Larry McElynn: Undercover Man
Author: Frank Dunne, Jr. | Photographer: John Brackett
“Twenty years ago in America, if you mentioned that somebody had a drug problem to someone you knew, they probably didn’t know who you were talking about. If you came home and said, ‘so-and-so overdosed on drugs,’ they would have a hard time putting a face with the name. These days in America, it’s someone in your family; it’s your son or your daughter; it’s your brother or your sister, your mother or your father, your uncle, someone on your street, or a friend of your child. When someone comes home these days in America and says, ‘so-and-so has a drug problem,’ you know exactly who it is. So much has changed in America.”
That’s what Larry McElynn, a 10-year Hilton Head resident and managing director of local security consultants, Advance Point Global, had to say about the upward trend in drug use and abuse in the United States. He was giving a lecture entitled, “World Drug Overview,” to a group of gentleman in Indigo Run. The presentation was a whirlwind tour around the world and through history. Fascinating as it was, the only conclusion to be drawn is a very ugly picture.
Part of the problem is what McElynn calls inattentive blindness. “You don’t really see the things you don’t want to see, because your mind shuts it down. The distance kind of makes us feel safe,” he said in reference to our tendency to turn a blind eye to that which we find unpleasant or disturbing. The sad part is, that distance is an illusion. The unpleasant disturbing issue of drug trafficking and the destruction of lives and other mayhem that it brings is present to one degree or another in practically every American community.
“If I don’t admit it, it will never happen,” is the faulty logic that too many people apply, according to McElynn. Then, when the problem lands on their front doorstep, they don’t know what to do. “This is so pervasive in America today; so many people are affected by it,” he said. McElynn is trying to change those attitudes.
“There are forces out there that we are not reckoning with,” he said. “There is a threat out there that needs to have greater attention paid to it, but that most people tend not to deal with. It’s happening in our community, in a larger sense, in our region and our state, and on a national level.”
Larry McElynn should know. Before retiring here in 1999, he served for 30 years as an undercover agent and in executive roles for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). McElynn is largely responsible for changing DEA’s culture, spearheading its transformation from a locally focused mission of busting street level dealers to a well-coordinated, national and worldwide network targeting the drug world’s upper levels of command and control.
Yes, he was one of those guys spending hours on end on stakeout in a hot, sweaty van. He wore a wire while sitting down to dinner with wealthy drug traffickers whose girlfriends and wives always suspected you of being a cop. And, yes, the wires did short out from time to time, burning the skin and cutting you off from your backup. But those were the early days.
Today, McElynn works to impart the knowledge gained from his DEA experience to the public with the hope that informed communities will be better prepared to turn back this invading monster. He volunteers much of his time to speak to students and parents throughout the Lowcountry about drug awareness and prevention, and he provides drug enforcement training to the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.
McElynn has received a number of accolades over the years for his efforts. In 2001, Governor Jim Hodges and the South Carolina Year of the Child committee recognized him as a Community Hero. In 2002, McElynn received a Palmetto Serves award from the State Department of Education. In 2003, Governor Mark Sanford awarded McElynn the Order of the Silver Crescent—South Carolina’s highest honor for volunteer and community service.
Like his World Drug Overview presentation, the story of McElynn’s career with DEA is a fascinating journey. That he is a good storyteller makes his accounting that much more fun and exciting to hear, but this is no Brian DePalma film. This is real life.
The early years
When McElynn started with DEA, drug enforcement in the United States operated on a much smaller scale than today. That it has become such a vast operation is an unfortunate, but necessary consequence of the growth of drug trafficking. “I joined DEA in 1969 and stayed there for 30 years until 1999, and I never saw it get better during the years that I was there. It didn’t seem that anything we did was making a difference,” he said.
“In the ’70s, I started working in New York City. Drug enforcement in those days was looked at as a regional kind of issue, which is very different from the way it is now,” McElynn explained. Strange as it sounds today, agents in New York rarely even spoke to fellow agents in Boston, for example, and would never speak to anybody in Florida or California. “It just wasn’t a nationally addressed issue in those days. We only had about 400 agents at the time. Now we have over seven thousand,” he added.
McElynn characterizes DEA in his early days as a “buy and bust” organization. “We’d buy drugs from a guy, then we’d buy some more. The third time we’d order a lot that we never intended to actually purchase (because we didn’t have the budget), and we’d bust him,” he said. “We’d ask the guy who was supplying him and then go after that guy.”
The resources at DEA agents’ disposal, as well as the strategic and tactical thinking in those days would seem primitive, even to the inexperienced eye. “Back in the day, the government would buy us the cheapest cars they could get. One day about 30 AMC Javelins showed up. 30 cars exactly the same,” said McElynn. “Six or eight of us would go out on surveillance, following a guy, and we’re all driving Javelins. How stupid is that? We’re the only ones in the city driving these Javelins, so a guy looks in his rearview mirror and sees six Javelins!
