Mike Vigil Director, Counter-Narcotics Programs

mike-inline-quote “I had maybe $300 in my wallet,” Mike Vigil says. “We were in Brazil. We had negotiated for almost half a ton of cocaine with a very prominent Bolivian drug trafficker. And he wanted to see the money.”


“I want to see the money.”

Normally, when you’re an undercover DEA agent and a heavily armed drug trafficker asks to see the money. The best thing to do, if you don’t want the entire operation to blow up in your face, is to show them the money.

The problem was, there was no money.

“I had maybe $300 in my wallet,” Mike Vigil says. “We were in Brazil. We had negotiated for almost half a ton of cocaine with a very prominent Bolivian drug trafficker and he wanted to see the money.”

Mike is telling me this as nonchalantly as if he were describing a meeting at the office. I, on the other hand, am reacting in disbelief. “So what did you do?” I ask.

“Well, I played on his greed and convinced him to tell his people that he had seen the money. You can’t let them see you’re nervous because these are little signs they can quickly spot.”

“Wait a minute,” I stop him. “You are in Brazil in front of a violent drug trafficker trying to buy an immense amount of cocaine with no money and you can’t act nervous?”

“One minor mistake could mean your life,” Mike says. It’s easy to see how Mike’s calm demeanor and natural poker face would lend itself to this type of work. But that didn’t make what he was telling me any less amazing.

“So how do you do that?” I ask. “How do you keep from being nervous?”

“What I would do,” he said as if he’s letting me in on a secret, “is psychologically expunge any thought from my mind that I was a federal agent and would become one of them.”

“That had to be an adrenaline rush.”

“It certainly was a rush. The problem was you’d get addicted to it and to get a higher adrenaline rush each time you begin to take more significant risks and that is where it became very dangerous.”

“So what happened in Brazil?”

“Well, after a lot of negotiating, we had the traffickers transport the cocaine to an isolated ranch in a little town called Avare – about four hours outside of Sao Paulo. The traffickers landed a twin engine aircraft on a pasture near this ranch house. I had about 30 Brazilian police dressed in camouflage uniforms near the runway.”

“During the arrests, one of the traffickers attempted to detonate a fragmentation grenade but dropped it when he saw a small army pointing weapons at him. The seizure was the largest in Brazilian history at the time.”

“Wow. That is something out of a movie,” I comment.

“It certainly was,” Mike agrees.“I couldn’t believe they were paying me to do it. It really was more of an adventure than a job.”

“But you didn’t just make a difference as an undercover agent,” I say, checking my notes. “You also put together some impressive coalitions.”

Mike nods. “After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, I developed Operation Containment which involved 25 countries, and made a significant impact on movement of Afghan heroin and opium in the region.”

“And you also formed a multinational operation to fight drugs in Latin America?”

“I was responsible for numerous operations. Operation Liberator was the largest, which included 36 countries. All of them were very successful.” You can tell this is an achievement he is proud of, and rightly so.

“That could not have been easy,” I say. “Getting three or four countries to work together is hard, much less getting 36 of them to get along.”

Mike deep under cover in South America

Mike deep under cover in South America

“The secret is developing close personal relationships with foreign counterparts,” Mike responds. “Professional relationships will only take you so far. But, if you really take time to forge friendships and really get to know them, you can overcome a lot of differences, even political and economic ones. And really, stopping the drug trade and international terrorism is in every one’s best interest.”

I wonder aloud how all of these experiences translate to his role at Mission Essential.

“My experiences taught me that selecting the right people for the right team and working together can make the world a safer place. It’s not about individuals, but about teamwork, organizing the coalition and executing the mission. Mission Essential has a great foundation of people – international experts in diverse fields. It’s why we’re able to do things very rapidly and it’s a big part of what gives us an advantage.”

“That makes sense,” I say. As I close my notebook, I ask him one last question.

“So you really miss it, don’t you? The adrenaline rush of undercover work?”

“Every day,” Mike Vigil says and for the first time in our interview I actually see him smile.