EPISODE 79

THE RELUCTANT NARCO

THE RELUCTANT NARCO

Convicted fraudster Keith Bulfin was a reluctant DEA agent tasked with infiltrating the brutal world of the drug cartels. If he was successful, he'd be given a chance to return to his old life. If not, living wouldn't be an option.
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True Spies, Episode 79: The Reluctant Narco

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. 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 79: The Reluctant Narco.

KEITH BULFIN: The deputy director of the DEA said an undercover agent with the DEA has a life expectancy of six months. You're either dead, or we pulled you out. And I think the only reason why I was never killed is because I never had a weapon. And I stood against the wall, literally shaking with fear.

NARRATOR: A group of well-connected businessmen has just concluded an important meeting. The venue? An air-conditioned hotel room in Mexico City. Let’s take a headcount. One Mexican banker slumped over in his chair, a gunshot wound to the face. One agent of the US government’s Drugs Enforcement Administration is similarly indisposed. Two Colombians - one still breathing, just - and then, quaking with terror against the wall, there’s Keith. 

KEITH BULFIN: So I'm in Mexico City. I'm three hours from the airport. I mean, if I can get a flight, I'm three hours from American soil. So all hell had broken loose, as you can imagine. 

NARRATOR: How did we arrive at this grisly scene, you ask? Well, let’s talk about drugs. Don’t worry, this isn’t an after-school special. No, let’s talk about the drugs business. Let’s talk networking, payroll, and asset management. Because if you’re talking about drugs, you’re talking about money. Lots of it. More often than not, that money belongs to the powerful criminal groups known collectively as the cartels.

KEITH BULFIN: The drug cartels handle approximately between $240bn to $500bn a year. They control the cocaine market for worldwide distribution. 

NARRATOR: But what are they spending all that money on? They control politicians, police, government officials all through Central and South America. And I didn't realize how much power or influence they had until I was working inside their organization. Yes, this week’s true spy is intimately familiar with the international drug trade. 

KEITH BULFIN: My name is Keith Bulfin, and I was employed by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the DEA in the United States, to go undercover as a banker with the drug cartels in Mexico and Colombia. And that was from the period of ‘97 to 2004. 

NARRATOR: Over the course of the last, oh, 70-something episodes of this podcast, we’ve met a lot of spies. However, the vast majority of them have something in common - they actually wanted the job. Keith Bulfin is the odd-one-out. A banker by trade, he was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of espionage by forces beyond his control.

KEITH BULFIN: Threw me in the deep end, no training whatsoever.

NARRATOR: In the 1990s, Keith was a well-to-do, middle-aged financier living in Melbourne, Australia.

KEITH BULFIN: You know, three children in private school living in a salubrious suburb and enjoying life, and never done anything wrong other than getting a parking ticket. I grew up in a country town in New Zealand and went to boarding school in New Zealand and then became quite conservative worked in the stockbroking industry and then in the investment banking industry and eventually ended up owning my own investment bank, employing 20 odd staff. 

NARRATOR: In short, Keith was good at making money. And once he’d made it, he knew how to make more. But his mastery of the mighty dollar would prove to be his downfall because when you’re good at making money, you tend to make a lot of friends too. 

KEITH BULFIN: Yeah, the relationship I had with Gomez first, that's where it all started.

NARRATOR: ‘Gomez’ isn’t his real name, by the way. That’s one of the aspects of this story that Keith’s had to, let’s say, tweak, for legal reasons. 

KEITH BULFIN: And I didn't know who he was other than I was led to believe he was a coffee importer and he owned coffee plantations in Central and South America.

NARRATOR: Gomez fit in well with Melbourne’s moneyed middle-classes. He rented an expensive house, and his children attended private schools. Eventually, he began to put down more permanent roots in Australia.

KEITH BULFIN: And he was looking at bringing money in from London to buy a house close to where the schools were, where his children attended. And I helped him and we developed a friendship. 

NARRATOR: However, as you’ve probably surmised, Gomez was not all that he seemed.

KEITH BULFIN: Unbeknownst to myself and to him as well, he was being monitored and watched by the Americans and the Australian and Mexican authorities. 

NARRATOR: As it turned out, Gomez had a somewhat chequered past. 

KEITH BULFIN: He came from a poor family but won scholarships to prestigious schools in Mexico and obviously to a prestigious university and then on to Harvard. But he also had the ability to run businesses, successful businesses and to network with politicians. The most important business was a fishing co-op on the Gulf of Mexico, and he became the general manager of that co-op. And they used to have their catch and then ship it to Florida but in between the trays of fish was cocaine. So, he had obviously had become involved at the early part of his career with the drug cartels in terms of assisting them in the shipment of cocaine to the United States through the operation of that fishing co-op.

NARRATOR: Those connections would take Gomez to the very top of Mexican society.

