February 2010

Operation Jihad - DEA (Part 3)

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr.


Illustration by: Dana Rose, Mine Studios

Last spring it was my pleasure and privilege to interview former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Larry McElynn and share my account of those conversations, Larry McElynn’s Stories from the DEA, in CH2’s May issue. In October ‘09, Larry introduced me to several of his former colleagues at the Association of Former Federal Narcotics Agents (AFFNA) annual conference held at Hilton Head’s Westin Resort. In this final installment of a three-part series taken from my interviews with those outstanding people, former Special Agents Richie Fiano and John Costanzo give us a glimpse into the intriguing, dangerous, and sometimes perversely amusing adventures of an undercover DEA agent. Many thanks to Richie, John, Larry, Bob Nieves, Jack Lawn, and Chuck Gutensohn for their contributions.

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It was dangerous. It was politically sensitive. It was bold. And it set the stage for DEA operations that continue today and have since evolved into parallel missions with the U.S. Military and Intelligence services.

In 1986 DEA Special Agent Richie Fiano headed to Pakistan to assume the number two position at DEA’s Islamabad office. The mission: cripple the heroin trade originating in that country and neighboring Afghanistan. “A lot of the opium was being grown in Pakistan, but the processing labs were all in Afghanistan, particularly in Kandahar and Helmand,” said Fiano, “areas that now are all Taliban infiltrated.

“They usually would be out there (in the labs) for 30 days at a time, and they’d process whatever heroin they had. Then they’d pick everything up and drive it out – usually south – and bring it across into Turkey by way of the tri-border area of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran for distribution throughout the Europe and the U.S.”

Around 1987-88 the chief of the Islamabad office, Chuck Carter, decided that DEA would go after those heroin labs. There was one major problem, though. The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan was going on at the time. If caught, an American agent would most likely be tried for espionage. Certainly an unpleasant prospect for the agent, not to mention the effect it would have on the era’s tenuous U.S. – Soviet relations. DEA would go in anyway, and the initiative became known as Operation Jihad.

“Chuck went to the Administrator, Jack Lawn, and they devised a plan to use local mujahideen as informants, and go into Afghanistan to hit those heroin labs,” said Fiano. “We’d send the informant in with his network and we’d give him a GPS. They’d get the coordinates for heroin lab locations and bring them back to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. We’d have the intelligence community verify by satellite that something was actually there, then we’d go in.”

Using Quetta, Pakistan as a staging area, Fiano, Carter, and 60 Afghan mujahideen would cross the border in the dead of night and spend two or three weeks at a time attacking the targets. “We’d go out with AK-47s dressed as mujahideen,” said Fiano. “I looked like an Arab and Carter looked kind of like a Russian. So we fit in pretty well. They just said, ‘let us do the talking,’ if we ever got stopped by border police or anything like that.”

In those days, there were no cell phones. There was no way to track the agents’ locations. Only DEA headquarters, the embassy (Islamabad) intelligence staff, and the ambassador knew that Fiano and Carter were out there. Except for the informant, not even their mujahideen cohorts knew they were U.S. federal agents. “If we ran into trouble, we had no tracking devices, no medevac. We were on our own,” said Fiano. “We went in with all the provisions that we needed…and one live goat.” The goat, as you might have guessed, was for food. The meat would go rancid in the hot sun, but there aren’t many choices in the Afghan desert. “You’d get pretty sick, but we ate it anyway.”

On this operation, Fiano and Carter were not out to make arrests or confiscate drug shipments as they might in U.S. based cases. The job here was to knock out the means of production. “When we hit a heroin lab, we’d go in there and seize the lab, make the operators sign a decree stating that heroin production violates the Quran, and warning them that if they got caught again, they would be subject to harsher penalties…even the death penalty,” Fiano said. “We took a kilo sample of heroin and burned the rest. Then we’d put RPG rounds through the lab and any vehicles that were there. In all we took out about 25 labs.”

DEA still runs operations in Afghanistan, but today they are called Foreign Advisory Support Teams (FAST), and they work side-by-side with the U.S. Military. FAST teams of 15 to 18 agents go in with helicopters, sophisticated communications equipment, and a bit more firepower than Fiano and Carter had during Operation Jihad. Their targets are the kingpins who help to finance Taliban and al Qaeda terrorist campaigns with drug money.

The perils of this mission became painfully apparent last October. DEA special agents Chad Michael, Forrest Leamon, and Michael Weston were killed when their chopper went down as they returned from a firefight with Taliban drug traffickers in western Afghanistan. They were part of a joint anti-drug operation between DEA, the U.S. Military and Afghan forces.

The Pizza Connection
Special Agent John Costanzo worked heroin cases from the other end of the pipeline. Going undercover in Europe, the United States, and South America, Costanzo infiltrated organized crime syndicates involved in drug distribution to the U.S. market. In contrast to Richie Fiano’s desert raids, Costanzo’s exploits read less like something out of a Tom Clancy novel and more like a good mob story.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, most of the heroin manufactured in Afghanistan and smuggled through Turkey made its way into either Germany or Italy. “It was at that time that the mafia started to get back into the heroin business,” said Costanzo. “They were sending heroin to the U.S. right from Palermo, Sicily.”

