What it’s really like to work for the DEA

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Former DEA agent Mike Vigil (left) burning two tons of cocaine in Colombia in 1984.
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Mike Vigil

Mike Vigil sat on the sofa as he waited for the negotiation to start.

He had a few hundred dollars taped to his ankles. Carrying cash that way tended to discourage the drug traffickers from checking the amount too carefully.

Then, something unexpected happened.

One of the drug traffickers he’d been set to meet stormed out of a back room and pressed a sawed-off shotgun against his head.

“Anything could have set that thing off,” Vigil told Business Insider. “I had that thing pointed at my head for about 20 minutes.”

Vigil wasn’t actually looking to buy drugs. It was 1976 and he was a new undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent working in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The drug traffickers didn’t know this – they were just angry that Vigil’s informant’s brother had ripped them off.

Vigil talked to them and the situation eventually cooled down. The police intercepted the drug traffickers when they left to rob the informant’s brother’s house.

It wasn’t the only dramatic incident in Vigil’s 31-year career with the DEA.

Vigil, the author of “Deal” and a contributor for Cipher Brief, points out that not everyone at the DEA does undercover work, so his experience isn’t universal. However, he recently spoke with Business Insider about his time as an undercover agent.


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Mike Vigil (left) helping to seize three tons of cocaine in 1984 in Colombia.
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Mike Vigil

Vigil knew early on that he wanted to go into law enforcement.

Vigil grew up watching police shows like “The Untouchables” and “Dragnet.”

“I was never the type to want to sit behind a desk and do mundane things, things that I would find boring,” he says.

He graduated with honors from New Mexico State University with a degree in criminology. After college, Vigil was drawn to the DEA due to its focus on undercover work in the US and abroad. US President Richard Nixon had founded the administration in July of 1973, stitching numerous federal agencies to form one larger organization.

That December, Vigil joined the DEA. He was 23 years old.


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Vigil in 1984, on a raid in Colombia that seized four tons of cocaine.
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Mike Vigil

He immediately began tackling undercover assignments.

Upon joining the DEA’s Albuquerque office, Vigil quickly kicked off his career.

“I was immediately thrust into the belly of the beast, so to speak,” Vigil says. “I immediately began working undercover.”

Vigil says he enjoyed the “cat-and-mouse” aspect of his work.

“When you’re working undercover, you’re right there, you’re dealing with them, you’re getting conversation, you’re getting evidence, you’re getting a feel for the entire organization,” he says.

He described transferring to Denver, where he investigated James Orlando Quintana, a heroin trafficker.

Vigil says that Quintana was well-insulated by his subordinates, which made it difficult to establish contact. He had to study the heroin trafficker’s habits.

Eventually, he discovered an in. Quintana had a weakness for diamonds.

“I was able to get some diamonds and brought him out of the darkness into the light,” Vigil says. “I met with him and got a conversation started with him. I was wearing a wire when I dealt with him. We had very solid evidence that led to his conviction.”


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Vigil embarking on a 1985 search-and-destroy operation in Colombia.
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Mike Vigil

Keeping calm was often the most important part of staying alive.

Gunfights were just a part of the job for Vigil. He quickly realized that being accurate at the firing range didn’t mean you’d be a good shot in the field.

“A lot of people would panic,” he told Business Insider. “They would get extremely nervous. Most shootouts occur within a ten foot radius, most of them. Very close. And the thing is is people would get so nervous, they’d be shooting up in the air, to the sides, or even on the ground, thinking they were shooting straight. I always remained calm and always could get those shots off very accurately because I was calm.”

He discussed one mission in Caborca, Mexico, where he and an informant visited two drug trafficking brothers at a combination restaurant-gas station. Vigil sat down with one of the traffickers at the fast food place. He didn’t have enough money for the entire marijuana purchase, but he had about $200 taped to his legs.

Almost four hours passed by. The Mexican federal police officers who had the restaurant surrounded began to grow nervous, and signaled to Vigil through the window. As it began to grow dark, the trafficker went outside and Vigil followed him. A federal officer stepped forward and put a gun to the trafficker’s chest. Then, things began to go wrong. The trafficker grabbed the weapon away and shot the policeman in the head.

“All of a sudden I see a spray of dark red blood shoot up in the air,” Vigil says. “The trafficker turns the gun at me – I’m about three feet away – and he fires two rounds. I could hear the bustles just whistle by my left ear. This happened in seconds. And then I shot him in the chest.”


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Vigil in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Colombia.
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Mike Vigil

Over time, Vigil became addicted to the rush.

