True Spies Episode 11: The Purple Bathrobe
NARRATOR: Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? This is True Spies Episode 11: The Purple Bathrobe.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: We spent roughly a year just preparing how we were going to approach them. At the time this was the most notorious, dangerous, sophisticated criminal organization probably in the world. So we knew that we couldn't go at them with a flawed plan. We had to be clicking on all cylinders.
NARRATOR: The Sinaloa Cartel. The most powerful international drug trafficking and money laundering crime syndicate in the world. Set up in Mexico in the 1980s, today - with operations on six continents - it turns over billions of dollars every year. It controls vast swathes of Mexico and is embroiled in the country’s brutal drug war - a battle between powerful crime syndicates for territory, influence, and, above all, money. It’s been responsible for countless assassinations and kidnappings, and pulled off political corruption on a grand scale. In short, the Sinaloa cartel is not to be messed with. Until 2016, the man in charge of this empire was Joaquin Guzman, aka El Chapo - the don of drug lords, the king of kingpins. Today he’s worth an estimated $4bn and his name is synonymous with narco-culture. El Chapo, translated as ‘shorty’, has taken on a mythical status, not least for his feats of escapology. On two occasions, El Chapo slipped out of Mexico’s most secure prisons. He evaded re-capture for decades. He returned to his role as boss while remaining a fugitive hiding out in the mountains of northern Mexico. It was 2010 and the US wanted him. Desperate to put him away for good, American security services needed to catch the mastermind with his hands all over a major drug-trafficking operation. It would take something big, something elaborate. The FBI needed to come up with a sting that would more than match the ingenuity of a man who’d outsmarted the Mexican law enforcement again and again. This was the man they called on.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: My name was FBI Special Agent Michael R. McGowan. I served in the FBI from 1987 to 2017. I was a special agent and my area of expertise was in undercover operations, so for the majority of my career, I was an FBI undercover agent.
NARRATOR: Michael McGowan was the right person to call. Only 10 percent of FBI operatives are trained to do undercover operations. And only 10 percent of those have ever worked more than five undercover cases. Michael McGowan has worked 50. So, it’s safe to say the El Chapo mission was in very good hands. He and the agents working the case came up with an elaborate plan where they would pose as a powerful Italian crime family that wanted to help El Chapo run drugs into Europe.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: I was the senior agent on the case. And what we did, in that case, was we married our organization exactly like the Sinaloa Cartel. So I was the equivalent of Chapo in Sicily.
NARRATOR: Michael would be the Godfather. But like any organization, good or bad, it takes time to become ‘The Boss’. By this point, Michael had been in the FBI for 25 years. He knew exactly what it would take to make the bad guys believe that he was one of them. In this episode of True Spies, you’ll learn how the FBI infiltrated some of the world’s most notorious crime rings, and about the mission to capture the world’s most wanted man. Like most of our spies, Mike McGowan had law enforcement in his blood.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: My upbringing was what I consider in America, what's called a blue-collar environment. A lot of the neighbors were policemen, firemen, manual laborers. So there was nothing unusual in the sense that we never went without a meal. We always had a roof over our head, but we were taught at a very early age we were kind of responsible for ourselves. So I started working as young as 12 years old. And I just knew in the area of the country I grew up, which was outside of Boston, a lot of Irish Catholic people were either in law enforcement or in jail, and you kind of picked which one you wanted to go to. And I came from a police family. My dad was a cop. My grandfather was a cop. So I really never thought about doing anything else other than police work.
NARRATOR: He also had a protective streak from a young age.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: My mother would work in a trucking company on the midnight shift, so my dad would be working all kinds of different hours because of his police job. Way back in the 60s, there was a crime wave in Boston that was known as the Boston Strangler, who was going around and killing women. And, at a very young age - I think I was five years old - I would sit next to my mother's bed while she rested and sit there with a baseball bat to protect her from the Boston Strangler. And then later, I would go out and walk the neighborhood and write down license plates of cars that didn't belong in a neighborhood. I would check the doors. So I was a cop before I even realized I was actually going to be a cop.
