergency reaction plan and no mutual support, because they were spread out throughout the complex. Their vehicles were simply parked out on the street where they were totally unattended overnight and everyone was aware as to who the owners were. When they left for the CP in the morning, none of the agents conducted a pre entry check on their transportation. One conveyance had no window glass and the other two had to be pushed, so they could be jump-started. As they chugged out of town, Frank had visions of road ambushes with their rides stalling when they attempted to escape the "kill zone." The agents had no immediate action-counter ambush training, did not know how to drive in a convoy, fire from a vehicle or able to accurately determine the direction of incoming fire.

Air mobility is a tremendous asset in counter drug operations, but the agents had no training in airmobile and supporting ground tactics. There was absolutely no redundancy and the loss of one helicopter would place everyone in jeopardy.

The agents worked with the "Umpoar" Bolivia's special counter drug police. They were armed with US M1 .30 caliber carbines. Frank asked the agent in charge of the operation whether he had inspected the men and could he look over his five paragraph order? He shrugged and replied, "There was no need to inspect the Umopar and that he never heard of the order." Frank walked over and inspected the weapons and gear. To his dismay, he discovered that the Bolivians were issued only one 15 round magazine containing anywhere between three to six rounds. For short-range jungle contacts the dated carbine was not the best choice, but adequate. He recalled that Cuban, communist revolutionary Che Guevara was bagged by Bolivians armed with the M1 carbine. However, with so few rounds Frank thought the Umopar had better be good with the bayonet. Wire and tape held a number of the WW2 era weapons together and Frank learned that the ammo shortage was on purpose. Apparently the Umopar grunt! s sold their ammo to the drug traffickers, so their officers issued just enough ammo to make noise, hoping the enemy would run. If the Umopar could not be trusted with a small amount of ammunition how could the agents have confidence in the indigenous force's willingness to stand and slug it out in a firefight? No responsible leadership would commit their personnel to this kind of environment, but the Suits back in Washington did.

Frank reflected upon the lessons he learned under the mentorship of Colonel Fear in Vietnam. The Suits violated every troop-leading step, particularly when it came to looking out for the welfare of their men. The colonel would have cashiered or court marshaled most of them for their derelictions. The agents were so ill prepared they appeared to be basically in condition white and if it had been Vietnam, the NVA would have sliced and diced them. Frank submitted his report and recommended that the Robert McNamara body account approach that flourished in Vietnam and the State Department's requirement of a 50% success rate per helicopter sortie (whatever that meant) be abandoned by DEA. Instead, he advised that the Snowcap teams should set challenging but realistic goals for themselves and not have goals mandated by a Suit thousands of miles away.

The moment of truth came and Frank submitted his extensive critique via his chain of command to headquarters. A few days later, Frank was cryptically told that a particular Suit who had a real dilemma was stalling his report. He was a Suit and knew if he released the critical report to his superiors he would fall from the "Super Suits" grace and thus kill his career. He also knew that Frank would not change his findings, conclusions and recommendations, so he simply sat on it. However, as we have recently heard, "Help was on the way." Frank had a friend in headquarters who, without hesitation, drove down from Northern Virginia and met Frank at Quantico at 0500 hours, so that he could be at the headquarters daily 0830 briefing and place it in the appropriate hands. This friend was a stand up guy and put his career on the line to do the right thing. It wasn't too long before a flurry of calls came to Frank's desk informing him that his report went off like a nuc! lear bomb and the Suits were scurrying for cover. Before lunch, the Suit trying to suppress the damning document stormed into Frank's office, attacking him with almost hysterical invective and threats to "suspend him, transfer him and end his career." After ending the tirade, the Suit regretfully acknowledged that Frank had high-level allies and that Terry Burke, a highly respected warrior of CIA days in Laos, at headquarters was protecting him. Because of Terry Burke's support the Suit told Frank that he was temporarily untouchable, but he would bide his time.

Frank returned to the unit and our training program at Quantico continued to grow. Outside agencies were requesting training slots and it was particularly satisfying to receive letters from graduates that stated the instruction had saved lives. However, his return was short lived and a few months later Frank got a fateful phone call from Administrator Jack Lawn. He and Terry Burke were placing Frank in charge of Snowcap effective the next day.

Unfortunately, Frank's predictions came true. Several years later after Frank had left Snowcap and the Jackal had been appointed US Attorney General and "Thumb" became DEA Administrator five Snowcap agents died a horrible death. Frank blasted both of them for their dereliction and responsibility for these deaths. But, that was in the future and Frank, leading from the front got involved in some very unusual situations in the Peruvian and Bolivian bush. Stay with us for the next adventure.

LESSONS LEARNED:

  • Do it right or don't do it at all.

  • Before deploying teams abroad conduct an in country assessment in advance to determine the situation and conditions on the ground. Then task organize your contingent.

  • Proper selection and training of personnel is critical to mission success. Customize the training to meet mission requirements.

  • The tenor of any operation comes from the top down not from the bottom up.

  • The first requirement for deployed teams is security.

  • First and foremost, look out for the welfare of your personnel.

  • Whenever you are sending personnel in harms way appoint proven professionals to lead them

  • Headquarters must run interference for personnel deployed overseas. If the host country will not provide sufficient security and or contribute competent personnel with appropriate equipment, pull your people out.

  • Never deploy your personnel without sufficient firepower and logistics.

  • Identify competent individuals who are mission rather than career oriented and support them.

  • Agents operating semi independently in isolated areas must be closely monitored and continuously supported.

  • Respect the chain of command. However, have the morale courage to go outside when it needs to be modified.

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