KEITH BULFIN: And then from the fishing co-op, the Mexican government announced that they were going to privatize some of the banks and he was a general manager of a fishing co-op. Yet he had the money made available to him to acquire two banks, a colossal amount of money. But he acquired the two banks and he ran those two banks. And according to the US Department of Justice, they were the main washing machines for the cartel's money. 

NARRATOR: Gomez was on top of the world. But the longer you stay on a winning streak, the easier it is to overplay your hand.

KEITH BULFIN: When the Mexican government devalued the currency in early ‘94, the banks and financial institutions in Mexico needed a financial package, and America came to the rescue and provided funds to the Mexican treasury.

NARRATOR: Remember, Gomez runs two banks. That’s a lot of bailout money coming his way. Put yourself in his loafers. Could you resist the temptation?

KEITH BULFIN: And so the money was shipped to his private bank account. And so he immediately departed from Mexico. Gomez was on the run and he was being sought after by Mexican authorities and the US authorities on the missing money. And then, they investigated the banks and they found out that it was a washing machine. For four years, he was on the run and he went to Switzerland and Spain, and then France, and then back to Spain, France, Dominican Republic, and eventually arrived in Australia on a false passport.

NARRATOR: Eventually, that false passport would be his undoing. 

KEITH BULFIN: So they arrested him here because he was traveling on a false passport and they placed him in prison to be extradited back to Mexico.

NARRATOR: But not before he’d had time to get friendly with Keith Bulfin.

KEITH BULFIN: They had been listening to his telephone conversations, videoing his activities, photographing people he met, and establishing his connections. And then they heard that he spoke highly of me, of my banking ability, and that triggered their interest.

NARRATOR: Early one morning, before the sun rose above suburban Melbourne, they came knocking on Keith’s door. ‘They’ being the DEA, working in tandem with Australian and Mexican police.

KEITH BULFIN: They decided to ask if I would be willing to assist in becoming involved with the banking and the drug cartels in Mexico City. And I told them that I would not be entertaining such an idea. 

NARRATOR: This was the wrong answer.

KEITH BULFIN: And they said: “Well, you will change your mind. We’ll investigate everything you've done over the last 10 years and we'll find something.” Which they did. And they said I was involved with a conspiracy to defraud over a valuation on a casino and also a theme park. 

NARRATOR: In this series, we tend to assume that spies are working toward a noble cause. Noble-ish, at the very least. 

KEITH BULFIN: You would love to be a spy, I think every kid dreams of that. 

NARRATOR: But the fact is, spies are pragmatists above all else. And if an asset is resisting their overtures, they’ll stop at nothing to get what they want - even if it means destroying lives.

KEITH BULFIN: I was thrown into a maximum-security prison and a maximum-security unit where there are 20 inmates - 17 never to be released - and three bankers, two Mexicans, and myself.

NARRATOR: The extreme conditions forged a close bond between Keith and the two Mexican prisoners: Gomez, and a third man - Gomez’s business partner and brother-in-law. Keith believes that this was the authorities’ plan all along.

KEITH BULFIN: I mean, that was scheduled, planned from the very beginning. The whole thing was engineered so Gomez would feel obligated. He would feel that because of my relationship with him outside, it led to me being charged and thrown into a maximum-security prison. So that was something that he, Gomez felt responsible for. And that helped to develop that friendship even further and cement the friendship, cemented the trust. 

NARRATOR: After three years inside, Keith was finally able to secure his release but the nightmare was by no means over.

KEITH BULFIN: The day I was released, because I was a New Zealander, I was picked up by a federal police officer. He took me to the immigration detention center and I was placed in an immigration detention center. And I was told that I would be deported back to New Zealand because I had spent time in prison.

NARRATOR: Keith’s life - a conservative, cultivated thing - already lay in tatters. The news that there was, in fact, further to fall, plunged him into deep despair. And if you’re thinking that this is all terribly underhanded of the DEA, then you might want to listen to a few more episodes of True Spies, particularly those episodes that deal with recruiting assets. Using leverage - and if necessary, creating it - is all part of the playbook. 

KEITH BULFIN: Then the federal police arrived to interview me and said that if I played ball, they would support my stay in Australia. 

NARRATOR: This time, he knew that he was in no position to decline the offer.

KEITH BULFIN: I knew now that I was a puppet. If I didn't play ball, I would be deported. 

NARRATOR: Keith’s relationship with his family in Australia is already hanging by a thread. If he’s barred from entering the country, he’s truly lost everything.

KEITH BULFIN: So I was recruited. 

NARRATOR: Keith had a wealth of financial know-how. And now, in Gomez, he had access to the secretive world of the Cartels. If Keith could establish financial links with the major players - become their banker - then the DEA could hit the drug-runners where it hurt. Their wallets. 

KEITH BULFIN: Well, what they did was, they said: “We will set up a financial operation in San Diego and we'll look for opportunities in Mexico by using your contacts and we'll see where it goes.”