NARRATOR: As well as police work, the other thing Michael’s father passed down to him was the mantra ‘rub some dirt on it’. One that, even to this day, he lives by.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: Yeah. That has been passed on through the generations to my children and now their children's children. So ‘rub some dirt on’ basically means life is not fair, that things will happen and you can either choose to get knocked down and stay down or you can get back up and get back into the fight. And even though my dad was a hardcore street cop, it was a valuable lesson. When you're young, in a sense that I always felt, no matter what happened, if I kept persevering and fighting through it, you could get back on your feet. So it's actually become a term of endearment within my family. And we're now teaching my grandchild to rub some dirt on it when he fell off his bike last weekend.
NARRATOR: And the last thing you need to know to understand Michael is that he has a wicked sense of humor.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: I like to have a few laughs and share a few laughs. So both growing up and then later getting into law enforcement, I’ve found humor is absolutely critical for the type of job that we did because obviously you're dealing with serious situations and serious matters and sometimes you have to laugh a little bit to regain your sanity. So, I've always been a little bit of a jokester - if that's what you want to call it - and when I was in the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia, I self-appointed myself head of the beverage committee, which meant I was responsible for picking up the beer after hours so we could have a couple of beers and a couple laughs after a hard day of work.
NARRATOR: And at the end of that grueling 16-week FBI training - that many didn’t make it through - Michael had managed to hang onto that sense of humor.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: I had a habit of imitating some of our instructors and teachers without their knowledge, so my classmates rooted me on graduation night and day. After a couple of beers, I got up and did our instructor's imitations. And I got a standing ovation at the end. So people must have enjoyed it. But it was just something that the pressure was off. You finally have graduated and you're going to be a real FBI agent.
NARRATOR: Joking aside, Michael had no illusions about how dangerous his chosen career path was. Things got a lot more dangerous when, in 1990, when a colleague walked over to his desk, handed him a gun, a bulletproof vest, and told him to attend the next SWAT meeting. The FBI SWAT team, as Michael puts it, was like the Navy Seals of the FBI. They had a reputation for training hard, executing the toughest warrants, and apprehending the nastiest criminals, often in hostage situations. Nowadays there are competitive try-outs, but back in the ‘80s and ‘90s selection was based on experience and reputation. It was an honor to be chosen, but a deadly one. He knew that on any day he could go into a situation he might not come out of. What do you tell your children about a day at the office when your office is full of deadly criminals? Well, the solution Michael and his wife came up with was to say nothing at all. It was something they’d agreed on when he was a police officer before joining the FBI.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: Early on in my career, I was working as a uniformed policeman on the midnight shift and I got called into a barroom over a dispute. And, once I got inside there, I was jumped. I got beaten pretty badly. I had two black eyes. I had a separated shoulder. And I went home to my wife that night. And when she answered the door and saw the condition I was in, she got very angry at me. She yelled at me. And, obviously, it was because she wasn't prepared for what the job was like in that aspect of it. We kind of figured out at that point that she really didn't want to know exactly what I did at work. If you are, though, you are the spouse of a law enforcement officer. You can go to work any day and not come home. So it started early in our career where we just didn't really talk about work. When I got home from work, I would shut off that part of my life and focus on what I was supposed to do as a husband and father and try to keep the two lives separate.
NARRATOR: But that’s easier said than done.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: It didn't always work well. But that was the intention. When you're a detective - or certainly when you're an FBI agent - you have these cases that you're consumed with and want to work on all the time, and you're thinking about them nonstop. So, especially when I was young, it was very difficult to turn that off and focus on family life.
NARRATOR: Despite the risks involved, Michael enjoyed his time on the SWAT team. A few years into his service, he took on a new kind of mission, an undercover operation. This is where his work starts to sound like something from a movie. It was the late ‘80s in Philadelphia - an area called ‘The Badlands’. Notorious for its abundance of narcotics markets and drug-related violence.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: I think I had probably five years on at the time. I was the case agent. The case agent, in FBI parlance, is the agent who runs the case. You make all the major decisions. In those days, drug traffickers had just started to build hidden compartments inside of vehicles to hide the drugs, obviously from search dogs, etc. And we had seized a couple of cars that had these compartments in it.
