Sunday, January 12, 1997
It is half past 7 on a warm Friday morning. The clerks, secretaries, judges and executives of Mobile's city and county government drive past the Malaga Inn on oak-shaded Church Street, toward their desks in Government Plaza a block away.
Beneath the old hotel's wrought-iron railings and gaslit lamps, a Geo Prism pulls into the lot and parks beside a black Lexus.
A young, portly, bespectacled man walks out of the Malaga and pops open the Geo's hatchback. Inside are two large athletic bags, each filled, the man believes, with about 50 pounds of cocaine. He lifts one bag out and heaves it into the trunk of the Lexus.
The signal. Six months of finesse come to a climax with the bark of a walkie-talkie.
Unmarked cars screech into the lot, and lawmen rush the man, quickly arresting 25-year-old Eric Coalla of Miami. At the same time, across the street in the lobby of the towering Holiday Inn Downtown, undercover agents grab his brother, Alex.
Traffic is briefly routed away from the Malaga as agents retrieve the bags. ``We tried to keep it low key,'' recalls an undercover agent at the Malaga that morning, April 19. In the heart of Mobile during rush hour, a major drug bust begins and ends as downtown comes alive, and no one really notices.
In truth, the Coalla brothers had been caught months before, with a telephone call. Federal agents weren't responding to an alert tipster that warm morning at the Malaga. It was the agents who had delivered the cocaine.
Welcome to the shadows of the U.S. Customs Service, to Operation Skymaster, which with extraordinary stealth in a relatively small city has lured almost 200 men and women out of other states, Mexico, and Central and South America, and into shackles in Mobile.
Skymaster fights crime in Mobile, but not Mobile crime. Agents posing as shady importers haul drugs here by air or sea, for a price, then arrest the deal's architects. They target not growers or landowners or jungle lab workers, but smugglers: The airplane pilots and boat captains and, most importantly, their bosses.
Over the past year, for the first time, Skymaster agents past and present talked to the Mobile Register about the cases that, collectively, have gained them quiet prestige within federal law enforcement.
A recent review team from customs headquarters in Washington wrote that ``Skymaster has to be one of the showcase U.S. Customs operations.''
Ten years of victories have left the agents confident to do what would have been unthinkable eight, or five, or even two years ago: Tell war stories to a reporter.
But Skymaster is coming out of a turbulent period. In October 1995, the operation had all but shut down as agents hurried to complete or scuttle cases brought by three key informants who had turned on them.
The three -- Alejandro Benitez, Cecilio Saenz-Barria and Carlos Iglesias -- were arrested in November 1995. The aftershocks of their betrayal of the agents are still felt in Skymaster's most recent cases.
Similar operations come and go in south Florida, New York and California, but Skymaster has survived longer because of Mobile's relatively low profile as a port of entry.
Smugglers apparently know little of the city of 200,000 and haven't noticed that cocaine tends to disappear here. ``Their weak link is the transportation,'' said special agent Gary Wright, in charge of the Mobile customs office.
It's common knowledge in the drug underworld that U.S. sting operations are out there. Still, smugglers grow careless, eventually stepping outside of their trusted circles. ``You wouldn't think we could stay in business this long, but they need us,'' Wright said.
The irony of Skymaster's location is that Mobile, because of Skymaster, looks deceptively like an active drug port.
After Skymaster successes, local brass from customs and other agencies don coats and ties and give news conferences for the local media, answering questions about their latest seizure spread out before them. They usually leave out that Skymaster imported the drugs, then grabbed them soon after, only hinting at the whole story with phrases like ``ongoing undercover investigation.''
Ernst ``Jake'' Jacobsen was sick of being shot at, sick of lying awake at night in Miami with a pistol under his pillow. It was 1986. There was $500,000 waiting in Colombia for whoever could kill him.
The same bounty had been offered to the men who had recently pumped a dozen bullets into Jacobsen's best informant, Barry Seal, in Baton Rouge, La.
Jacobsen was 41. A friend in the Customs Service invited him to leave the Drug Enforcement Agency and relocate to Alabama.
