By Jack Riley
With Mitch Weiss
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Jack Riley, grandson of a Chicago cop known for using his fists, was born to be a drug warrior. Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, who farmed marijuana and opium poppies as a teenager in Mexico, was born to be a drug lord. Their worlds collided when Riley, a career special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, was promoted to lead the fight against Chapo on the border at El Paso.
Drug Warrior is the story of Riley’s decades-long hunt for the world’s most wanted drug lord, set against the rise of modern international drug trafficking, and America’s spiraling opioid epidemic. Jack Riley started his career as an undercover street agent in Chicago busting small-time dealers. By the time he worked his way up to second in command of the DEA-a post few field agents ever reach-he had overseen every major mission to capture foreign drug kingpins since the 1990s, and had witnessed first-hand how El Chapo changed the game. As brilliant as he was lethal, Chapo not only decimated his competition, he foresaw Americans’ dependence on opioids and heroin, and manipulated supply to increase demand. Riley’s story culminates as he and the DEA win their greatest victory-the capture and extradition of his long-time nemesis-and Chapo faces his darkest fear: U.S. justice.
A riveting memoir of life inside the drug wars, and a never-before-seen glimpse of the inner-workings of the DEA, Drug Warrior is a critical examination of how America’s opioid crisis came to be, and the extraordinary people fighting it.
This is the story of a group of extraordinary men and women who not only hunted down and captured one of the world’s most dangerous drug lords, but fight every day to keep us safe at home and around the globe. The events depicted in this book are seen through my eyes and based on my extensive experience in the Drug Enforcement Administration. The story is told as honestly and faithfully as I can. I can do no more than that. And in honor of my fallen law enforcement comrades, I can do no less.
Many people have heard of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera and the dangerous drug cartels that threaten our nation’s security. But few know the behind-the-scenes details of the manhunt, or the partisan politics, that impede our nation’s ability to effectively deal with the drug crisis that has destroyed so many families.
This book is intended to tell that story.
The secret is to work less as individuals and more as a team. As a coach, I play not my eleven best, but my best eleven.
The Chase, 2007
My brand-new Chevy roared north through the dark toward Las Cruces and home, the Notre Dame fight song blasting on the CD player:
Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame,
Wake up the echoes cheering her name!
But it was hard to concentrate on the song. My eyes kept shifting between the dark road and the pickup truck and SUV tailing me.
I was driving a 2007 Chevrolet Impala, black. In my rearview mirror I saw a late-model Ford F-150 pickup truck, navy blue. And a Ford Explorer, black. Ours were the only six headlights along this lonely stretch of Interstate-10.
I pushed the accelerator toward the floor and watched the needle pass one hundred miles an hour.
Intelligence reports said Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, infamous drug lord, head of the deadly Sinaloa cartel, had put a price on my head shortly after I had taken over as the DEA special agent in charge of El Paso.
Now I had hit men on my tail.
My headlights didn’t reach far into the darkness. I couldn’t remember how far it was to the next exit. All I knew was I had to keep driving until I came up with a plan. My family’s life might be at stake.
My own life depended on it.
El Chapo was the most dangerous drug trafficker in the world, and I’d been busting his balls since I got to El Paso, one of the biggest Drug Enforcement Administration territories in the United States. I’d been tracking Guzmán since my days with a DEA special operations unit. I wanted the job in El Paso so I’d be on the front lines in the fight against Guzmán’s massive organization. So why did I think he wouldn’t come after me?
I was already in a hurry when I left my office. My wife and son were waiting for me at home. For security’s sake we didn’t live in El Paso. Instead, we’d moved to a quiet neighborhood in Las Cruces, New Mexico, about forty miles northwest of the border. It was a long commute, but I wanted my family as far from the action as I could keep them.
The move was hard. My son was getting ready to start high school in St. Louis, Missouri, and we’d taken him from his friends. But I knew things were getting better when he burned a CD for me with all my favorite country artists: Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings. And right toward the middle, Kevin added a surprise: the Notre Dame fight song. I popped in my custom CD every night on the long drive home.
I first spotted the pickup truck and Ford Explorer as I approached the interstate on-ramp. They sat side by side in the parking lot of a fast-food place, their vehicles pointed in opposite directions so the drivers could talk to each other. Cops in unmarked cars, I thought. But as soon as I got onto the highway, they rolled out of the parking lot and followed me.
It just didn’t look right, I thought.
No one heads north that time of night. There’s nothing between El Paso and Las Cruces, except a couple of bullshit gas-and-burrito exits.
Something didn’t feel right.