NARRATOR: So Michael came up with a ruse that would enable the FBI to infiltrate the city’s trafficking gangs. They’d exploit this new demand for these vehicles that conceal drugs. It was something that hadn’t been tried before. Michael explains the plan.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: And 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, and that's what we did. So we had a legitimate auto-body company build our hidden compartments for us.
NARRATOR: So the team rented out a warehouse to use as a showroom. One where drug traffickers could come and hire a car with hidden compartments to hide their drug stash in if they got stopped by police. With a team of undercover agents to work as frontmen in the car dealership, the next phase of the plan was to get the word out to the gangs that these cars and vans were available for hire. Michael found the perfect guy to help.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: 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.
NARRATOR: And pretty soon business was booming.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: They would come over and it literally was like a car dealership showroom where we'd break them in, and we'd show the different conveyances, and we'd talk prices - except we weren't negotiating a legitimate car sale. We were negotiating hidden transport of drugs. 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.
NARRATOR: The vehicles enabled the FBI to track trafficking routes used by gangs all up the Eastern Seaboard. It was an enormous success for the Bureau, giving them access to trafficking operations all across the Eastern Seaboard. And - as Michael’s idea - it didn’t do his reputation any harm.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: Any time you have a successful case, it's like it's a notch on your belt, so to speak, so, if you want to continue in the FBI, there's a term called ‘making cases’, which simply means being successful from cradle to grave. And when you get a reputation as somebody who makes cases, then you are given more important assignments or better targets. So, at the time, I was relatively new and I learned a lot from that. But that particular case was able to help me progress in my investigative career by understanding traffickers and how they conducted their business. Because when you do an undercover operation, you're two feet away from the bad guy. It's not like you're watching them from miles away or listening to their phone. You're dealing with them face to face and they teach you a lot.
NARRATOR: It gave Michael a taste for undercover work.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: Once I saw the effectiveness of the technique and how it can obtain evidence for us, that is just devastating. If you're face-to-face with a bad guy and you go to court, it's his words on tape or video. You're not interpreting anything. So as I say, early on, as a result of cases like that - that case and a couple of other cases I got hooked on - the undercover technique, not only as a case agent, but then I wanted to expand my skillset into becoming an undercover agent myself.
NARRATOR: But it isn’t really something you can just dive straight into.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: When I first started doing undercover work, I had no experience at that time. There was no official training. There was no process. Now in the FBI, it's completely different. It’s a very vigorous program to train undercover agents. None of that existed when I was an agent. So basically, it was on-the-job training and I would go out and know - I make no bones about it - 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. And that's not an easy thing to do. And psychologically, it's difficult.
NARRATOR: Here’s a little story to illustrate how not to do it.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: There is one story where I went into an Italian social club, a mafia club. They were all dressed in a certain fashion. They literally stopped speaking when I walked in the door, and I was dressed like a college student or a young professional in khakis and a pressed shirt. It was just stupid. It was. It actually was dangerous. What I didn't realize at the time, I didn't study my opponent. I didn't understand. In order to attack an opponent, you have to understand your opponent. And by the end of my career, I'd like to think that I could talk, walk, dress, think, and act like a bad guy. But when you first start, it's not easy to do. So I had a lot of failures. But even though I failed, as I said earlier, the ‘rub some dirt’ mentality. I love the technique because you're standing literally next to a bad guy talking to him and you're collecting evidence. So I was determined at that point to make myself a better undercover agent and just worked hard at it.
