In a rare phone call from Special Agent Johnson, the leader of the DEA team that I served as a confidential informant, he said, “JJ, I’m throwing a bone your way.”
This meant he was giving me the opportunity to prove, again, that the DEA should continue to rely upon me and keep me out of jail for drug smuggling.
Then he proceeded to ask me to find out everything I could about a particular cargo airline they had their eye on. What kind of planes did they use? How many times a day did they come in from Bogota and Caracas?
Then he said, “JJ, if you were going to put drugs on this airline, when would you do it?”
After a few weeks of investigating, I decided that the best time to smuggle drugs was the 4 a.m. flight from Caracas on a Tuesday or Wednesday because the plane would practically be empty, and that flight used a wide-body plane, where cargo is in containers, not loaded by hand, so there would be less of an opportunity for others to steal the product.
About four months after I gave my report, they were ready to make their move, and my handler called me, telling me to come in immediately, wearing my American Airlines uniform and airport ID. I told work I was sick and was at the DEA office in 30 minutes.
The whole team was there, all suited up in their bulletproof vests and with guns in their holsters. In the room was also a young CI named “Flaco,” whose eyes were wandering around the room, looking as scared as I had years before.
The plan was to insert me into the case. I was the guy that Flaco had used to move the drugs out of the airport, and I was to tell his Cuban contact that US customs had confiscated the drugs and the 25 kilos were gone. This was a loss of $500K!
I was supposed to offer to work for free to make things right and get him to send more drugs. I was also supposed to try to get the Cuban to give up his source in Caracas.
I’d done similar things before, but I wanted to know how angry Flaco’s contact would be. I never have been a tough guy. I’m the baggage handler. I get things done, and I never hurt anyone while doing it. I wanted to know exactly what I would be walking into.
Flaco said that the Cuban would be very upset, even madder than if I’d been cheating with his wife.
That didn’t make me feel better, but I’d dealt with that kind of anger before—hell, I grew up with it—so I thought I could reason with him. What actually bothered me more was Flaco. As we were driving to the location, I could see him changing colors. It was his first undercover case, and he was driving very slowly. I was concerned that he was going to blow our cover—whether accidentally or on purpose, I didn’t know.
I had been trained to recognize if a suspect is wearing a gun, but I didn’t even get the chance. As soon as we arrived at the restaurant where we were meeting, the crazy Cuban attacked me, threatening my life and hitting me. As he turned, I saw his gun and knew there was no way I could do my job. I’d be lucky at that point to get out alive.
Excerpted from the forthcoming memoir, The Baggage Handler.