``I jumped at it,'' recalled Jacobsen. (He and several other current or former agents consented to be interviewed or named in these stories because they no longer work undercover. Those agents who remain undercover agreed to interviews only if their identities were protected.) Jacobsen Sidebar
``Customs Service'' conjures images of polyester uniforms in airports. But Jacobsen knew undercover customs operations thrived in Miami and California. Why not Alabama? Jacobsen moved his wife and 8-year-old son to Mobile; he had three other grown children.
At the time Jacobsen moved, the Customs Service in Mobile acted mostly as a gatekeeper, watching the border and arresting anyone they caught with drugs -- a reactive force, overshadowed by the Coast Guard.
Jacobsen drafted a proposal to headquarters for startup money for an ambitious long-term undercover operation. It would be independent of the regular customs office in Mobile, a separate office where undercover agents would try to choke off the pipelines of the drug cartels.
It would become virtually self-sufficient, Jacobsen promised, paying its expenses with money it seized from ``dopers,'' the favorite term among agents for drug dealers, along with ``bad guys.''
``The reason we came up with it was really the audacity of it,'' recalled Wright, in charge of the Mobile office. ``No one would expect something like this in sleepy old Mobile.''
In early 1987, the Customs Service sent $397,000 to Mobile to launch Operation Skymaster, named by Jacobsen for the model of airplane used in one of his recent cases.
Two other agents -- Ernie Winberg and Sheila A. Agerton -- joined Jacobsen in a small rental office tucked in a lumber yard among the fast-food joints and Dollar Stores of Tillman's Corner outside of Mobile.
The agents opened bank accounts and obtained incorporation papers for their supposed import-export business. If a cartel ever ran a background check, it would find nothing unusual.
The agents assumed their roles: Ms. Agerton was the secretary, Winberg the middle-man, Jacobsen the owner. Their disguises were thin. Fake names, fake Social Security numbers, fake driver's licenses.
They rigged the place to record video and audio. A tiny camera and microphone were even tucked into the floral arrangement on Jacobsen's desk.
Open for business.
Undercover police depend on criminals to catch criminals.
Informants are a dirty necessity in law enforcement, often sleazier than the suspects they turn in.
There's a standard line that prosecutors use on juries during closing arguments: We would love to have called altar boys and nuns to the witness stand, but they haven't met many drug dealers. Yes, our witness is a criminal and a paid snitch -- and he knows of what he speaks.
Jacobsen's old Miami informants were no exception.
He relocated three of them to Mobile, paying them enough to make the trip well worth their while. One got $5,000 cash a month, the other two $3,000 a month, all with promised bonuses for convictions. (By comparison, the Customs Service office used to pay informants about $250 a case, Jacobsen said.)
The three informants' credibility came from past smuggling successes. Each had been to Colombia at least 30 times.
In time, the three informants became a network that stretched from Florida to California, through Mexico and into Central and South America.
The informants make the first contact with the dopers because they know where to find them. Agents do not. The informants know the discotheques and club parties and social circles of the targets. They gain their confidence and start the cases while agents wait and watch from outside until they're invited in.
Eventually, the dopers meet the agents, whom the informants introduce as importers of fruits, vegetables and, for the right price, narcotics. These meetings often take place in Mobile. Like any businessman, a doper likes to check out his new partners, and size up the destination for his precious cargo.
You've probably driven past without a second glance; a storefront in a strip-mall with a bland, forgettable name that suggests shipping or transportation.
Skymaster changes storefronts frequently. There have been several around the Mobile area since the first in Tillman's Corner.
The neighbors don't know the truth, or aren't supposed to, anyway.
In Tillman's Corner, Jacobsen recalled, the agents' high-frequency radio would intrude on a neighboring business' sound system: One minute, soothing Muzak; the next, pilots speaking Spanish. ``They never said anything about it.''
From a room in the back, cameras and hidden microphones recorded meetings when smugglers came to call. These recordings were generally excellent quality. Tapes from a 1990 case were good enough for Barbara Walters to air:
A Panamanian smuggler named Alfonso Mock Castillo met with the undercover Winberg to discuss plans to sneak not drugs, but illegal Chinese immigrants into the country.
The immigrants would be kept under guard until their relatives paid their fares, Castillo explained to Winberg in Spanish.
``He told them that if they try to escape and they don't pay,'' Winberg translated for a second agent in the room, ``he can't guarantee their lives. Something very bad might happen to them.'' Castillo nodded.