NARRATOR: In his arsenal, Michael did have that sense of humor that proved particularly useful when deceiving criminals. How to make a bad guy believe you’re a bad guy too: Lesson 1.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: I was very comfortable going into bars, restaurants, clubs, and relaxing with people and hopefully could make a bluff. So I used some of that. And that was one of the ways to ingratiate yourself. You have to remember that you have a serious job of collecting evidence, but you just can't walk up to somebody and ask to buy dope or buy a gun 30 seconds after you meet them. There's rapport-building and trust-building. You got to get somebody to want to do business with you. And yes, I used humor extensively for that.
NARRATOR: You can’t just go in all guns blazing unless you want to give yourself away.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: You got to remember when you were undercover, if you meet with a bad guy for an hour, you may only talk about criminal information for five minutes. You have to fill that other 55 minutes. So I had to learn to talk about other things outside of criminal activity. And that's again, where the humor would come in. Or I have a real love of dogs. So I would always tell my dog stories and sometimes they would be dog people, and other times they weren't. But people think when you're undercover, you're talking about straight criminal activity. You're talking like two human beings.
NARRATOR: Any other tips?
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: You have to have confidence without being cocky. Okay, so if you're not confident. You're going to struggle. And I've seen very, very successful FBI agents who could not do undercover work well because they lost their confidence when they went to do it because they are really trying to portray being somebody else. Well, that's a trick. You don't be somebody else. You be who you really are, just in a nuanced way, to be able to gather evidence.
NARRATOR: Lessons learned, Michael wanted to raise the stakes, and join the ‘big leagues’. He got his chance in 1996 when he put himself forward to infiltrate the Russian mob in Boston. The FBI was hoping to build a criminal case against a businessman who was the head of a sophisticated gang that dealt mostly in financial crimes. The opportunity came up when an informant alerted the Bureau that the businessman was in America. He was trying to secure fake immigration documents to enable members of his crime syndicate to come to the US. Michael’s job was to pretend to be a fellow businessman who was willing to operate outside of the law to get him those papers. But as we’ve learned, you can’t just steam in. You’ve got to wine and dine the target, gain their trust, make them believe you are who you say you are. Now, Michael had his sense of humor - but this businessman didn’t speak English - so would Michael’s schtick translate?
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: I knew that the Russians were involved in financial fraud schemes, money laundering, etc, and that wasn't my strong suit. So I had to learn. I literally had to take lessons in certain violations to understand what they were doing, and the other issue was obviously there was a language issue. They spoke Russian. I obviously didn't speak Russian. Their English was poor so we had to use translators. And when you're negotiating an undercover deal with a translator, it takes twice as long as expected, obviously, because of the language barrier. So there were a lot of challenges.
NARRATOR: In that first meeting, our fledgling undercover agent was put to the test.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: I started to talk to the Russian leader. That's when he grabbed the backside of a waitress, which caused her to be repulsed. And I remember thinking at the time that I wanted to say something or do something because that's naturally what I would do. But again, I'm in an undercover role. I'm supposed to accept things like that. So being new at the game, so to speak, it took me a while to control my reactions of what I would do normally as a human being and as an FBI agent.
NARRATOR: If you’re thinking this could be the job for you, it’s worth knowing the level of commitment it takes to go undercover. When you’re an agent, your job doesn’t end when the meeting ends. You have to commit your entire life to your cover until the operation is complete, which can be years. This is one of the hardest parts, and something Michael hadn’t really anticipated.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: In that case, that was the first long-term undercover operation I did. So for the first year to year-and-a-half of that case I lived in one city, far away from my family, in another city. I had a house. It was a beautiful home on the ocean. But I went home to an empty house every night. And when you are in this, if this is a long-term deep cover assignment, you have to live that life so you don't go home. You don't bring your children to work. I would have to sneak out of where I was assigned and periodically go home for the weekend and see my family and children quickly. But I didn't even understand that at the time. But when you're in these roles, you have to live it full time because I would bring the Russians to that house.