For Vigil, one of the best parts of his job was also the most dangerous.

He describes becoming addicted to the adrenaline rush that came with risky undercover work.

“I started to take more and more chances, which I later had to curb because I knew that if I continued, I would eventually get killed,” he says. “You start to crave that adrenaline rush. If days passed where I wasn’t working undercover, I got depressed.”

Vigil would head into Mexico in an undercover capacity, without backup from the DEA or the Mexican federal government. He would meet with drug traffickers, oftentimes in isolated areas, and arrange to purchase kilos of heroin.

“I would try to get them to deliver to the US side,” Vigil says. “If they didn’t, then I would bring in the Mexican authorities. But not until the final moment.”

Oftentimes, the drug traffickers would pull out weapons and interrogate Vigil, to see if he was undercover. He had to develop a sixth sense in order to pick up physical signs of deception and ill-intent.

“I was able to talk my way out of many, many difficult situations,” he told Business Insider. “They will kill you, if they merely suspect you, even if there’s no evidence that you are an undercover.”


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Vigil in a 1985 operation in Colombia.
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Mike Vigil

There was one part of the job he didn’t like.

For Vigil, the worst part of working for the DEA was the inherent bureaucracy.

He says that the one thing he doesn’t miss is dealing with the bureaucracy and politics.


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Vigil (center) after a 1986 Colombia raid that seized 30 tons of marijuana.
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Mike Vigil

When it came to trapping traffickers, patience was crucial.

One of Vigil’s most vivid memories occurred when he traveled to Brazil to arrange to purchase a half a ton of cocaine – from a man who happened to be the son of a Bolivian minister of justice.

For that operation, the Brazilian federal police rented a rustic ranch house four hours outside of Sao Paolo. Vigil hit a snag when the CIA office in Brazil couldn’t provide him with the cash he’d pretend to buy the cocaine with. He had nothing to show the drug trafficker when the man demanded to see the money.

“I started to play on his greed, saying, ‘Okay, if you don’t want to do this, I’ll find somebody else.'”

The drug trafficker ended up playing along, telling his associates that he’d seen the money, when in fact he hadn’t.

On the night of the exchange, 20 camouflaged Brazilian federal police officers descended on the property, with one hiding up in a water tower with water up to his chin. After waiting for about five hours, the drug trafficker circled the ranch in a twin engine aircraft. One of his associates arrived on the scene and signaled for the plane to land – changing from a blue shirt to a red shirt, walking into the pasture, and lighting a cigarette to signal that all was clear. The plane landed and was immediately surrounded by the authorities.

“The plane is loaded to the gills with cocaine,” Vigil says. “We move in to make the arrest and one of the individuals who happened to be the head of security for the drug trafficker’s father has a hand grenade. He starts to pull the pin. Then he sees all kinds of weapons pointed at him and he drops it.”


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Vigil (right) after a 1986 raid on a coastal freighter in Colombia. Agents seized 40 tons of marijuana.
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Mike Vigil

The job wasn’t always about traveling the world and getting into shoot outs.

Some of Vigil’s long-term undercover operation stretched out for over a year.

“I virtually lived with a lot of these drug traffickers, and ran around with them during the day,” he says. “I’d be with these drug traffickers from the very early morning hours until 2 o’clock in the morning the next day at some bar or nightclub.”

However, the job wasn’t just about working in the field. Vigil noted that he couldn’t neglect his other responsibilities like filing investigative reports or making sure that drug evidence was processed.

“I would come in in the mornings and plan strategy,” Vigil says. “I would contact informants and see what information they had. I’d work on investigations. It was not just collecting information, evidence, it was also planning strategy. One strategy would not be all inclusive and work for all the investigations. You have to have a strategic mind.”


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Vigil (center) after helping to seize six tons of marijuana during a 1986 raid in Colombia.
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Mike Vigil

He would do it all again if he could.

Vigil retired in 2004, having reached the senior executive service level. He says that he’d been married to the job and it was just time to go.

In total, he spent 18 years abroad and clocked in more time in Mexico than any other DEA agent.

He’d also served as the head of the San Diego division and the special agent in charge of the Caribbean, as well as the chief of international operations.

Vigil says he misses the people he worked with at the DEA and in foreign governments. He would recommend that young people consider it as a career, although it’s not for everyone.

“I looked at the DEA more as an adventure than an occupation. It was a fascinating career,” Vigil says. “If I had 100 lifetimes, I would do it for 100 lifetimes.”