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Puerto Rico Profile: Julio Mercado

January 12, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The new movie Traffic is a long, artful examination of the so-called "war on drugs" in the United States and Mexico. The film weaves together several stories. Mexican policemen patrol the streets of Tijuana, DEA agents trail drug traffickers in Southern California, the idealistic new head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy steps into the world of Washington politics, and privileged teenagers experiment with narcotics in the Midwest. These various threads create a mosaic of the dangerous, frustrating, sometimes misguided, but eminently necessary fight to stop the importation and abuse of illegal drugs in the United States.

For many people in the U.S., a movie like Traffic is a startling introduction to the vast scope of our nation’s drug problem. For Julio Mercado, Deputy Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), it is practically a laundry list of the jobs he has held and the challenges he has faced throughout his career.

Mercado, 51, has spent his entire adult life — including more than twenty years with the DEA — dedicated to keeping drugs off our streets and away from our children. A native of Puerto Rico, he is one of the top drug enforcement officers in the nation. Unlike many political appointees, however, he is not a career administrator. He worked his way up through the ranks, gaining firsthand experience of the risks and rewards of field work, and earning the respect of his fellow agents.

Mercado’s career has taken him to some of the key points of the drug trade in the United States and around the world. A graduate with a degree in criminal justice from John Jay College in New York City, he entered law enforcement as an officer in the New York Police Department. That job led him to the DEA, founded by President Nixon in 1972, where he worked as a Special Agent in New York and San Juan, and as Group Supervisor at the DEA’s McAllen, Texas, field office.

His years as an agent in the field gave him an intimate knowledge of the street-level drug trade. "You woke up early in the morning to follow the heroin dealer, and you put him to bed at night," he said later. "In between, you find out about his friends, the telephone calls, the restaurants and all the other stops."

Mercado also gained a valuable understanding of the international dimension of the drug trade, which has expanded greatly in the last two decades. One of his investigations into heroin trafficking in the early ‘80s led all the way to Lebanon, which had never been known as a source for drugs. Today, crime syndicates in the Middle East, as well as in Southeast Asia and Latin America, directly control the importation and distribution of heroin, cocaine, and other drugs in the United States.

"When many Americans express frustration about the problems of drug trafficking and violent crime in their communities," Mercado told a congressional committee in 1997, "they focus their attention on what is visible to them: the crack dealer on the corner, or the police officer murdered on the nightly news. They seldom associate these realities as an extension of organized criminal group activity … based on foreign soil."

Julio Mercado went to Washington in 1990 to take a management position, having participated in over 700 drug busts. He initially served as Staff Coordinator for the Heroin Section at DEA Headquarters. Two years later, he became the DEA’s Deputy Chief of Special Operations.

In 1995, Mercado was transferred to San Juan to assist in the establishment of the new Caribbean Division, one of 21 regional divisions of the DEA throughout the United States. During his time in Puerto Rico, he acted as Assistant Special Agent in Charge, which made him second in command of the entire division.

He was promoted in 1997 to the extremely challenging and high profile position of Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the DEA’s Dallas Division, which includes some 300 agents and investigators and has jurisdiction over most of North Texas and Oklahoma. This region, home to the country’s second-largest airport and several major interstate highways, has been called the crossroads of drug trafficking in the United States. According to one Dallas Police Department narcotics sergeant, "It’s easier to distribute [drugs] from Dallas than from anywhere else in the country."

To complicate matters, Mercado took the position at a time when the Dallas division was struggling with internal scandals and the increasing sophistication of international drug cartels. He came to the job well-equipped, however, with a wealth of experience and an excellent reputation. A contributor to DEA Watch, a web site dedicated to informal discussion between agents, wrote, "Julio Mercado is a great guy and a fine manager with the plus that he is an ‘old school’ agent who believes in doing his job."

With Mercado at the helm, the Dallas Division was able to turn around a record of mismanagement and stagnant arrest and seizure statistics. 1998, his first full year as Special Agent in Charge, marked a 400% increase in drug seizures in North Texas. There was also a series of heroin busts at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, a key hub of the drug trade. In 1999, under Mercado’s supervision, North Texas was given high priority and declared a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a designation which provided an influx of much-needed federal funds.

On March 22, 2000, President Clinton named Julio Mercado the Deputy Administrator of the DEA. This position makes him the second-in-command of a federal agency with a billion dollar budget and field offices and agents all over the world.

Mercado recently announced the successful completion of "Operation Journey," a sweeping, international investigation into a group of drug smugglers that necessitated the cooperation of three U.S. anti-drug agencies and authorities in 12 countries. It culminated in the seizure of almost 25 tons of cocaine and the arrest of 43 suspects, including the group’s alleged ringleaders. Mercado, saying that today’s gangs are simply "too powerful for one nation to fight alone," applauded the cooperative effort.

"Operation Journey is one of the best examples in recent memory of law enforcement agencies working together," he said. "It dealt a really crippling blow to a major drug transportation organization that smuggled multi-tons of cocaine … into at least 12 countries."

Soon after Operation Journey was completed, Mercado announced another major drug bust, this one involving 45 arrests and ten tons of cocaine. Speaking to reporters, he summed up the purpose of his long and fruitful career. "Tonight many parents in Europe and the United States will rest easier," he said, "because these drug dealers can no longer harm their children."

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