So, at any time, they could show up or they could sit outside and watch where I was going, what I was doing. So when you're undercover, you have to completely take on the role of who you are claiming to be. So basically for a year-and-a-half, I was on my own. And, unsurprisingly, that makes personal relationships tricky. It’s a big commitment for a spouse in a different way. It is difficult, but it was something a lot of FBI agents, including myself, are what I assume are Type A personalities. You want to succeed, you want to do well. So it's a challenge. And I spent a lot of time explaining [things] to my wife. My children were young. I don't think they understood too much about what was going on at the time. But that's why I thank my wife for my career, she allowed me to do these assignments, knowing that it was important to me to try to be successful because, again, a lot of the people we go up against as criminals, they're really somebody who there are people who have to be addressed through the criminal system, they're creating a lot of problems, they're creating a lot of crime. So there's an incentive to do a job well so that eventually they go to jail.
NARRATOR: And the sacrifices Michael and his family made, paid off eventually. Remember those Russian businessmen who wanted Michael’s help to get dodgy immigration papers? Well, even Michael couldn’t keep that cover up. He knew nothing about immigration so he reverted back to his old adage of ‘be yourself’, but the version that catches the criminal.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: These are very intelligent people. They were highly educated. They were very astute businessmen. Because of my earlier background in Philadelphia with drug trafficking, I finally ended up explaining to them that I really wasn't an American businessman. I was an American drug trafficker, and they needed to launder my drug funds. I held my own because eventually, after a long period of trying to build trust with them, they trusted me enough to launder my money, which they knew was drug money, which is a federal crime in the United States. And that's what we eventually were able to convict them of.
NARRATOR: Michael has countless stories like this from his career taking on the Russian mob and then the Sicilian mafia - the infamous Cosa Nostra. These cases put Michael at the top of his game when it came to undercover operations. However, after 20 years of chasing bad guys, he was growing older and sustaining injuries that were slowing him down. But mentally, he was as eager to bring down criminals as he’d ever been. Then, in 2010, the opportunity of a lifetime landed on his desk - the chance to take down the most wanted criminal of all. The Mexican drug lord Joaquin El Chapo Guzman, head of the notorious Sinaloa cartel.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: I literally remember the hairs on the back of my neck standing up because very seldom does law enforcement have a chance to go up against somebody like Chapo in the Sinaloa cartel. We had the opportunity based on a relationship that the informant had developed in federal prison. And we spent roughly a year, an entire year, just preparing how we were going to approach them. By that time in my career, like I said, I had done a lot of things by then. So I felt very confident that we could infiltrate them if we set it up correctly. We knew that from intelligence that the Mexican drug trafficking cartels - not just the Sinaloa cartel, but some of the other cartels - were constantly looking for a market in Europe.
NARRATOR: Michael and the other agents, as this crime family, would offer to receive Chapo’s narcotics from Mexico into European ports and help to distribute them across the continent, in exchange for a 20 percent cut of the product. That way, they could seize the drugs on arrival and avoid giving money to a criminal organization.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: We made the decision to represent ourselves as a Sicilian crime group. So we had access to obviously different locations and shipping ports in Europe.
NARRATOR: El Chapo was terrified of the American federal security forces. To get anywhere near the cartel, Michael and the agents would have to pretend to be a European crime family. They’d send their informant into Mexico to build a relationship with Chapo and convince him that the agents were the real deal. And Michael had a special role to play. He would be the boss, El Jefe, the head of this Sicilian crime dynasty.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: I was the senior agent on the case. And what we did in that case, was we married our organization exactly like the Sinaloa cartel. So I was the equivalent of Chapo in Sicily. So I had to take on that persona where - if you are the El Jefe or the old man - I literally would not speak to any of the subjects except for Manuel. Chapo was his first cousin. He had grown up with Chapo. They were blood relatives. So I would only speak to him. The three other FBI undercovers did such a good job of putting me on that pedestal that when I would come to the meeting, they literally would stand up like Pavlov's dogs, that I was like the top official for our organization. So any decision that had to be made, any financial commitments, I was the only one who could do that. And they liked that because that was exactly how they conducted their business. Nobody did anything without Chapo’s green light. And Chapo's lawyer told us at one point he thought we were the most disciplined organization other than the Sinaloa cartel, which to the FBI as a compliment.