I punched the accelerator, and felt the big engine kick in. Soon I was going one hundred miles an hour, but the pickup truck and Ford Explorer were right on top of me. Every time I slowed down, they slowed down. Every time I accelerated, they accelerated. When the pickup truck sped by, I noticed it had no license plates.
“Whoaaaa. Holy shit,” I said. Then the fight song came on the stereo.
Rah, rah, for Notre Dame
We will fight in every game,
Strong of heart and true to her name!
I grabbed my BlackBerry and fumbled with the keyboard until I somehow managed to punch in the number for Mike, one of my agents who lived close to my neighborhood. He answered his phone, and all he could hear was the Notre Dame fight song.
“What the hell?” he said.
I paused the music.
“Mike, get to my house. Get to the front of my house. I don’t want my wife to know you’re there, but they gotta know that you’re there.”
I didn’t have to say another word. Mike understood that my family might be in danger.
I hung up and called my best friend, Tony, who had just retired from the DEA. We’d been together as agents on the streets of Chicago. He was the godfather of my only child. Tony answered on the second ring.
“You’ve only been there a couple of months. How’d you piss these people off that fast?” he said in a thick Chicago accent.
“I don’t know. I guess I move fast.”
“You must be doing something right,” he said.
But this wasn’t a time to catch up. I told Tony about the Ford Explorer on my back bumper and the pickup truck in the lane in front of me.
“Look, you gotta get to the police station,” he said.
“You don’t get it. I got thirty miles of desert on each side and these scumbags are on me. This isn’t Chicago where you drive a few blocks and you’re at a police station. There’s nothing I can do.”
“Turn your lights and sirens on.”
“They haven’t installed them in this car yet. I don’t even have a police radio.”
“What the hell are you driving that for?”
“Because it’s brand-new.”
I could tell Tony was worried.
“Listen, I really don’t know the area, but I think the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Department is somewhere up the road, past Las Cruces,” I said.
“Twenty-five, thirty miles.”
“Just keep driving. Get to the sheriff’s department. Get to the damn sheriff’s department.”
I placed my BlackBerry on the passenger seat, pushed the PLAY button on the stereo, and focused on the road. The Ford Explorer pulled a little closer to my back bumper, almost hitting me. It held steady there, while the pickup truck in the lane in front of me started slowing down.
My mind went to the Glock strapped to my left ankle and one spare magazine with eight rounds in my glove compartment.
Not a lot of firepower.
I pulled hard on the wheel, hit the gas, and accelerated past the pickup. I was jumping off the next exit and taking these bastards for a ride. At the stop sign at the end of the exit ramp, I turned left and headed west on Road Runner Drive toward a cluster of homes. I glimpsed in the rearview mirror and the headlights were still behind me.
I was driving sixty miles an hour, zigzagging up and down streets in residential neighborhoods, but I just couldn’t shake them. When I spotted a playground parking lot, I pulled to the back.
There was no outrunning them.
What though the odds be great or small,
Old Notre Dame will win over all
I shut off the music, killed the headlights. The lot was dark. I grabbed the extra magazine from the glove box—wishing I had my shotgun—and jumped out of the car.
I squatted behind the engine block and waited. I knew I was outgunned, outmanned, but I wasn’t going to let these jagoffs take me down without a fight.
Glory Days, 1986
This was it. After days of careful planning, everything was set: the location, the drugs, the money. I hung up the phone on the nightstand and took a deep breath. Time to get ready. I slipped on a white Ralph Lauren shirt and crisp khaki pants. I tugged on the shoelaces of my topsider boat shoes to make sure they were tight. I stepped in front of the mirror. My face was shaved smooth, and every strand of my short reddish-brown hair was in place. I put on my fake Rolex and Ray-Bans, and became John Lynch.
It was close to 6 p.m. on a crisp autumn night in 1986. I was an undercover street agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, so most of my days started when everybody else was headed home. For weeks, I had been hanging around seedy beer-and-a-shot bars in the working-class Chicago suburb of Roselle, Illinois, trying to buy cocaine. That’s how I met Mike Rizzo, a burly laborer with a big black pompadour and a porno mustache. He introduced himself one night while I was sitting at a bar, nursing a Miller Lite. Rizzo was a roofer, divorced. He sold drugs on the side to help make ends meet.
“Got three kids. You know how that is, right?” he said, before lifting a cold bottle of Budweiser to his lips.
I nodded. I started small, buying nickel and dime bags of cocaine from Rizzo. When I had earned his trust, I confessed that I was looking for a bigger score. Not a problem, he bragged. And he kept his promise. Now I was about to drive an hour west to downtown Roselle to meet him in a furniture store parking lot. He had five ounces of Colombian cocaine, and I had a gym bag with $10,000 inside.