Wearing gold chains, pastel sport shirts and too much gut on his short frame, Winberg looked more like a swinger than a federal agent. That, coupled with his laid-back demeanor, put his targets at ease. The case was a success after Winberg flew the illegal immigrants into Fairhope from Panama as Castillo had wanted.
The video, along with news footage from Castillo's arrest, was used in a ``20/20'' segment on Chinese organized crime. Winberg's face was electronically blurred in the video. (Many of the immigrants applied for asylum.)
Every now and then, a regular person walks into the Skymaster storefront, Wright said. The would-be customer meets a secretary and a company president who quotes costs for shipping fruit or sugar or coffee. That's about as far as that goes.
``We don't treat our customers too good,'' Wright said.
The place is convincing enough to have attracted nighttime burglars, who recently made off with computer equipment and a printer.
The post is exhausting. Undercover work packs fast blasts of exhilaration not unlike a narcotic high, but consists mostly of long days and long nights planning a dozen possible outcomes to every step of the case, every phone call.
Operation Skymaster is a volunteer post. It's not for everyone. Two weeks of undercover-operatives training do not make an agent quick on his feet or less shakable in a shouting match with an angry dealer.
Drug smugglers are business people, and the agents must act as such. They keep it simple, don't assume fake personalities or fantastic cover identities.
``People see through that,'' one agent said. ``I just try to be who I am. The closer you can keep it to who you are, the better your chances are of not stepping on yourself down the road.
``You've got to think way ahead. If you say something early on, you've got to live with it later.
``It's basically making them like you, like, `He's cool; he can't be a cop.'''
Sometimes the doper asks right away: Are you a cop?
``A lot of them think that cops have to say they're cops,'' Wright said. ``They believe the things they see in movies.''
There is no talk of personal lives. ``I don't want to take you home and I don't want to go home with you,'' an undercover agent said. ``Somebody starts asking a bunch of questions, you back off, say, `Hey, are you a cop?'''
Getting the suspects on video, many times the backbone of the government's case, means getting them to the storefront. Unfortunately, this usually requires putting the targets up for the night and sweating through other niceties, like dinner, a nervous time for an agent working undercover in his own community.
``You're not going to take your wife to dinner at the same place where you take bad guys,'' an agent said. They sit with their backs to the wall in the posh Bienville Club, the popular Wintzell's American Steamer and other bustling eateries and pray that no one from their other lives walks in.
``Agents are so paranoid,'' Wright said, ``we don't even acknowledge each other in public.''
Across telephone lines and meeting rooms and seafood platters, the dopers and agents plan the load.
Sometimes the first meetings flop; the load's too small, the cost too high. The agents turn it down, walk away.
``Every time we've done that, they've called us back,'' an agent said. The agents have even given dopers their money back when a deal didn't work. Jacobsen recalled the ``screaming'' from his superiors when he refused to accept $275,000 from dopers because the deal was for $500,000.
Skymaster's first cases dealt with marijuana. ``We quit with grass altogether. Too much trouble,'' one agent said.
Now, it's all cocaine, coming by air or sea, or a combination of the two. Often, small planes fly the loads onto a remote runway in Mobile or Baldwin counties.
``They were always looking for a new area,'' the agent said of the dopers' preference for out-of-the-way airstrips. ``They'd spend a day or two up here, drive around. They wouldn't see any police, they'd say, `Hey, we like this.'''
Few drug planes are ever empty. Before trips south, the dopers take advantage of the lower prices and higher quality of U.S. goods, especially electronics, and send a shopping list to Mobile. Jacobsen recalls loading more than $100,000 worth of televisions, VCRs, Nintendo games, bicycles, cigarettes and booze onto a southbound flight.
Sometimes, the dopers have their pilots stop and refuel in Mexico. One of Skymaster's biggest cases was against Javier Antonio Prado-Cardona, known as ``El Tio,'' The Uncle, a transportation broker who controlled many hidden Mexican airstrips.
Other Skymaster cases involve boats that meet somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico to transfer the load. Here, the ``go-fast'' boats of TV dramas reign, speedboats and cigarette boats with two, three, even five outboard engines.