NARRATOR: You’re probably wondering what it takes to convince possibly the most powerful crime syndicate in the world that you too are the head of a genuine, large-scale narcotics smuggling operation.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: Well I’m afraid that information is classified. I don't want to tip the hand - how to do it - but it's a matter of how deep they want to look into who you are. And once you're in contact with them, if you give them a reason, if they become suspicious of you, then they're going to look into your background versus if you convince them you're the real deal, then you have a shot. And in our case, it was Chapo’s first cousin Manuel and Chapo’s attorney who both said we were legit bad guys. We convinced them and they convinced Chapo.
NARRATOR: The next thing you’re probably wondering is how they convinced these criminals that they were Sicilian mafia, not American federal agents. Surely the language was a dead giveaway?
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: What we did in the case, I came in as El Jefe, the boss or the old man. And I would only go to strategic meetings. And we told them very early on because they thought they were dealing with the Sicilians. I told them that we would not speak Sicilian in front of them because we were under investigation in Europe and we didn't want to drag them into our investigation. So, we basically convinced them that the cops were watching us and that we would only speak either Spanish - which the other three undercovers spoke - or English, which obviously I spoke, and we were able to get away with that. But it was a concern throughout the case. If they ever brought a Sicilian speaker in at any point, we were in trouble.
NARRATOR: So, Chapo convinced, a meeting was set up in February 2010 between Chapo’s right-hand man - his cousin Manuel - Michael, and the other undercover agents posing as the Sicilian crime family. The setting was Florida’s Azure Coast.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: It was five undercover agents - myself, a female undercover, and three other undercovers. We're in a 30-story condo overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, a beautiful condominium. All it just screams money. So we're all preparing for this meeting, which is critical because at Washington headquarters this was a big, big deal at the time, to be able to work a case against the Sinaloa cartel. So as the team leader, I noticed all of our guys were very nervous, which was expected. But everybody in that room had 20 years of experience. So I had worked with everybody in that room many, many times, and I could just tell they were a little bit anxious about what was going to happen.
NARRATOR: Put yourself in Michael’s shoes. This is a huge opportunity for the Bureau. The scene is set to perfection. But you know the Sinaloa cartel is acutely aware that law enforcement officers are always on their tail. Any nerves on the part of your team could reveal that this is all a set-up. Your target is going to arrive at any minute. You need to calm everyone down. Quickly. What are you going to do? Whatever you’re thinking, I’ll wager it isn’t even close to what Michael actually did.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: Without any thought, I went in to use the men's room. I was dressed in a very expensive suit and dressed as a Sicilian crime boss would look. And I went in there and in the bathroom, I found a purple Velour bathrobe behind the door. And I don't really know why to this day I did it, but I took off my expensive suit and my jewelry, etc, and I put on this bathrobe, this hideous bathrobe, and I walked out before Manuel arrived into our crowd and it immediately broke the ice. Everybody started laughing and they were rolling on the floor. It really kind of cut the tension and it was just the technique I used to try to put everybody at ease. And then they thought I was going to go back and change, but what I did, I stayed for this meeting. So when Manuel came and I didn't appear at first, he met with the other undercovers. I eventually came out of the back room in a Velour bathrobe, and they're not going to think you're an FBI agent if you're dressed in a purple bathrobe. And we later learned that - we have a recorded conversation with Manuel - that he went back and told Chapo that El Jefe was so unconcerned that he didn't get dressed for a meeting, he was walking around in his bathrobe. So, again, you do these little nuances to get them to think that you're anything but an FBI agent. And in this case, it seems to have worked.
NARRATOR: Funny but also highly effective.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: You've got to remember when it's somebody like Chapo Guzman, he knows that every day he wakes up law enforcement is trying to get to him. And you have to come at them in a way that they don't think you’re law enforcement.
