Clear and present danger

There are enough theories to fill a Tom Clancy novel. Was agent Frank Moreno another casualty in America's covert war against the drug cartels? Was he caught in the crossfire between the CIA and Colombian guerillas? Or was he simply one of the 27,000 people murdered every year in the most violent country on earth?
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Frank Moreno, an agent of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), knew he was heading into the lion's den when he was assigned to the Colombian capital, Bogota. The posting is known among US officials, in particular CIA and DEA agents, as "the greatest laxative in the foreign service". With billions of dollars at stake, Colombian drug lords do not pussyfoot with anyone trying to put them out of business.

Moreno had seen the movie, Clear and Present Danger, from the Tom Clancy novel, several times, and knew that it was not far-fetched. In the film, CIA agent Jack Ryan, played by Harrison Ford, is involved in a bloody shoot-out with drug cartel hitmen in the streets of Bogota. In real life, it would have been the DEA, not the CIA, who chased the bad guys in Colombia.

As things turned out, Moreno, a 37-year-old newly-married Texan, survived the undercover operations he took part in, posing as a drug dealer to buy cocaine and leading to the arrest of several middlemen. Like most DEA agents in Colombia and the rest of Latin America, Moreno was Hispanic himself, a fluent Spanish-speaker from an area of Texas that was part of the Mexican empire until the middle of the last century. When he was gunned down in a Bogota street in the small hours of last Sunday, it apparently had nothing to do with drugs.

Moreno was a motorcycle fan, and a Harley-Davidson aficionado in particular. On Saturday night, he had gone to the El Divino nightclub, in the heart of Bogota's Zona Rosa, or Pink Zone, of bars, clubs and late-night restaurants, to hang out with fellow bikers and admire the wheels parked on the pavement outside.

Neither US nor Colombian officials would confirm it, but the DEA agent almost certainly had his Glock automatic pistol in a holster in the back of his belt. Whether he used it, no one yet knows. All police would say was that an argument ensued in the club, he and another customer went outside and the the latter pulled out a pistol and opened fire.

Hit in the stomach, Moreno fell, mortally wounded, alongside a row of Harley-Davidsons on Highway 12 and was pronounced dead on arrival in hospital. He became just another murder statistic in Colombia, one of around 27,000 murder victims this year, if last year's statistics are anything to go by.

After the initial shock, officials at the US embassy in Bogota, where Moreno had his office, almost expressed relief when they realised that the agent had not been killed by the drug cartels or the heavily-armed Marxist guerrillas who control around half of Colombian territory.

The drug lords, who have been keeping a lower profile since the death in 1993 of the Medellin cartel boss, Pablo Escobar, had been threatening the 50 or so DEA agents in Colombia for years with anonymous phone calls and letters, but had held off carrying out such threats. The last time DEA agents were shot in Colombia was in 1982 when two undercover agents investigating a marijuana smuggling ring in the port of Cartagena were shot and wounded in an attack reminiscent of the ambush in Clear and Present Danger.

But the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) declared war earlier this year on CIA and DEA agents, as well as American military advisers, accusing them of helping the Colombian army to put down the guerrilla insurgency. The American agents and advisers would therefore be considered "legitimate military targets," the FARC commander, Fabian Ramirez, said. The guerrillas say DEA agents, rather than simply fighting a war against drugs, use American technology, such as images from satellites or high-flying Awacs spy planes, to inform the Colombian military of guerrilla movements. They say American helicopters sold to Colombia, ostensibly to help in the anti-narcotics war, are often used against the rebels.

As a result of the twin threat from drug lords and guerrillas, DEA men in Colombia now take extraordinary security measures. They have specially- trained local drivers who take them to work in armour-plated cars, varying their route and usually using the embassy's back gate. Agents routinely reach for their pistols at traffic lights if a motorcycle pulls up alongside. The drug cartels have traditionally used motorcycle sicarios (hitmen) to kill their targets, including policemen, military officers and politicians.

A few years ago, it was possible for a visiting British journalist to set up an appointment with the DEA "station chief" in the embassy for a background briefing. A former station chief in Bogota, Joe Toft, a tall, lanky, Clint Eastwood lookalike in snakeskin cowboy boots, was a favourite source of information about the Colombian drug trade for journalists. Not any more. The DEA keeps itself to itself, although its younger agents can often be recognised by their Miami Vice-style designer jackets, T- shirts and slip-on shoes without socks. To be accepted by the drug dealers on undercover work, they have to look like them, gold chains and all. Like the CIA, the DEA also uses "front" companies to infiltrate its targets. A lot of American companies in Bogota have a high proportion of muscular, short-haired men of military-style bearing.

When Moreno was assigned to Bogota, he would have known all about the case of Enrique "Kiki" Camarena. Camarena was a DEA agent in Mexico in the mid-Eighties at the time when a man called Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo led the biggest drug cartel, moving Colombian cocaine across the Mexican border into the US. After Camarena's cover was blown, Felix Gallardo had him kidnapped, tortured and killed. Tapes of his torture are played to budding DEA agents as a warning that the job is no picnic.

"I've been in shootouts in the US and overseas. I've had guns stuck against my head while I was undercover," said retired DEA agent, Billy Mitchell, who preceded Camarena as DEA agent in the Mexican city of Guadalajara in the early Eighties. "There was a contract out on me in Guadalajara and I had to be pulled out.

"The DEA leads all other federal agencies in the number of cases of shootings against their agents. As an agent, going through any door can be traumatic. There's always the element of uncertainty as to what's waiting for you behind it."

Mitchell said he knew little about Sunday's Bogota shooting, but he noted that "alcohol and guns don't mix", with reference to an incident in Miami last Christmas, when a DEA agent shot his partner dead. Agent Richard Fekete had been drinking so heavily at a party that his partner, Shaun Curl, put him in his car to sleep it off.

No one is exactly sure why, but when Curl later went back to the car to drive him home, Fekete woke up with a start and shot his friend. Before

convicting him of murder, the court was told Fekete had been having a nightmare about being shot at.

"There are a lot of wealthy people involved in the drugs business. The stakes are high," said Pam Brown, a DEA agent in Miami. "You're taught. You're trained to take risks. You try to minimise them, but there's always a danger there." Brown described one undercover operation she went on in Miami, posing as a drug purchaser, supposedly delivering hundreds of thousands of dollars for a cocaine package.

"I was up against an Italian gang. I had the supposed money in a gym bag, which was actually stashed with paper but weighted properly to feel like the right amount," she said. "We had people on surveillance in the area but you never know how it's going to turn out. I handed over the bag and got out quickly. You try to minimise the danger but it's always there. It's a very exciting job."

Brown was involved in a major sting operation in Miami last year, uncovering a drug smuggling ring in a local secondary school. The school's assistant principal, Willie James Young, 53, was sentenced on Monday to 30 years in jail for the distribution of large amounts of cocaine on behalf of the Florida drug lord, Luis Cano. Cano was jailed for life earlier this year for importing an estimated 10 tons of Colombian cocaine into the US during the past decade.

After the sting pointed to the involvement of a police chief in Detroit and a former federal prosecutor in Miami, the DEA agents received death threats and had to move their families to secret locations.

Agent Brown carries her pistol in her handbag wherever she goes. "I've seen agents shot at. I've seen agents killed. But you believe in what you're doing. You're getting drugs off the streets. You feel you're giving something back to society."