“It was a very unsophisticated way of doing business. The traffickers were always one step ahead of us because they had no geography, no boundaries, no jurisdictions, no bureaucracy and they didn’t answer to anybody. On the other hand, we had to rely on others to give us what we needed to do our jobs.”
Larger operations weren’t much more exciting. For example, on one Saturday morning in May of 1971, McElynn was on his way out the door to play tennis when the phone rang. As it turned out, every agent on the East Coast who could be reached was being ordered to report to the State Department in Washington. “We had to get there as quickly as possible,” said McElynn. “They said, ‘Don’t bring any identification. No guns, no badges, nothing that would identify you as a law enforcement officer. When you get there, we’ll explain everything.’
“So we were all driving down the New Jersey Turnpike and everybody was going pretty fast—they told us to get there as quickly as we could—and we got pulled over by the state troopers. My partner had hidden his badge in his boot, so he showed it to the trooper and told him we were ordered to go to Washington. He said, ‘How many of you guys are going?’ We said, ‘We don’t know. Why?’ He says, ‘Because we’ve been stopping people all day here speeding to Washington, all telling the same story!’”
Eventually, about a hundred agents assembled in an auditorium at the State Department and received their instructions. A Viet Nam War protest was to take place the following Monday. The plan was to gather on the Mall in Washington over the weekend and, on Monday, the protesters were going to close down the city by blocking all of the bridges coming into town. “They had a permit to come in and have this gathering. One of the prohibitions in the permit was that they were not allowed to have any drugs on the Mall. We knew that there would be a lot of drug use anyway,” McElynn explained.
The agents were ordered to blend in and infiltrate the group, buy as many drugs as they could, then bring them back to the auditorium. Each agent was given $100 and a bent penny, which they were to use to identify themselves as undercover operatives should they encounter any law enforcement.
“A few of us went up to the Lincoln Memorial to get our bearings,” said McElynn. “We saw thousands of people in tents and walking around in the rain and mud. I approached a uniformed cop and said, ‘Excuse me, officer. Does this mean anything to you?’ and showed him my bent penny. He looks at me and says, ‘How’d you like me to shove that up your ass?’” Apparently he didn’t get the message.
“So off we went. It was really easy. As it turned out, we didn’t even need the $100. Everybody was drunk, stoned, or sick, and they would just give you the stuff. So we got all of the drugs that we needed, then reconvened at the State Department at 4 a.m. with piles of drugs. We didn’t arrest anybody. Our job was to catch the group in violation of the permit.”
The next morning, the protestors awoke to find the Mall surrounded by buses with only one way out. Then, helicopters came in from the Pentagon with loudspeakers announcing that the permit has been revoked and everybody had to leave. Most complied, and those who didn’t were arrested and herded into a temporary jail at RFK Stadium.
“We went back to the State Department and they said, ‘Okay, you’re done.’ So we headed home. We even picked up some of the protestors who were hitch hiking back home,” McElynn said. The protest never happened, and Monday was just another workday in Washington. It became known to McElynn and his fellow agents as “Operation Bent Penny.”
Another major change that has occurred since those early days is the means by which drug traffickers handle their money. They have become more sophisticated, and DEA had to follow suit to keep up. “We used to find huge amounts of cash. In the old days it wasn’t unusual to find $100,000 wrapped in tin foil in a freezer,” said McElynn. “Or you’d find an unlocked house and find $5-6 million in cash in duffel bags waiting to be transported. There was so much money that they had to rent houses and apartments just to stash it until they could move it. It had to be moved physically in those days. Now they do a lot of it electronically and you have to know how to work the banking system to know what to look for.”
One time, McElynn and his partner were arresting an individual whom they had pulled over in his car. There was a large duffel bag in the back seat. “I asked the guy what’s in the bag?” said McElynn. “He says, ‘I don’t know. It’s not mine.’ So I asked him, ‘Whose bag is it?’ ‘I don’t know. Must be yours,’ he says. We opened the bag and there was about a half a million dollars in there. It’s incredible, the amounts of cash we used to find.”
The early ’70s was when things really started to change. Buy and bust was becoming less effective as the drug organizations became larger and more sophisticated, particularly the Columbians. Things became more dangerous and violent as well.
“In the early days, when you told people that they were under arrest, for the most part they would come along peacefully. But then as that decade unfolded (the ’70s) people started to get a lot more violent, particularly when the South American organizations came in. Down in Miami, they would pull into a parking lot and spray everybody trying to take out a guy that they didn’t like. They didn’t care who they killed.