The kingpin in Palermo was one Gaetano “Don Tanino” Badalamenti. Known as the “boss of bosses” of the Sicilian mafia, or the “godfather of heroin,” Badalamenti controlled a $1.65 billion operation that used pizzerias throughout the Northeast and Midwest as fronts to distribute drugs and launder money. Aptly enough, this case was called the Pizza Connection.

“They sent it in by all kinds of shipments,” said Costanzo. “Cars, cruise ships, fly it into JFK in suitcases.” The drugs were also smuggled into the country in shipments of cheese, olive oil, or tomatoes. “We’re not talking thousands of kilos. With just a hundred kilos you can make a lot of money because the price is astronomical.

“All these Sicilian immigrants would open up pizzerias. You’d have a Sicilian guy, doesn’t speak a word of English, and he opens a pizzeria in West Virginia. They’d bring the heroin in, sell it through the pizzerias and send the money back to Palermo.”

American mobsters referred to these Sicilian “entrepreneurs” as “zips.” A member of the Bonanno family was once quoted as saying: “The zips were clannish and secretive…the meanest killers in the business.” Many of them were Badalamenti’s nephews.

At the time Costanzo was stationed in Europe, working mostly on cases involving Turkish and Lebanese traffickers who were bringing in the southwest Asian heroin. His Italian ancestry and language skills made him the perfect fit for undercover work posing as an Italian. “I looked the part,” he said.

Working undercover like this is more than looking the part, speaking the language, and using a fake name, though. You have to create an entire persona – an alter ego – complete with a fabricated personal history, amusing anecdotes that make you sound like you’ve “been there, done that.” You can’t just drop names, you’ve got to know people, or at least have somebody who can vouch for you. An undercover agent actually lives in the world he is trying so hard to destroy. The bad guys have to believe that you’re one of them.

“We ingratiated ourselves with a bunch of Italians in Germany and started developing a relationship with a guy in Munich,” said Costanzo. “We start talking to him. We were creating some bona fides…establishing who you are.”

Once Costanzo and his “crew” had built the necessary credibility, a case started to develop. The subject in Germany wanted to introduce them to some connections in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, just outside of Philadelphia. “Loaded with pizzerias and loaded with Italians,” Costanzo said. “So we go to New Jersey.”

The connection in Cherry Hill turned out to be a fellow by the name of Salvatore Sollena. “He was what they called a young turk,” said Costanzo, which loosely translates to “incorrigible youth.” Sollena was the big talking, fast living, rules-don’t-apply-to-me kind of guy who gave the old-school mafioso types a lot of headaches. He got away with it for a while, though. His uncle was a pretty important guy…Don Tanino Badalamenti.

Costanzo and his fellow agents had just walked through the front door of the Pizza Connection.

“We met Salvatore in Atlantic City. He was always in Atlantic City,” said Costanzo. “We go into the casino and he’s at the baccarat table. He’d spend $50 thousand a pop. He’d been warned by other members of the family to stop that because he was drawing a lot of attention, but he didn’t want to hear it. So he continues on like a wild man.”

Eventually, Costanzo and his associates negotiated a deal with Sollena to buy five kilos of heroin. Of course, they had to spin a story explaining why they came all the way from Italy to New Jersey to buy stuff that was coming from Italy in the first place. “We just told him that we were in the country doing business with some people in Cleveland and it was for them,” said Costanzo. Good enough. They headed home to Milan after making the deal.

Meanwhile, other DEA agents from New York were also en route to Milan with an informant. They had been working a heroin trafficking case of their own, and it was also tied in to the Pizza Connection ring. In an operation with the Italian police, those agents seized a 40-kilo shipment headed for New Jersey. Costanzo’s five-kilo deal with Sollena was part of the shipment. Now, Costanzo had to play it like he was wondering what happened to his delivery.

“We called him up. ‘Salvatore, what’s going on?’”

“It’s very cloudy in the mountains. I can’t see the light,” Sollena replied.

Obviously, he was saying that something had gone wrong, but Sollena wasn’t only upset that a shipment had been lost. He had been told by his superiors in Palermo to expect a 10-kilo delivery. Apparently, they did not trust him to handle the full 40 kilos. Solleno saw it as an insult – a slap in the face – and his ego got the better of him. “He finds out it was 40, when he thought it was 10, and he starts mouthing off,” said Costanzo. He got brave. I am who I am because of my uncle and all that stuff.”

The family had had enough and decided to shut Sollena’s mouth for him.

“They decided that they had to silence him because he was being such a pain in the ass with the gambling and incidents like this one. You know…it’s bad for business,” Costanzo explained. “So what do they do? They take him down the Garden State Parkway, put two in his head, then put him in a garbage bag and dump him by the side of the road. Three days later, they get his brother, put two in his head, take him down the Parkway in a garbage bag and dump him about half a mile from his brother.”

In 1987, after a 17-month trial, Badalamenti and some two-dozen co-conspirators were convicted under RICO conspiracy laws. Of course, Badalamenti denied any involvement until the end. “Drugs are bad for business. The money was never worth the risk. Only greedy pigs touched drugs. Not men of honor,” he was quoted as saying. He got 45 years anyway, and died in prison in 2004 at the age of 80.

Costanzo, who testified three times in the case, is pleased with the outcome. “We got 40 kilos. He ended up in a garbage bag. The rest went to jail.”

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