Commercial containers are also a popular carrier. Agents hide the kilogram bundles of cocaine -- about 2.2 pounds each -- behind a false wall in the front, then fill the 20-by-40-foot metal containers with legal cargo.
``I've unloaded 50,000 pounds of yuccas -- frozen yuccas -- to get to 500 kilos,'' Jacobsen said.
Finally, the drugs arrive. Time to close the case.
``That's when things go wrong,'' an agent said.
Consider Houston, December 1991.
Afterward, a 4-inch story on page 38 of the Houston Chronicle newspaper reflected the Houston police version of the events of that Saturday afternoon:
Narcotics police ``received information about suspicious activity'' in a southwest Houston neighborhood, the Chronicle reported. Police arrived in time to watch men move a large, green trunk from one van to another. The police followed and tried to stop the van with the trunk, but the driver fled. Police caught him, and about 50 kilograms of cocaine were ``found in the vehicle,'' the Chronicle story concludes.
Life should be so simple. What really happened:
Skymaster delivered 656 kilograms of cocaine, about 1,440 pounds, into the east Texas city in the middle of the long investigation of ``El Tio,'' who had paid undercover agents $300,000 to import the drugs. Tio's ``mules'' loaded the cargo into two vans that, the agents had been told, were destined for California.
The agents had planned to monitor the vans' progress toward California, where authorities waited to arrest the drivers. The agents were prepared for a long surveillance. ``We had coolers packed,'' one recalled. An agent's wife even baked banana bread.
But they got a shock when the vans instead pulled into two different Houston apartment complexes. Worse, one of the drivers loaded 50 kilograms, 110 pounds, into a third van that the agents knew nothing about, a Ford Aerostar. A driver climbed into the Aerostar and pulled away with a load of cocaine worth about $5 million on the streets.
``We've got to take that 50 down,'' one agent said. An unmarked car followed the van through heavy traffic for 10 or 12 miles until the suspicious Aerostar driver took a few quick turns. He realized he was being followed and took off at high speed through a residential neighborhood.
The van sped through a four-way stop sign. ``I'll never forget,'' a Mobile agent recalled, ``there was a little girl on a bicycle.'' She watched as the van and cars flew past.
The chase grew to about a dozen squad cars from Houston and its nearby townships. Taking a corner fast, one of the agents caught the banana bread in the back of the head. ``Hard as a rock,'' he said.
Overhead, a Houston police helicopter described the chase over the agents' radios.
``I could hear all the sirens,'' said an agent who listened from a communications car hanging back from the chase. ``It sounded like World War II.''
Suddenly, a local officer started shooting at the van, in traffic, trying to take out a tire. He was from a bedroom community outside Houston. ``That would be a little outside our policy,'' said Houston police Lt. Paul Lindsey, a month on the job at that time. Five years later, his wince was palpable on the telephone.
``The miracle of all miracles,'' an agent said: ``Those rounds went through the intersection and didn't hit anyone.'' That would have ruined Skymaster's standing record of no injuries.
But the officer did hit the tires, stopping the van. The 27-year-old driver bolted, and was caught soon after.
Fifty kilos recovered. Six hundred and six still to go.
The two original vans that held the bulk of the load hadn't left their respective apartment complexes. Houston police knocked on the door of one apartment where the operation's targets were sitting inside. The police said they'd gotten a suspicious call about a van.
``Can't help you, officer,'' one of the men said.
``Mind if we look around?'' an officer asked. They found a suitcase containing $240,552. The men in the apartment said they didn't know how it got there. The police took it.
``Um, could I get a receipt?'' one of the men asked. The officers wrote him one, then towed the cocaine-laden van from the lot on the pretense that it didn't have a proper parking sticker.
As for the van at the other apartment complex, ``we just stole it, basically,'' an agent said. They towed it away in the middle of the night.
All the drugs were recovered. No hint of federal involvement reached the news media, which reported the bare-bones version of the chase seen in the Chronicle. ``El Tio'' chalked up his loss to very, very bad luck. The case was intact.
``You can only plan so much,'' an agent said.
An 11th-hour surprise came closer to home in downtown Mobile, July 25, 1995, as agents scrambled to grab every copy of the Mobile Register they could lay hands on.