NARRATOR: Within days, Keith was flown to San Diego, California, a stone’s throw from the Mexican border. There, the DEA laid out its master plan.

KEITH BULFIN: I met the team, the supervisor, my controller, the regional director, and two other agents. And they had a company called Essex Finance, which is registered in the British Virgin Islands. Being a company that had been operating for three years, it had three years of tax returns. It was a perfect vehicle to set up and run as a bank.

NARRATOR: Under Keith’s reluctant stewardship, Essex Finance would become the respectable face of an illicit banking operation, laundering millions of dollars for the cartels. All in good time. The first step? A very important phone call.

KEITH BULFIN: The DEA asked me to phone Gomez, who was in prison at the time, still in prison, and they could see how good our relationship was. Gomez wanted me to go to Mexico immediately. 

NARRATOR: Gomez was relieved to hear from Keith. He had a favor to ask.

KEITH BULFIN: And the purpose of that was to go to Mexico where a payment was made to a Supreme Court judge in order to have the charges against him dropped. 

NARRATOR: And so it was that mild-mannered Keith Bulfin, 50-something father of three, found himself blowing down one of Mexico’s dusty highways toward a future he could scarcely begin to imagine.

KEITH BULFIN: Wasn't until I jumped on a plane and flew to Mexico and met up with Gomez's team, that I - suddenly, when I saw their weapons and saw how they drove in convoys, and met the people that run the financial operations in Mexico - suddenly, it was like an awakening because it was terrifying. And then you suddenly realize how dangerous it really was. 

NARRATOR: The heavily armed convoy arrived in Acapulco, a resort- town 240 miles south of Mexico City. Come for the beaches, stay for the bribes.

KEITH BULFIN: The judge who was handling the case was in Acapulco. So I was taken to Acapulco and I met the judge with an entourage of bodyguards from Gomez's side. And the proposition to the judge is: I pay you $15m now and you have the charges dropped. And once the charges are dropped, we'll pay a further $15m. 

NARRATOR: Sounds like a sweet deal, no? Especially when you’re surrounded by hired cartel goons. But the judge was, if not especially principled, highly pragmatic.

KEITH BULFIN: He said: "I can't take any cash. Everybody will know exactly. They'll put two and two together. I've dropped the charges and suddenly I've got $30m. It's too dangerous." 

NARRATOR: Hmm. Good point. If only there was some way to disguise those payments. Could you make the risk low enough to justify the reward?

KEITH BULFIN: So I suggested that I open an account for him in London, a numbered account at NatWest Bank, and transfer the funds there. And when he drops the charges, I can transfer the balance of the funds to that account. And then, if need be, I can transfer those funds to other bank accounts throughout Europe and Luxembourg, into Holland, Germany. I can set up a number of accounts. He liked that idea. 

NARRATOR: By funneling the money through a series of anonymous bank accounts, Keith could arrange the judge’s big payday in a way that would be hard to detect without an extremely capable forensic accountant.

KEITH BULFIN: After the third movement it becomes difficult, if not impossible. 

NARRATOR: Of course, it does help if you’ve got the DEA on your side. Talk us through the process, Keith.

KEITH BULFIN: In my case, it was quite straightforward because I had the US government. So I would make a phone call to San Diego and say: “I have funds to bank.” They would nominate the bank and I'd go to the bank and feed the cash through the system and then transfer from that bank - a wire transfer - to a nominee bank account in London or in France, Germany. We used Spain and Portugal, and we used numerous countries, Austria as well, and then transferred. So I would transfer to one account, to another bank, to another bank, so I would set up nominee companies, and eventually, the money would arrive at the destination where the cartels wanted their money. 

NARRATOR: See? Simple. But don’t get any ideas, okay? So concluded a successful first chapter in Keith Bulfin’s later-life career change. He had proven himself to Gomez, and, as with any close-knit industry, reputation is everything. Soon, Keith was able to begin expanding his client base.

KEITH BULFIN: Well, the DEA paid for me to go to Mexico City and to meet the cartel leaders and to meet the people and start the banking process. And that's what I did. But I lived in San Diego and I commuted back and forth from Mexico City back.

NARRATOR: But remember, for Keith this world is still brand new and utterly terrifying. There’s been little in the way of training, and even less in the way of psychological preparation. He’s a desperate man doing what it takes to survive.

KEITH BULFIN: You could never live in Mexico City for any length of time. It was too dangerous. I was a nervous wreck in Mexico at any time, and it wasn't until I got back to San Diego I could physically relax. I had to be on my guard all the time because when you're dealing with these people - you’ve got to understand - they don't trust you. They say they do, but they don't trust you. So 25 percent of your time is trying to work out what they're up to.

NARRATOR: And his criminal clients aren’t the only ones who need to be handled with care.