NARRATOR: But then the plan hit a snag.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: So that meeting took place, as I said, inside of a condo that the FBI controls. It was wired with audio and video recordings. Every whisper, every scene was captured. We had it stacked with food, booze. You know, we made it look real. And when Manuel first showed up Murphy's Law kicked in. Manuel is terrified of heights. So here we are with a 30-story condo looking at the ocean. He's backed into a corner. He doesn't want to come out onto the deck. He doesn't want to see the magnificent views.
NARRATOR: Stuck in the corner, he’s out of shot for the camera and beyond the range of the microphones.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: The other undercovers got him to calm down enough to sit down within video range and start to negotiate. I stayed outside on the deck with the female undercover for the majority of the meeting. And what we would do is, we had planned with one of the undercovers that I was training him to become the next El Jefe, so he would come out whispering in my ear. I would whisper back. He would go in. I never dealt directly with Manuel that day, intentionally. And these, again, are things that most law enforcement doesn't do. They were effective by Manuel, going back to Chapo in Mexico later and saying: “Hey, these guys, they know what they're doing.” We spent four hours that day negotiating different cocaine and heroin trafficking routes and deals.
NARRATOR: So it was agreed that $20m worth of narcotics would be shipped from Mexico to Spain where, Chapo believed, Michael and his gang would pick it up to sell on their behalf. But like most cases, the time between that first meeting and any action dragged on.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: This case took three years. It was 2009 to 2012. One of the problems with this case was we would meet with them and then they would go back to Mexico for weeks or months at a time. So there was never any urgent pace to this case. We had to have meetings. They would go back. We met with them in Florida. We met with them in the Virgin Islands. We met with them in Europe. There were times when they cut off communications for lengthy periods because I remember in one case they had a huge seizure in South America and they shut down all their communications. So we just had to be patient. I think that time we waited like three months before they recontacted us.
NARRATOR: While Michael was happy to wait, his superiors were growing more and more doubtful that this operation would come off. What they did, what true and sophisticated drug traffickers do, they send test loads first.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: So test loads are when a ship, a vessel from point A to point B, in this case, it was from South America to Spain, but they'll ship a product that doesn't contain cocaine. So I think the first shipment was pineapples and the other shipment was some type of fruit. They would keep sending us test loads so that when the customs people reviewed the product there were no drugs on board, so that was frustrating.
NARRATOR: By the end of 2011, it had been a year-and-a-half since that initial meeting in Florida, and FBI HQ was growing increasingly impatient. Meanwhile, government officials in Washington were threatening to pull the plug on the operation. An enormous amount of time and money had been invested into this case which, so far, had yielded very little in the way of results. Under pressure from all sides, Michael had to make a call.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: I had worked enough drug cases to know that there comes a point where you just walk away from the table.
NARRATOR: What would you do? Call it a day? Cut your losses? In April 2012, that’s exactly what Michael did - or, appeared to do.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: We pulled out of the deal, actually, we told them: “We spent a lot of time on this. You haven't come through. So we're leaving.” That was a very controversial decision because we had spent almost three years working this case and now we're saying we'll leave, and before we had received any drugs.
NARRATOR: But if you think in walking away Michael was admitting defeat? You’d be wrong. This was actually Michael’s final play - a brilliant piece of reverse psychology to get the drugs moving once and for all.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: It was my decision to pull out. And I told a case agent I thought we had an 80 percent chance of still getting the drugs in my mind. It really was less than 50 percent. But when you start acting, you have to act like real drug traffickers would act. If we had stayed committed and we kept waiting and waiting and waiting, they would become suspicious of us.
NARRATOR: So the FBI’s informant delivered the message to Chapo that ‘the Sicilians are pulling out’. Michael and the agents awaited action from Mexico.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: It proved to be the tipping point to get them to send us to the real drugs.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: So by like, think it was in June, we got about $15m worth of heroin and methamphetamine. And by July we had over 700 pounds of cocaine delivered to us in Spain.
