February 26, 2010

Agent champions drug war teamwork

DAVID HENCH

— By

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John Patriquin /Staff Photographer;Friday. 01/22/2010. Officer Stephen Black receives the Officer of the Year Award from Chief James Craig as the Portland Police Dept. holds a recognition ceremony breakfast at the Eastland Park Hotel in Portland.

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — A terrified resident in Portland's Rosemont neighborhood told a 911 dispatcher that several screaming men with semi-automatic guns were coming into her apartment building.

Police responded with guns drawn and found a half-dozen heavily armed men, with other men lying face-down on the ground.

After a brief period of uncertainty, police determined that the gunmen were agents with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, and that the men on the ground were suspects in a trafficking ring.

The incident, which occurred in 2003, was not the only time a cold and sometimes contentious relationship has created a dangerous lack of coordination between federal and local authorities in Maine.

But that is changing.

Michael W. Wardrop, the DEA's new resident agent in charge in Maine, says a close working relationship among local, state and federal agencies is key to battling drug trafficking and the crime it spawns. His counterparts in law enforcement agree.

Wardrop has built a reputation for being adept at bringing agencies together to work on the complex and far-reaching problem of illegal drugs.

''No one agency can do it all. You need everyone to meet your goals and have your success stories,'' said Wardrop, a Bangor native who joined the DEA in 1989 in Connecticut.

Wardrop's presentations to state and local police start with a pair of slides. The first shows a pile of money and a pile of cocaine.

''That's what we're after,'' he says.

The next shows an iconic image of Germans knocking down the Berlin Wall.

''That's how we get there.''

Wardrop said the DEA needs the manpower and ground-level knowledge that local agencies have, and the DEA can offer access to intelligence-gathering techniques such as federal wiretaps and databases filled with information from across the globe.

Already, he has won approval from superiors for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency's participation in a DEA database, a pilot program that could be expanded.

''Everybody brings a resource to the table. Everybody has a different experience,'' he said during a recent interview at the agency's Portland office, in a nondescript professional building on outer Congress Street.

Wardrop, 44, has credentials to back up his talk. He spent the past four years in the DEA's special operations division, coordinating more than 100 law enforcement agencies at the local, state, federal and international levels in two of the country's biggest anti-drug operations.

In February, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the culmination of Operation Xcellerator, a 21-month investigation that led to 750 arrests, and the seizure of more than 23 tons of marijuana and cocaine and $59 million. The operation targeted the Sinaloa Cartel, a major Mexican drug-trafficking group.

A similar multi-agency investigation, Imperial Emperor, concluded in February 2007 with 400 arrests and the indictment of Victor Emilio Cazares-Salazar, allegedly a crime boss responsible for shipping thousands of pounds of cocaine and 1,000 pounds of methamphetamine into the United States.

Wardrop took over the Maine operation in May, which coincided with the arrival of James Craig, Portland's new police chief. Craig says he is more inclined to work with other agencies than his predecessors were, and he has met with Wardrop to discuss joint operations.

''We didn't do the best job of playing in the sandbox,'' Craig said of previous chiefs. ''It's been really a disservice to the citizens of Portland when you have an administration that really doesn't care about working with other agencies.''

Wardrop has made the rounds to many of the state's police agencies and the offices of the MDEA. ''A relationship is work. It's like a marriage. It takes work if you want it to work,'' he said.

Capt. Ted Ross was the last Portland officer to participate in a DEA task force, when he spent six years working undercover in the 1990s.

Interagency drug enforcement has historically faced challenges here and elsewhere, he said. There are different personalities, leadership styles and priorities. Major arrests and drug seizures can translate into more recognition and resources.

In the dangerous and secretive world of drug investigation, agents are hesitant to share information outside their own organizations, for fear an operation could be compromised, he said.

But that can be when cooperation is most important.

''Undercover operations are highly, highly dangerous when other agencies are not aware,'' Ross said. ''Having an operation go sideways and having people you don't know with guns can get bad quick. I don't see that happening anymore.''

Sharing information prevents agents from targeting other undercover agents or confidential informants, he said.

Wardrop wouldn't say how many agents the DEA has working in Maine, except to note that in addition to the main office in Portland, there is a duty post in Bangor.

Wardrop said he's happy to go from coordinating major anti-trafficking operations to running his own team in Maine, where busts typically involve grams or ounces instead of kilos.

It's all vitally important work, he said. Maine has an international border that serves as a conduit for drugs, and the money that buys drugs here makes its way back to Mexico and other countries, where it fuels violence.

Wardrop says that because he has already done his rotation through DEA headquarters, his assignment in Maine won't be brief and he will have the luxury of starting long-term initiatives and seeing them through.

Arresting local drug dealers and users is important for maintaining residents' quality of life, he said, but at the same time, police must pursue the suppliers, ''cutting the head off the snake -- otherwise it's going to regenerate and we'll be at it again.''

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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