KEITH BULFIN: You have agents within the DEA who are on the payroll of the drug cartels. Who they are, no one knows. And you also have agents who are jealous of you because you’re earning more money than they are. So they set out from the very beginning to torpedo your operation. 

NARRATOR: If that sounds like paranoia to you, well you might be right. But in the multi-billion dollar narcotics business, if no one’s out to get you, you’re not worth dealing with. And the cartels did deal with Keith. But that’s not to say they trusted him.

KEITH BULFIN: Once you get down to Mexico, then you got to watch because every cartel family has what they call an intelligence unit and they have security people within their intelligence unit. And they're normally ex-intelligence officers from Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, and Brazil who have worked within military intelligence or police intelligence. So they're very smart and they can smell a mole. So when you're having a conversation with a cartel leader, you know which one is the intelligence officer and you're aware of his ability. So you're constantly nervous. You're constantly shaking. You're constantly in fear. And you're also in fear that the DEA [has passed on information about you]. So every time you arrive in Mexico City, you're watching for reactions from the cartels. You're watching how they react to you because it gives you an indication if they are going to do something dreadful to you.

NARRATOR: The cartels are renowned for their brutality. In the drugs trade, life is cheap and torture is currency.

KEITH BULFIN: So if they're friendly, you don't take their friendliness as gospel. They can be friendly and then shoot you. So you've got to be extremely careful but I was a nervous wreck. I was a nervous wreck when I got into Mexico City. And every trip, the fear, the fear of the unknown, the fear of being exposed because if you are an undercover agent for the DEA, what they do to you is frightening. 

NARRATOR: We won’t go into detail on that front. Let’s just say that a quick death would be considered an act of mercy. But it’s one thing to be afraid, it’s quite another to let that fear jeopardize your mission. Remember, for Keith, the last shreds of his life in Australia depended on his work in Mexico. Failure was not an option. He began, slowly, to train himself, to focus his considerable abilities, to dampen the cold terror that dominated his waking life and left him sleepless at night.

KEITH BULFIN: I play a lot of chess, so I started to think logically and plan my strategies. It's like when you're on the chessboard, you plan, you move and you look at the opposite player, and you're trying to anticipate his move so you can counter his if he makes a move. And that's how I started to think. So every time I went to Mexico City and I had a meeting, I went to the meeting place two or three hours beforehand. I looked for exit strategies. I worked out in my mind - if this went all pear-shaped - where could I go? Where could I hide? How could I get to the airport? I'd go through strategy after strategy to try and work out how I could get out of the city.

NARRATOR: It’s always a good idea to prepare for a worst-case scenario. But nine times out of 10, prevention is better than the cure. 

KEITH BULFIN: Most undercover police and undercover agents tend to exalt themselves within the criminal organization. So what they do, the majority of them will party with the cartels, drink the grog, take cocaine, party with the girls, end up sleeping with a few girls. But that's where all the mistakes are made. They drink too much or take too much cocaine or fall in love with a girl. And as a result, they make a mistake. 

NARRATOR: Keith could not afford to make mistakes.

KEITH BULFIN: Now, when I went to Mexico City, I purely was a professional banker. I never partied with anyone. I never drank any alcohol. I never took any of their girls. I never went to any of their social functions. I was purely a banker. I did what I was asked to do and did it professionally and never drank any alcohol. I, sort of, went back to the hotel room. And if I had to do some banking, I did it. I never made a mistake. 

NARRATOR: Even under his straitened circumstances, Keith began to find a little pleasure in his work. He was good at what he did, and he knew he could be even better.

KEITH BULFIN: What the DEA wanted to do was just to bank the money, find out where the money goes. So I had a meeting with the regional director and the deputy director of the DEA, and I said to them: “We need to do more.” “What do you have in mind?” I said: “We need to act like an investment banker. Not only do we bank their money, but we want to invest their money so if we can do the investments - buy property, buy shares, buy art, everything they want, educate them on that like a proper investment bank - then we'll be seen as an investment bank, as investment advisors. And then we can get all the corrupt politicians. We can get a lot more people involved.” 

NARRATOR: Narcos deal in cash. But the people they own? Bent officials, judges? As we’ve heard already, they’re risk-averse. A suitcase full of unmarked notes isn’t going to cut it in high society. No, for the discerning bribee, assets are the name of the game. 

KEITH BULFIN: They liked that idea and thought it was a great concept because then not only we would have control over these assets, but when the time came, you could seize those assets. So that's what I did, buying companies, buying property, buying stocks and shares. But then they wanted art. So I had mentioned art previously. And so they wanted to buy it. And of course, they got an enormous amount of money. And we went to the auction house in New York, and that was an incredible situation. And having the money and buying art, it was, as I said, something I've never done before. 

NARRATOR: Could it be that Keith was beginning to enjoy himself?