I’d been on the job for a year. Undercover work was risky, so I planned every detail in advance. No surprises. I had to know where the deal was going to take place. My team had to know the signal I’d use to alert them to arrest the dealer after I bought the dope (something as simple as putting on my sunglasses, or taking off my baseball cap).
And I had to stick to the script. So, like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, I recited my lines over and over in front of my bathroom mirror until I slipped into character. Forget about Jack Riley, a tough-talking hotshot DEA agent. I was John Lynch, a trust-fund yuppie. My father was a millionaire lawyer, and I was in the real estate business. I’d heard how lucrative cocaine was, and I was preparing to do a little dealing myself, just among my friends.
But the act was more than just remembering my backstory. I had to constantly remind myself of the little things. I had to pay attention to what I said. No cop phrases. Let the drug dealer talk as much as possible. Stay alert, and be aware of the surroundings. And, most importantly, remember that dealers are scumbags who’ll cut your throat and steal your money if they get a chance. I could get killed for even the smallest amount of dope. Most of the bad guys I met were unstable. Many were addicts, supporting their habit by selling drugs.
I glanced at my watch. It was getting late. I had to be in Roselle by 7 p.m. When I stepped out of the bathroom, my wife Monica was waiting with a pained look on her face that I had seen a dozen times before. We had been married a year, and she understood how much I loved my job. She never complained, but she didn’t stop worrying. She knew my job was dangerous. She knew I had been in fistfights with bad guys in dark alleys. She knew I had been jumped by gun-toting drug dealers. She was afraid of that call in the middle of the night, the summons to a hospital, the nightmare of every spouse of every cop and soldier and warrior in the world.
“This isn’t going to take long,” I assured her.
“Be careful, Jack,” she whispered.
I hugged her and gently kissed her cheek. Then it was all business. I opened my dresser drawer, removed an old, rusty, five-shot revolver from its holster and carefully placed it in a small black leather bag. (When you’re working undercover, you never carry a police-issue gun. If you do—and it’s discovered—that’s a good way for the deal to go sideways.) I grabbed the green Nike gym bag stuffed with Rizzo’s dough, and bounded out the front door into the dusk. Neighbors in my western Chicago suburb walked their dogs or jogged down the respectable neighborhood street at this hour. I tossed the green gym bag in the trunk of my black Pontiac Firebird, a macho sports car right out of a Smokey and the Bandit movie. I jumped in the car and stuffed my black satchel under the passenger seat.
In those days before cell phones, the only way to communicate with my team was by two-way radio. So I picked up the microphone hidden under my seat and called my partner and best friend, Tony.
“307, you there?” I asked. (Working undercover we had to use call numbers assigned to us by our supervisors.)
“Yeah. What took you so long?”
“I had to get ready.”
“Get ready? Are you going to a fucking party?”
I smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m on my way, looking fine. The question is: Will he be there? He’s a bullshit artist.”
“He’ll be there,” Tony predicted. “Just do me a favor.”
“Don’t take all night. Let’s get this shit over with so I can watch the Bulls.”
I laughed. “Piece of cake.”
All kidding aside, we really didn’t know much about Rizzo. We wondered about his supplier. Probably a Colombian. At that point in our careers, none of that really mattered, at least to our immediate supervisors: Jack Brison and Joe Lopez. Tony and I were in our mid-twenties, running fast and hard. We were badasses, taking down every drug dealer on every street corner in the Chicago area we could.
Brison and Lopez loved us. The more guys we busted, the more dope and money we seized, the better they looked to their bosses. So they encouraged us and the other young agents in the Chicago DEA office to be aggressive. “I’m going to need five or six more arrests from you by the end of the month,” they’d say. Tony and I were having fun. We loved going undercover.
These were the Pablo Escobar days, when the drug boss was a folk hero in his country, thumbing his nose at the world. His Medellín cartel moved all the cocaine that ended up in those nickel and dime bags flooding Chicago streets. Back then, you didn’t have to be a DEA agent to know Escobar’s backstory. US journalists had been writing about him for years. At first, that’s how I gleaned much of my information about him.
His real-life narrative was straight out of a Hollywood gangster movie. Escobar was born in a mountainous village outside of Medellín, Colombia. His father was a hardworking cattle farmer, while his mother was a schoolteacher. From an early age, Escobar was ambitious. Young Pablo told his friends he wanted to be president of Colombia. But as a teenager, he tossed his books and turned to bullets.
