Riding Shotgun with the FBI: How a Car Showroom Became a Sting Operation

Listen to former FBI Agent Michael McGowan’s True Spies podcast: The Purple Bathrobe

Michael McGowan was tasked with taking down the Sinaloa cartel, one of the most powerful and dangerous international drug trafficking syndicates in the world. But first, he needed to master FBI tradecraft. 

When you're an FBI agent, it’s easy to get consumed by cases and think about them non-stop. That was Michael McGowan’s predicament when he was a newbie agent juggling work and his young family. 

Michael enjoyed his time on the Special Weapons and Tactical (SWAT) team and, a few years into his service, he took on an undercover operation where he found his calling. It was the late ‘80s and he worked in an area of Philadelphia called ‘The Badlands’ that was notorious for its narcotics markets and drug-related violence. 

I had probably five years on at the time. I was the case agent,” McGowan told the True Spies podcast. ”You make all the major decisions.”

In those days, drug traffickers were building hidden compartments inside of vehicles to hide drugs from search dogs and prying FBI agents. The Bureau had seized a couple of modified cars when Michael came up with a ruse that would enable the FBI to infiltrate the city’s trafficking gangs.

I had the idea that if the FBI made our own, sold cars - what they called ‘load cars’ - that we could track drug organizations and drug shipments using our cars,” he said. “So we had a legitimate auto-body company build our hidden compartments for us.”

Ex-FBI Special Agent Michael McGowan: Would you buy a car from this man?




Riding Shotgun with the FBI: How a Car Showroom Became a Sting Operation

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Listen to former FBI Agent Michael McGowan’s True Spies podcast: The Purple Bathrobe

Michael McGowan was tasked with taking down the Sinaloa cartel, one of the most powerful and dangerous international drug trafficking syndicates in the world. But first, he needed to master FBI tradecraft. 

When you're an FBI agent, it’s easy to get consumed by cases and think about them non-stop. That was Michael McGowan’s predicament when he was a newbie agent juggling work and his young family. 

Michael enjoyed his time on the Special Weapons and Tactical (SWAT) team and, a few years into his service, he took on an undercover operation where he found his calling. It was the late ‘80s and he worked in an area of Philadelphia called ‘The Badlands’ that was notorious for its narcotics markets and drug-related violence. 

I had probably five years on at the time. I was the case agent,” McGowan told the True Spies podcast. ”You make all the major decisions.”

In those days, drug traffickers were building hidden compartments inside of vehicles to hide drugs from search dogs and prying FBI agents. The Bureau had seized a couple of modified cars when Michael came up with a ruse that would enable the FBI to infiltrate the city’s trafficking gangs.

I had the idea that if the FBI made our own, sold cars - what they called ‘load cars’ - that we could track drug organizations and drug shipments using our cars,” he said. “So we had a legitimate auto-body company build our hidden compartments for us.”

Ex-FBI Special Agent Michael McGowan: Would you buy a car from this man?


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Negotiating with the FBI 

Spies and secretive front companies are old friends so McGowan’s team rented out a warehouse to use as a showroom - one where drug traffickers could find a car with hidden compartments to hide their drug stash. With a team of undercover agents working as frontmen in the car dealership, the next phase involved getting the word out to gangsters and drug dealers.

Michael found the perfect guy to help: “I had arrested somebody inside a car that had a hidden compartment. So that gentleman that I arrested on that day later became an informant for us and he worked in the garage/auto repair business. And he later became our spokesman, so to speak, out on the street that these cars were available.”

Pretty soon, business was booming. Buyers would drop by the car dealership showroom and be shown the different conveyances and maybe barter a bit about the price - except the FBI wasn’t negotiating a legitimate car sale. “We were negotiating hidden transport of drugs,” McGowan said. “I would say we probably turned down seven out of every 10 traffickers because we simply had too much business and we could pick and choose which group we wanted to investigate.” 

Front companies and spy agencies are old friends


FBI: Making Cases

The car dealership was an enormous success for the Bureau, giving the FBI the ability to track vehicles and access trafficking operations all across the Eastern Seaboard. And - as it was Michael’s idea - it didn’t do his reputation any harm.

If you want to rise in the FBI you need to ‘make cases’, which means being successful from cradle to grave. Once you get a reputation for making cases, you get more important assignments and better targets. So, after McGowan earned his kudos on the auto showroom operation, he was ready for more difficult undercover operations - the kind where he would be two feet away from the bad guys rather than watching them from miles away or listening to their phones. 

“You're dealing with them face to face and they teach you a lot,” McGowan said. 

Back in the ‘80s there was no official training. It was about learning on-the-job: “I embarrassed myself the first couple of times because you spend your life on the ‘straight and narrow’ to become an FBI agent. And now you're expected to be as bad or worse than the real bad guys.”

It was a psychological stretch and McGown needed to click on all cylinders if he was to be successful at his next task: taking down the Sinaloa Cartel.

Set up in Mexico in the 1980s, the cartel has operations on six continents and it turns over billions of dollars every year. It controls vast swathes of Mexico and is embroiled in the country’s brutal drug war. It’s been responsible for countless assassinations and kidnappings, and pulled off political corruption on a grand scale. In short, the Sinaloa Cartel was not to be messed with. Until McGowan took them on in 2016.

To find out how, listen to Michael McGowan’s True Spies podcast: The Purple Bathrobe.


Listen to Michael McGowan’s True Spies podcast: The Purple Bathrobe



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