“You started to wear vests, started to carry more weaponry, better weaponry—the .38 wasn’t going to do it anymore. There weren’t enough rounds in there.
“There is a famous story of an agent who arrested a guy up on Broadway. The guy reached down and went for a gun so the agent shot him, and he emptied his weapon. He had a semi-automatic and fired nine rounds into the guy, but didn’t kill him. So they went to trial, and the defense attorney asked the agent on the stand why he shot the man nine times. ‘Because I ran out of bullets,’ was his answer.”
Although there were many other factors involved, McElynn points to two individuals who were largely responsible for the explosion in drug trafficking. George Jung pioneered the use of airplanes to move marijuana from Mexico throughout the U.S. He was eventually caught and sent to prison. McElynn had an opportunity to interview Jung while he was in jail. “I would characterize him as dumber than a tree, but he had a great ability to organize and transport things,” said McElynn. “He made a fortune transporting marijuana in the early days of drug use.”
As fate would have it, Jung’s cellmate was a fellow by the name of Carlos Lehder. Lehder came from a wealthy South American family, and had ties to the Columbian cocaine trade. The two became friends, and when they got out of prison, Lehder introduced Jung to the infamous Ochoa brothers and Pablo Escobar, founders of the Medellin Cartel. This meeting of the minds developed a way to transport large quantities of cocaine by air to the U.S., thousands of pounds at a time. At the same time that this was going on, Southwest Asian heroin started coming into the U.S. through Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now we had a global presence for the drug trade and drug enforcement would have to change to meet this new challenge.
Thus, 1973 saw a sea of change in how DEA would operate. “There was a whole group of us who were hired in the late ’60s who were college graduates, which was a different group of people than they normally had in the organization,” said McElynn. “We came with a different kind of attitude, and we weren’t satisfied that ‘three buys and a bust’ was the way to go. We saw it as a national, global thing. We were interested in going after the kingpins and the people at the top who were insulated from the day-to-day activities of the drug trade. So we looked into using the conspiracy laws.
“We were gathering evidence about the activities of the group because, in a conspiracy operation, everybody is responsible for the actions of everybody else, even if they don’t know each other. We managed to bring a lot of people into court without any drug evidence—without them ever touching drugs or meeting an undercover agent. It was a radical change in law enforcement in the United States, and other organizations got involved. We even taught the FBI how to make drug conspiracy investigations.
“That was a pretty dramatic time for me because I ran that operation as a young agent. I wasn’t even 30 years old, and I was directing activities on a worldwide basis for a lot of different cases and investigations.
“DEA created a ‘conspiracy school,’ and I ran that for about five years. I was the lead instructor. We taught how to build drug conspiracy cases. We left behind the buy and bust mentality and the whole organization started focusing on bringing down the kingpins. We taught the school all over the world. I taught in Australia. I taught in Canada. I taught at Interpol. I mean, I went everywhere and told people about this concept and a lot of people embraced it and started using it. It really changed the way drug law enforcement was looked at by a lot of different people. We kept cutting off toes, but we never cut off the head.” Now, they were cutting off the heads.
“We used banking records, wire taps, and we did a lot of innovative things that had never really been done as frequently that are standard operating procedure now.”
“Today, 30 years later, we are light years beyond what we were doing back then, especially with technology. We’re intercepting conversations all over the world with satellites,” said McElynn. “DEA’s got a special operations division that’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. What they have today came from the concept of conspiracy investigation as a tool in drug law enforcement that began with a small group of guys who saw the potential and tried to get an organization to change its direction.”
Although his pioneering changes at DEA made significant impact (they did eventually crush the Columbian cocaine air traffic into the U.S.), this in an enemy that never sleeps. There is still plenty of cocaine coming into the country and it is coming by land over the Mexican border. If we are to win this war, McElynn sees a “three-legged stool” strategy as the way to do it. The three legs are:
Prevention. “We’re not spending enough time on prevention and education. If you wait much past the third grade to get a message out to kids, you’re going to lose a whole generation. I don’t think we have well-developed programs for drug education. That’s number one.”
Treatment. “People who have a problem need to be able to get treatment, and I don’t know that we have enough respect in this country for treatment programs. We tend to think of these people as losers and as sociopaths who get what they deserve, but that’s not necessarily true. A lot of it is a disease that needs to be treated.”
Enforcement. “On the enforcement side, we have a very porous border. Our big problem is our land border. Airports are not our problem. It’s containers and it’s containers on wheels, and that’s essentially seaports and land borders. Until we are better able to search those containers and those containers on wheels and seal the borders more adequately, we’re never going to be able to address this issue.”