KEITH BULFIN: The most I've spent personally on a painting was $1,000. So here I am talking about hundreds of tens of millions of dollars. But it was a good experience. I actually enjoyed that moment. I enjoyed that whole aspect of it. 

NARRATOR: Don’t get too comfortable. Things were about to take a turn for the worse. It started with a name: Miguel. 

KEITH BULFIN: He was a banker for cartels. And so what happens is you get small cartel families and they have financial advisers. They have accountants, lawyers, and bankers. So when you meet them, you have to convince them that you know what you're talking about and they would question you and how you're going to launder the money. So once you were able to convince them that you could, they then arrange a meeting with the cartel leaders and they would look back and say: “Yes, we've had a meeting with this banker. He's got some good ideas, and this money can be laundered. So, yes, I think you need to listen to what he has to say.”

NARRATOR: Miguel had arranged for Keith, representing Essex Finance, to meet with an influential pair of cartel leaders. They had $10m in need of laundering, and Miguel had assured them that Keith was the man to do it.

KEITH BULFIN: So that meeting was scheduled to be held in Mexico City and we did not know who the cartel leaders were, where they came from. I had no idea. 

NARRATOR: In San Diego, he attended a tense briefing with his DEA handlers ahead of the meeting. You see, Keith was willing to do what he had to do to earn his freedom... up to a point.

KEITH BULFIN: One thing I refused to do was to tape the conversations with the cartel leaders. The US Department of Justice wanted tapes. Tapes were evidence for them. But I said to them: “It's too dangerous, I carry taping devices and get caught with that, I'm immediately executed.” 

NARRATOR: Naturally, this didn’t sit well with the DEA. From their perspective, they needed those tapes. And if Keith wouldn’t do what was necessary, someone else would.

KEITH BULFIN: I was departing to Mexico at 8 am the following morning. This was on a Sunday when I was called in by the DEA to the motel near where I lived. And I walked into the motel room and there was my controller, my supervisor, and another agent, and they said: “You're heading down to Mexico tomorrow morning. But we are concerned about taping and we need you to tape the conversations.” I repeated what I had said all along, I would never do it. And then they said: “Well, we've got someone who will go with you and tape the conversation.” And there was a door to the motel unit next door. And that door opened and in walked three agents with this guy called Al. 

NARRATOR: Al was an imposing figure, a brash Colombian-American with decades of undercover experience. As soon as he entered the motel room, alarm bells rang in Keith’s brain. His business was one of quiet expertise, faultless financial professionalism. A bruiser like Al put that image at risk.

KEITH BULFIN: And then they say to me: “You've got no choice. You take Al with you and you tell them that he is a member of your banking operation.” And I argued against it and they wouldn't listen to it. And they said to me: “Go and have dinner with Al on us, and then instruct him tomorrow on the flight down to Mexico.” So, Al and I went off to dinner, but he disappeared very quickly because he had a date. He didn't want to listen to what I had to say. And then he arrived late at the airport. He was hungover. So when he got on the plane, he slept. So I didn't have an opportunity to brief him or to tell him anything at all, and when we arrived in Mexico City, he simply, after we left customs, disappeared. 

NARRATOR: It became increasingly clear that Keith’s instincts had been on the money. Al’s unusually lengthy career in the field had made him complacent. 

KEITH BULFIN: And the next time I saw him was five minutes to 10 am, the following morning when I had a meeting with two other bankers acting for a cartel group.

NARRATOR: This morning meeting would give Keith a chance to figure Al out. Could he really be this unprofessional? If so, he could put them both at risk. After all, these were just bankers. The second meeting of the day, with Miguel’s cartel clients, would be less genteel. With a heavy heart, Keith made his way to the coffee shop, slouching through the heat and noise of the city.

KEITH BULFIN: And he came to the coffee shop. I was livid, and I just had enough time to say: “Don't say anything about banking. You don't know anything about banking. If you're asked anything about banking, please do not answer it.” So the two bankers arrived and they were upset that I had invited someone on to the meeting that they didn't know was coming. 

NARRATOR: Already, things were off to a rocky start. But if Al could just keep his mouth shut, then the unlikely pair might just carry it off.

KEITH BULFIN: And this is the thing in Mexico. You can't turn up at a meeting with someone unannounced. So they were a bit taken aback by Al's presence and they asked him directly: “What is your connection?” 

NARRATOR: Okay. Crunch time. Is Al going to listen to your advice? 

KEITH BULFIN: And he said: “I'm a banker. I'm a banker with Keith.” 

NARRATOR: That’ll be a ‘no’, then. But there’s still a chance that the cartel bankers won’t ask too many questions. This is still salvageable.

KEITH BULFIN: And then they looked at me and said: “Well, talk us through some of the transactions that you can do for us.” I was explaining it to them, and they never took their eyes off, Al. And they just kept looking at him and he was looking at them. They weren't listening to my conversation at all and suddenly one of them said: “I'm going to ask your banking friend a question. And Keith, I don't want you to answer it.” And I knew straight away that it was going to be a problem. 