The ringleaders of a south Florida case were staying at the Holiday Inn Downtown on Government Street, finalizing delivery of more than 600 pounds of cocaine.
Undercover agents had accepted the load on a choppy, moonlit spot out in the Gulf, dragging the tightly wrapped sacks of cocaine through the water by a rope from a Colombian boat.
The agents had brought the drugs to Mobile and, after switching it with fake cocaine, ``sham,'' smoothly overcame one potentially disastrous glitch from two weeks earlier.
The targets had suggested paying for half the load, taking it to New York and selling it, then using the cash to pay the undercover agents for the other half that was waiting as collateral.
The agents couldn't make arrests immediately because they hadn't been paid. They couldn't let real cocaine leave Mobile. They couldn't let the sham get to New York or the game would be up.
Finally, they gave the sham to mules in a Ryder truck that was rigged with a surprise under the hood. On Interstate 85 near Newnan, Ga., an agent flipped a kill-switch and the truck stalled.
The drivers ran, leaving the load for local police to ``happen upon.'' A front-page headline on the July 19, 1995, Newnan (Ga.) Times-Herald read, ``150 kilos of cocaine found inside truck stalled along I-85.''
The agents, their cover intact, met with the targets and shrugged: ``Bad truck, I guess. Tough luck.''
But within days, the agents were caught off-guard by a headline in the Mobile Register. A front-page Register article told about a drug trial in Mobile federal court. The case at trial matched, in many ways, the undercover Skymaster case the agents were completing.
If the targets staying at the Holiday Inn read the story, it would sound a little too familiar, the agents feared. They scooped courtesy copies of the newspapers from the hotel's hallways, bought out the newspaper boxes on the sidewalk outside and, agents recalled, even cleaned out a street-vendor or two.
In the end, the undercover agents fade to the background.
Their presence at the arrests would be too disorienting for the target and too dangerous for the agent. They generally hang back and coordinate uniformed officers from the Customs Service and other agencies.
They reappear at Skymaster trials, rare of late. Most defendants look at the weight of the evidence against them -- the video, photos, probably the testimony of co-defendants, and maybe actual drugs -- and plead guilty.
``The cases are always so good and so tight, we seldom have trials,'' said Assistant U.S. Attorney Gloria Bedwell, who prosecutes most Skymaster cases in Mobile. ``The agents are so skilled, they know what kind of evidence we need to prove a conspiracy.''
Sitting at lunch in a restaurant recently, she imagined the reporter across from her was under investigation, and that she was an informant:
``If we were here, (an agent) would be parked down the street, filming you. If the snitch is wearing a wire,'' she said, pointing to her lapel, ``you're toasted.''
The proactive nature of undercover operations, in Mobile and larger cities, has raised the question of whether the government plays too great a role in the events that make their cases.
Undercover operations work under a unique philosophy within the realm of law enforcement. When somebody robs a bank or takes a life, police start at the scene of the crime and investigate from there.
``In drug cases, it's different,'' observed south Florida lawyer Roy J. Kahn, who defended a recent Skymaster defendant. Kahn was the U.S. attorney in Miami from 1982 to 1985, and has seen undercover operations from both sides.
``In drug cases, you have the people and you create the crime. The police actually participate in the crime. It's their boats, their people, their informants, their undercover agents,'' he said.
More than one of the 200 arrested Skymaster targets has considered an entrapment defense: That he was led into the scheme. To that, customs chief Wright answers, ``We don't look to set people up in the business. We look for people who are already in the business. What we try to do is put bad guys in jail.''
Catching an entire ``cell'' -- arresting, almost simultaneously, everyone from the driver who collects the dope to the broker who planned the deal -- prevents leaks and protects Skymaster.
In 10 years, the sting has netted almost 9,000 pounds apiece of cocaine and marijuana, 25 automobiles, six 18-wheeler trucks, $4.3 million and other fruits, like motorcycles, airplanes and, in an early marijuana case, gold coins. The drugs are eventually destroyed. The other stuff the government keeps or auctions off.
``On a national basis, we are one of many,'' Wright said. ``But it's unusual because most of these kinds of operations are in the places you would expect them.''
In 1987, few might have expected that Skymaster would last this long. Somewhere nearby, the store is still open, twinkling like a lighthouse across the Gulf.