He was a petty street thief, stealing cars, before moving into the cocaine smuggling business. For Escobar, it was perfect timing. As the cocaine market flourished in the 1970s, Colombia’s geographical location proved to be its biggest asset. Colombia was situated at the northern tip of South America, between the thriving coca cultivation epicenters of Peru and Bolivia and the United States—the biggest market for the drug.
Escobar’s big break came when he murdered his boss—Fabio Restrepo, Colombia’s first cocaine kingpin. He took over his business and expanded Restrepo’s business into something the world had never seen. Pablo controlled every step of the operation. He bought cultivation farms and processing plants. He bribed law enforcement agencies, developing a ruthless policy known as plato o plomo—silver or lead. If officials didn’t accept his bribe, they’d end up dead.
Within years, his Medellín cartel provided most of the cocaine smuggled into the United States. Escobar’s ruthlessness made him one of the wealthiest, most powerful, and most violent criminals in the world. He tried to soften his image by positioning himself as a Robin Hood–like figure, spending millions to build schools and soccer fields. He was even elected as an alternate member of Colombia’s Congress, but was later forced to resign after his notorious background was exposed by Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara. (Lara was later assassinated by Escobar’s men.)
By 1982, President Ronald Reagan had had enough of Pablo Escobar. He created a cabinet-level task force to coordinate the fight against drug smuggling into the United States. It was the beginning of Escobar’s serious problems with the United States. Since then, he had been engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the United States and the DEA.
And that only enhanced Escobar’s cachet—and influence. Every dirtbag dealer said they had a Colombian connection. They all wanted to be like Escobar, or his alter ego, Tony Montana, Scarface, a powerful drug lord with the beachfront mansion and trophy girlfriend. Us? We wanted to be the Irish version of Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs, the two Metro-Dade police detectives from the television show Miami Vice. Tony and I argued about who was Crockett. I’d joke that I was the Don Johnson character because I was better looking.
Traffic was thick as the office-worker crowd headed home. I turned the dial on my radio. I needed a little music to get pumped up. When I heard the opening chords to “The Heat Is On” by Glenn Frey, I cranked up the volume. I tapped my hand in rhythm against the steering wheel, singing out loud and off-key. Undercover karaoke. I didn’t care. Anything to break the tension. By the time the song was over, I had pulled into a parallel parking spot across the street from the furniture store lot. I glanced at my watch. I’d made it with a few minutes to spare, but Rizzo wasn’t there. I picked up the microphone and called Tony, who was leading the surveillance team: “Everyone in position?”
“We got you covered,” he said.
There was nothing to do but wait. Tony and I had been on dozens of stakeouts, and in those few months I’d learned to trust him with my life. Hell, Tony was like a brother to me. We hit it off from the beginning.
I first met him in the lobby of the Federal Building on South Dearborn Street in downtown Chicago the summer of 1985. I had just gotten married and was waiting to meet with a supervisor to find out when I’d be heading to Quantico, Virginia, for training. Nearby a young, barrel-chested agent with a shock of red hair sat fidgeting in his seat. He nodded at me, then said, “Man, what did we get ourselves into?”
I smiled. “Yeah, I hear you.”
He reached out his hand and introduced himself. It doesn’t take me long to decide if I’m going to like someone, and Tony and I clicked immediately. And why not? We’d find out later that we both grew up in big Irish families. His father was a Chicago cop, my grandfather was one, too. We were both sarcastic, tough, outgoing, and loved to drink and bullshit.
Tony said he had only been on the job for a few weeks, and was in the lobby waiting for an informant. “He should’ve been here by now. I don’t think he’s gonna show up,” he said, his eyes scanning the lobby. I told him I was about to begin training. He waved his hand dismissively and said he had just finished “sixteen weeks of hell” at Quantico, but there was “nothing to it.” He volunteered to give me a quick rundown on the office I was about to join.
He said the DEA’s Chicago office was divided into groups. There were ten supervisors and about 150 agents. Tony explained that when I was done with my training I’d go through a hazing, just like all new agents.
“It’s like a college fraternity. It happens to everyone,” he warned. “The agents are going to make you do all kinds of shit. Washing their cars. Getting their coffee and food. Organizing thousands of cassette tapes from wiretaps. Grunt work.
“But they’re cool,” he said. He laughed about a few older guys who really didn’t want to do much. “I’ve seen some of them get down on their knees at 5 o’clock and crawl on the floor past the supervisors’ office so they won’t be seen heading out the door.”
“Yeah. They don’t want to do shit. But then you have the younger agents, guys who are aggressive. We’re out all the time busting these dirtbags. That’s why we’re in the business, right?”
I nodded in agreement. “Right.”