NARRATOR: The bustle of the cafe faded into white noise. The cold eyes of the bankers honed in on Al. Keith could only watch and wait for the other boot to drop.

KEITH BULFIN: And they said: “Tell us, Mr. Banker, what you know about interest arbitrage.” Of course, he had no idea. And rather than saying: “Look, I don't know, I need to let Keith answer that question,” he tried to fluster his way through it. And of course, he gave all the wrong answers, so they said: "You're not a banker." 

NARRATOR: It gets worse.

KEITH BULFIN: And it was at that very point that the waiter turned up with coffee and in Spanish said to Al: “Would you like some more coffee, sir?” And he turned around and said: “No, I've got plenty at the moment.” And he had responded in Spanish and they then said: ‘You're Colombian. I can tell by your accent you're Colombian, so you're not a banker and you're Colombian.” And then they immediately said: ‘This conversation's finished. We're going.” And they got up and left. 

NARRATOR: Much like Keith himself, bankers for the cartel are surprisingly risk-averse. Everything has to be accounted for, and Al was anything but.

KEITH BULFIN: And he then panicked - this is a person who spent 27 years undercover - panicked, and rushed off to the toilet to smash the recording device that he had because he didn't want to be caught with that. And he, along with myself, knew we only had a matter of hours to live. Because the word would get out. So we went back to the hotel. We phoned the control center back in San Diego and explained. I said to them: “We've got to leave. We just have to get out of Mexico City.” 

And they made us wait until the afternoon meeting, which Miguel had arranged. 

NARRATOR: The DEA had weighed up the risks, and found in favor of continuing the mission in spite of Al’s faux pas at the cafe.

KEITH BULFIN: So we went to that meeting and I was extremely nervous. 

NARRATOR: That afternoon, Keith and Al make their way to a swanky hotel in Mexico City. The morning’s recriminations still linger as the elevator makes its painful progress skyward. They knock briskly on the door of a suite, the room number outlined in gold. Wealth is commonplace in this world but Keith doesn’t feel like a rich man. He feels like prey.

KEITH BULFIN: Went into the room. Miguel, sitting at the desk, never rose from the desk. And he, once again, was taken aback that I had walked in with Al. I hadn't told him in advance. 

NARRATOR: Miguel barely has time to react to Al’s presence before his cell phone buzzes on the desk. It’s his clients.

KEITH BULFIN: Miguel said: “My clients are on their way up and they are brothers from Colombia.”

NARRATOR: Remember, Al was Colombian, too. And there was a very good reason he no longer worked for the DEA in Colombia. You see, all undercover postings come to a close. And however they end, the undercover agent is usually exposed. In short, the Colombians knew Al’s face. It was shaping up to be a very bad day for business.

KEITH BULFIN: And Al knew at that stage he would be exposed. And he asked to go to use the bathroom. And he went to the bathroom. And, of course, unbeknownst to us, when he disappeared from the airport, he went and got a weapon. And, of course, he had the weapon on him. 

NARRATOR: Al hid in the bathroom and waited. The Colombians arrived. Al came out of the bathroom.

NARRATOR: It’s all over quickly. The smell of gunshot residue hangs thick in the air. Miguel, Al, and one of the Colombians are lifeless on the floor. The other Colombian is in bad shape, bleeding out from wounds in his shoulder and stomach. And Keith is rooted to the spot, unable to process the gory tableau before him. It’s a good thing too because there’s no time to process anything. The Colombians have bodyguards downstairs. There’s no threat of discovery. At this stage, it’s a guarantee. And now his cell phone is ringing.

KEITH BULFIN: I mean, it was fortuitous that a girl that I knew, Adriana, phoned.

NARRATOR: Adriana, as we’ll call her here, was one of Essex Finance’s legitimate clients. For the sake of appearances, the DEA encouraged Keith to maintain business relationships outside the cartels. Now, completely by chance, she was calling Keith for some financial advice. She’d really picked her moment. Still breathing shakily, Keith saw an opportunity. He asked Adriana how quickly she could meet him. Fortunately - for him, that is - she wasn’t far away. They arranged to meet in the hotel’s underground car park. Keith dresses the dying Colombian’s wounds to the best of his ability. With the kind of strength that people only summon in times of crisis, he hauls the man to the service elevator. In his other hand, he holds a briefcase containing $10m.

KEITH BULFIN: So the situation of myself in that hotel room, picking up the money, picking up the wounded Colombian, and getting myself down the service lift to the basement car park… I don't know how I did it, but I did it, and then dragged them into Adrianna's car. And then ask her to put her foot down and leave, as I explained to her who this guy was because he was mumbling in Spanish and she could work it out fairly clearly herself. 