NARRATOR: With the drugs seized, it was time to arrest those key players in the Sinaloa cartel. After three years of hard work and near misses, it was a sweet moment.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: When the drugs arrived in Spain in 2012, the sum of $20m, El Jefe invited all of the participants except Chapo. He's still a fugitive in Mexico. So we invited Manuel. The lawyers, the communications guy. We invited them all to Spain, to Madrid, to celebrate our first successful venture. And after the drugs had been taken into custody and secured by the FBI, we told them we were going to buy them dinner and celebrate our future success. And as they left the hotel, they were arrested by the Spanish National Police. And we had already indicted Chapo. Chapo doesn't physically have to be present. He is something called a co-conspirator, so he was indicted along with, I believe, eight or nine others in the United States for this deal. And eventually - it wasn't until years later - but eventually, Chapo was extradited to the United States and convicted.
NARRATOR: The bust was a massive win for the FBI.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: It was a huge team effort. I got a lot of credit as El Jefe for making the case. I tell everybody that I've ever appeared on a talking show that the other three undercovers are the people responsible for the success of the case. I just closed the deal. They had to deal with them day in and day out. So, again, I credit all the investigators whether they're undercover as case agents or support personnel.
NARRATOR: In 2015, Chapo was in a Mexican prison when he managed to escape through a tunnel under the shower floor in his cell. It was the second time he’d wormed his way out of jail. For six months the Mexican Marines were on his tail, sweeping through 18 of his homes across the country searching for the drug lord. The chase led them to a remote wilderness on the border between two northern Mexican states.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: Amazingly, it was a food order that gave Chapo away. A white van believed to be used by his associates was spotted picking up tacos just after midnight on the 8th of January 2018. It led the Marines to the compound where Chapo was hiding. The building was stormed and a battle ensued. Meanwhile, Chapo slipped away one final time through an escape hatch behind a mirror. But, it wasn’t long before his vehicle was stopped on the highway nearby and the kingpin was finally arrested. He was sent to the US for trial and imprisonment. There was no doubt in my mind that he was going to be convicted. The evidence is overwhelming. I just knew that he would spend the rest of his life in a US jail.
NARRATOR: Joaquin El Chapo Guzman was was found guilty on charges of murder, money laundering, drug trafficking, and organized crime relating to his leadership of the Sinaloa cartel. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole at a super-maximum security facility in Arizona. Here, he is surrounded by steel doors, concrete walls, maze-like corridors, hundreds of surveillance cameras, and layers of electrified fencing topped with razor wire. There are ground sensors in place to detect tunneling. This time, there’s no escaping. And what of Michael El Jefe of the fake Sicilian mafia?
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: When that case finished, I had been in the FBI for about 27, 28 years. I worked another three or four years. I retired after 31 years of duty and retired in July of 2017. It was the worst feeling in the world because for 30-plus years I had always prepared for my next undercover operation. There was never an end to it. And then one day it came to an end. And that was hard to accept. I've come to grips with it. Now it's time for other people to do what I did. It was just a tremendous honor and privilege to serve that many years as an FBI agent.
NARRATOR: If you’re wondering whether Michael’s family had any idea at the time that he was embroiled with the most wanted man in the world, the answer is no. It’s why when Michael retired, he decided to write a book about some of his biggest cases.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: The book that I wrote was not intended for the general public. It was intended for my wife and my three children, basically to thank my wife for letting me do what I did and to explain to my children why I wasn't always around.
NARRATOR: Michael McGowan now trains the next generation of undercover FBI agents. He imparts the knowledge they need to get close to the criminals without becoming one themselves.
MICHAEL R. MCGOWAN: It’s a dangerous line an undercover agent always treads. That line never got blurred for me, ever. I knew what I could do and I knew what I could not do and whether it was my upbringing, whether it was something internal. But my ethical compass never changed. I would push the envelope as far as I could legally. As much as I liked a lot of these guys, especially the mafia guys - I really enjoyed my time with them - but the difference between me and them is they committed federal crimes and I didn't. My job was to investigate federal crimes. So it never became blurry for me.
NARRATOR: I’m Hayley Atwell. Join us next week for another operation with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Michael R. McGowan is an ex-FBI special agent who served more than 30 years, almost all of it working undercover.