We traded stories about our pasts and how we had decided the DEA was the place to be. The allure certainly wasn’t the money—new agents only made about $15,000 a year, not enough to support a family in a major city. But we both shared a strong sense that, more than at any other agency, a job at the DEA would be about making a difference.
We were still bullshitting when a supervisor came down to the lobby and escorted me upstairs to the DEA offices, up on the twelfth to fifteenth floors of the Federal Building. Tony decided to tag along.
The place was a dump. Agents sat at dented metal desks that had seen far better days. The floor was covered in worn-out, coffee-stained, green shag carpet. The equipment in the workout gym looked like it was from the 1940s. A thick haze of cigarette smoke rose from dozens of ashtrays and blanketed the office ceilings. Each DEA group shared one computer. Agents had to fight to get time on the machines. Senior agents were supposed to mentor their younger colleagues, but Tony said that wasn’t happening.
“You’re pretty much on your own,” he said. “But when you get back, we’ll team up. You gotta get assigned to Group 3. We’ll kick ass.”
And that’s what happened.
Now here I was, waiting in my yuppie persona to take down another bad guy. I knew Tony’s red Buick Regal was parked a few cars in back of me. Across the street, members of our surveillance team were waiting in a Chevy van.
I heard Tony’s voice crackle over the radio. “He’s coming down the street. Just do me a favor.”
“Make sure this guy doesn’t start crying,” he joked. “He’ll smear your makeup.”
Wise guy, I thought.
In my driver’s side mirror, I glimpsed Rizzo’s white work van heading in my direction. His vehicle made a sharp left into the parking lot. He stopped at the far end of the lot, but kept the motor running.
I didn’t waste any time. I bounded out of the Firebird, and looked both ways before crossing the street. I made a beeline to the van. With each step, everything slowed in my mind. I was calm, collected, confident. I could handle anything.
It was a far cry from my first undercover operation, when I almost lost my pants.
A few weeks after I started, an older agent set up a deal for me to buy cocaine from an Italian guy named Vito. We met up for the deal in a bar on the South Side of Chicago, in the shadow of elevated train tracks. Vito was big, about six-foot-four, three hundred pounds, with black, greasy hair and more gold on him than Mr. T. My hands were sweating as I approached him. I couldn’t catch my breath. I had taken my big, heavy, brand-new SIG Sauer 9mm handgun with me, tucked between my waistband and the small of my back. It was so heavy it kept pulling my pants down. When I sat on the barstool next to Vito the gun nearly fell on the floor, so I had to stand.
“Why won’t you sit down, pal?” Vito asked, and I had to come up with something fast.
“Hemorrhoids,” I told him, tugging at my waistband. I didn’t know if that was going to fly. I was tense, expecting the worst.
“Oh my God, yeah, kid, I got those, too,” Vito said. “Barstools are definitely out. I understand. Here, have a beer. It’s good for you.” We talked, drank a beer. Over the next few days I bought a few bags of cocaine from him. And just when we were getting ready to bust him, he dropped dead of a heart attack.
- "[An] incredible story."—New York Post
- "Drug Warrior is a riveting account of America's drug war. Jack Riley steps right out of central casting: a tough cop on a mission. But Drug Warrior goes beyond Riley's gruff exterior and shows the trials and tribulations of fighting a war that can't be won. Riley's sense of duty is the heart of the book. Want to better understand America's first forever war? You'll find answers here."—Kevin Maurer, co-author of the New York Times bestsellers No Easy Day and American Radical
- "[An] entertaining, no-holds-barred memoir....To know Jack Riley is clearly to know a Damon Runyonese-type character; a person larger than life....Riley's memoir makes a compelling and irrefutable case on why a purely criminal justice approach cannot and will not succeed. The unvarnished, candid, and irreverent insights that Riley so willingly shares can be repeated ad infinitum by many of my former colleagues and myself, who also experienced the very hell of which Riley speaks."—Frederick T. Martens, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books at Rutgers University
"For 15 years, Chapo has been Riley's white whale, the object of an obsession that teetered on derangement and sidelined everything else, including his family... A ruddy, white-haired bruiser who holds court from a bar stool, Riley seemed dispatched from the days of fedoras and cops lighting Luckies at crime scenes."
—Paul Solotaroff, Rolling Stone
- "Riley's intensity and charisma have made him one of the most quoted and recognizable advocates for drug enforcement in the country."—Chicago Reader
- "Drug Warrior is an interesting look at the life and times of both Guzman, a major drug trafficker, and Mr. Riley, the DEA special agent who relentlessly pursued him."—The Washington Times
"A sturdy, unadorned tale of true crime and its foes."
- On Sale
- Feb 19, 2019
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Hachette Books