NARRATOR: As they drove, the reality of the situation began to sink in.

KEITH BULFIN: I had now exposed her and her family. Suddenly, it's not me, it's also her. Whatever the consequences of what happened in that room, she would be executed. She could never stay in Mexico. So suddenly, it's just not you. Suddenly you've got her, and her daughter, and her mother. And I had to get them out as well, so I had to collect them and I was running blind. 

NARRATOR: Now, Keith is tearing through the streets of Mexico City. Thanks to his escape contingencies, he knows his route to the airport. It’s a stressful drive. Adriana’s mother asks frenzied questions in Spanish. The Colombian groans, slipping in and out of consciousness. Adriana’s baby daughter mewls in the backseat, unaware that by entering this car, the course of her young life has been altered forever. By now, word of what happened in that hotel room has reached the authorities. And if the police know, so do the cartels. 

KEITH BULFIN: I managed to get to the airport and I knew the airport would be bunkered down with cartel people, the corrupt police, the corrupt army, the government officials. I know how the Mexican system works. There would be no way we could even walk through the front door of the airport without being killed or kidnapped. So, driving around the airport, I noticed the light aircraft. 

NARRATOR: A small, sleek airplane is idling in a hangar on the airfield. Keith approaches the pilot, offering cash from the briefcase in return for a quick getaway. 

KEITH BULFIN: I didn't tell him exactly where I was going. Just kept saying: “Going to this destination.” And just kept paying him money. And money speaks volumes in Mexico because they don't earn a lot. So he was quite happy initially. And then it dawned on him what was happening.

NARRATOR: The aircraft leapfrogs across Mexico, refueling as necessary. The cash keeps coming. Eventually, they approach the border. A panicked call to the DEA secures permission to land, despite the pilot’s protestations. So we flew into the United States and it was a terrifying experience. 

NARRATOR: The plane eventually touched down in Brownsville, Texas, where Keith and his fellow travelers were met by a squad from the DEA. Adriana, her mother and daughter, and the wounded Colombian are led away. Keith will never see them again. He’s moved to a safe house, guarded by DEA agents. Word has it that the Colombian cartel is looking for him - no surprise, given the carnage left behind in Mexico City. He persuades the DEA to allow him to bank the $10m. That way, he can’t be accused of stealing from the cartels in the event of his capture. Keith’s girlfriend, Claudia, along with her three children from a previous relationship, joins him in Brownsville. Could this be a fresh start for the man who lost everything?

KEITH BULFIN: We're only there a week and we went to the shopping mall - so there was Claudia and the three children and myself and at the shopping mall - and we bought ice creams for the children, and we're in the car heading back. And it was one of the children that saw two guys on a motorbike. The one on the back of the motorbike was taking photographs, and taking the photographs of the back of the car, and then he came up in line with us and then took our photographs, and then took off. And when the girl said: “They’re taking a photograph,” I turned and saw them. I immediately knew exactly who they were and I knew we had to move. 

NARRATOR: Keith put in a call to the DEA. The response? “Are you sure you’re not overreacting?” “No, we're not overreacting. This is what happened. People don't just ride motorbikes and take photographs.” So they immediately then said: “Well, they'll send more agents and they'll plant them.” And, of course, the house was under surveillance anyway by the DEA, but I was nervous, Claudia was nervous. We're a mess, Claudia drank quite a bit of wine, so when she curled up in bed, she was sound asleep. It took me a while, but I eventually fell asleep too.

NARRATOR: A good night’s sleep was not on the cards.

KEITH BULFIN: And then woke up when these guys were pulling us out of bed and taping me up.

NARRATOR: Cartel thugs had entered the building. Somehow, they’d gotten past the DEA.

KEITH BULFIN: What went through my mind at that stage is, for a brief second, I didn't think we were going to survive. And then the DEA arrived on the scene, had it under surveillance. A team came in and took these guys out, but it was a scary situation. 

NARRATOR: More death. More blood. And now, Keith’s loved ones were at the center of the chaos. There was only one way out.

KEITH BULFIN: So I knew that I could never outrun them. And I knew I couldn't be protected. So I made the decision: “I'll go back.” Now, I worked on my insurance. I protected Gomez and I protected certain people in Mexico City, so I worked on the basis that because I protected them, there was a chance that I could survive.

NARRATOR: Remember, Keith’s not a law enforcement officer. He’s working with the DEA in the hope that he can live a normal life again, one day. That can’t happen if he’s dead. So he’s been careful. To an extent, he’s played both sides. He’s never given the US Government everything. And in return, he maintains deniability with the cartels. 

KEITH BULFIN: But I worked on the assumption there was a 50 percent chance I would be executed. So when you make that decision, you accept it. Then I went. 

NARRATOR: Unbeknownst to the DEA, Keith set up a meeting with a senior figure in the Mexican cartels. Let’s call him Santiago.

KEITH BULFIN: And Santiago, I met him. I had to convince him because he was the head honcho in Mexico City. He was the one that had the influence over other cartel leaders. And I felt if I can convince him, then maybe I could survive. The DEA was convinced I was on a suicide mission. And I couldn't believe what I was doing, I was walking in to be executed, as far as I'm concerned. But I worked on it. If I did this, then my family would survive, Claudia and her family would survive. That was the best result I could possibly think of. So I had a meeting. I convinced him and taught him exactly how I protected him. And, if I was an undercover agent, then his assets would be seized and his people in the United States would have been arrested. They weren't. So there was an element of doubt that I was a DEA agent. I had Gomez who stood up for me. And he kept vouching for me that I wasn't that sort of person. But they said the decision will rest with the Colombians. It's not their decision. They would go in and bat for me but the Colombians, it was going to be their decision. And they said the Colombians will probably kill you anyway but you have done the right thing. You've turned up for them. If you give them their money back, you’re simply a shot to the side of the head, but they won't touch your family. So they reached out to the Colombians. I waited 48 hours, it would have been. 

NARRATOR: Representatives of the Colombian cartel arrived in Mexico. Discussions were underway.

KEITH BULFIN: And I hardly slept. It was an emotional journey. 

NARRATOR: After what felt like a lifetime, the day of reckoning came.

KEITH BULFIN: The day they gave me my life back. 

NARRATOR: Two actions had saved Keith’s life. The first was simple. He had banked the Colombian’s money. The cartel assumed that if he had been working with the DEA, that money would be frozen. The second was simpler still. Think back to that hotel room in Mexico City - the smell of gunshots and blood in the air. Picture one, two, three still bodies. Let’s walk over to Al, our former colleague in the DEA. What did Al do that you didn’t? He wore a recording device, of course. That was the whole point of Al.

KEITH BULFIN: Car keys where you press the lock and it starts recording, press unlock and it stops recording.

NARRATOR: If you were to, say, reach inside Al’s pocket and take that device you’ve got audio that proves you were just a bystander to the shootings, as much a victim of the DEA’s machinations as anyone.

KEITH BULFIN: And that actually saved my life, that recording device.

NARRATOR: After his close call, Keith stayed on in South America for a while before finally earning enough trust to leave the country.

KEITH BULFIN: I just couldn't just say I needed to go back to the States. I have to sort of spend time there with them to prove that I wasn't an agent. So I got involved in the shopping center. I got involved in establishing a restaurant there for them. And then eventually I was allowed to go back to the United States and across the border in Tijuana. I had to do one transaction with a group of lawyers out of New York. And because the DEA was really annoyed with me, because I'd had given the Colombians back their money, which they believed was their money, I had to find out who this law firm was that was involved in laundering and hiding assets of a cartel family in Mexico City. I was able to get the name of the lawyers and I ended up going to New York and meeting up with that little firm and I had them involved in laundering some money, with the purpose of giving something to the DEA. But at the same time, getting back my freedom. Not only from the DEA but from the cartel families. And that's what I did. I did one last transaction. 

NARRATOR: One last job and Keith was out. The year was 2004. He had spent seven years living in fear. Fear for his life, and for those of his loved ones. The trauma he sustained during that time would stay with him forever. That was the price he paid to furnish the US government with some of the names, contacts, and bank accounts that enabled the cartel to rake in billions of dollars a year. But look around. Turn on the news. Drugs are still being sold and consumed in vast quantities. In 2020, Oregon became the first US state to decriminalize the possession of cocaine. Is this a war that any spy - willing or otherwise - could hope to win? Was it worth it? Well, that’s a matter of perspective. What’s yours? Several years later, Keith wrote a book about his experiences. It’s called Undercover: A Novel of a Life. 

KEITH BULFIN: For legal reasons, and to appease the DEA, it’s marketed as fiction. I had to make it fiction and then change a lot of names, which I've done. But they weren't happy. I can assure you. But they allowed it through. So yeah, interesting. There were a few annoyed people, to be honest. And when 60 Minutes and all the television documentary teams interviewed me and read the book, they all came to the conclusion: "This is a true story. I mean, this is..." And I kept smiling. Didn't respond to that. 

NARRATOR: For the purposes of this podcast, some names have been changed. But Keith assures us that everything you’ve heard today is true. Today, he undertakes forensic financial investigations for private clients. After all, nobody knows the game better than he does.

KEITH BULFIN: I carry out investigations for various people who have lost money. They contact me and I help them find it.

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. 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.

Guest Bio

Keith Bulfin is a New Zealander who has worked in the UK and South African finance industry. Working in the Australian investment banking industry in the 1980s, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud and spent three years in a supermax prison. While there, he met two Mexican fugitives and their friendship led to his recruitment by US intelligence to operate a covert banking operation for the Mexican drug cartels.

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