DEA Agents Apply Expertise Far From Home

In border region, U.S. DEA agents try to cut off militants' source of funding.

Aug. 20, 2009 — -- Over a village in southern Afghanistan, an American helicopter circles and lands. Armed men jump out and huddle near a compound wall. A translator speaking through a megaphone announces a police action and says the men are coming in.

It's one of the most politically unstable corners of the world, but the men aren't on a typical mission for troops in Afghanistan. In fact, they aren't even soldiers, and, despite what it looks like, this is not a U.S. military operation. This is the American Drug Enforcement Administration.

"It's never just about seizing and destroying the drugs," team leader Frank Tarentino told "Nightline." "It's really more about the taking down, dismantling, the disruption of organizations. ... This operation will start to generate intelligence and information that will assist for following operations."

For nine years the DEA has quietly toiled away in Afghanistan to stop drug traffickers. But now the agency is at the center of the Obama administration's strategy in Afghanistan.

This elite group of DEA Foreign-deployed Advisory and Support Team members -- nicknamed the FAST Team -- has taken its drug-fighting expertise to Afghanistan because the country is the source of an estimated 90 percent of the world's heroin.

Money from that drug trade is believed to generate $125 million a year and fund the Taliban and the growing insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as possibly al Qaeda.

Tarentino leads his men on four-month deployments in Afghanistan. Their mission is to collect evidence and build legal cases against drug dealers. Often, they target smaller dealers to build larger cases.

In compounds raided by the agents with "Nightline" cameras rolling, the FAST team seized opium, heroin, hash, weapons and evidence, and arrested several suspects.

In one case, suspects fled, leaving weeping women and children behind, and the tea they were drinking still warm.

In another case, agents arrested a man for possession of hash.

"I need for you to talk to the women, that they are placing the husband under arrest for illegal possession of narcotics," Tarentino told his translator as a suspect was handcuffed and a nearby woman and baby cried.

The arrested man spoke to his family in Pashto.

The interpreter explained that he told his distraught wife that he was only being taken away for questioning -- but Afghan drug laws are strict, and he was likely going to jail for 15 years. The suspect was blindfolded and put in a helicopter.

"We have successfully removed many Afghans, roughly eight, to the U.S. for prosecution," said Tarentino. "Most notably, the largest trafficker in all of Afghanistan is sitting in a U.S. prison right now."

Elite Agents Pass Grueling Tryout

DEA agents must pass a grueling multi-week tryout to make the team. While in-country, they train like soldiers, with target practice and other drills.

Tarentino is a former Army captain. He is currently on his sixth deployment in Afghanistan and has deployed on other assignments around the globe. After retiring from the military, Tarentino joined the DEA and was working for the agency in New York on 9/11.

"Like the rest of the country, we all felt the need to get involved and this was the best way for me to do it," he said.

More than half of the FAST team has military backgrounds. Part of their job is to train a special Afghan police force tasked with drug interdiction.

"This makes them better, and you know, if they get better that makes us better," said Tarentino. "And that's the overall goal, is to eventually, at one point, is to give this program, this mission, this tasking completely over to [the Afghans]."

Operations begin early in the day. It helps with the element of surprise, and to avoid the 120-degree summer heat.

A recent operation began shortly after 4 a.m., with Tarentino driving to Kandahar Air Field to meet his team before boarding helicopters and flying to a village near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The DEA expected to capture persons of interest, as well as caches of heroin, opium and hash. Intelligence for the operation suggested there were large amounts of drugs at the target.

After touchdown, the team gathered next to the tall wall of the compound. With explosives, they blew a hole in the wall and quickly moved inside.

But when they searched the compound, they found nothing.

'That's a Seizure Here, Friends'

Then reports came in from informants that drugs may have been stashed in a nearby field. So Tarentino led a group overland, as helicopters circled.

The helicopters dropped purple smoke so that the team could see where it was believed opium was hidden.

The team discovered a former hiding spot for what was thought to be hash, but whatever drugs had been at the site evidently had been moved. The team grew a bit frustrated. Tarentino returned to the compound when, suddenly, an American voice cried out.

"There is like 145-pound bags of s*** down there, dude," a soldier told Tarentino.

"Is it hash?" the team leader asked.

"I don't know what it is, it's all pre-packaged, too," the soldier said. "It's huge."

"Where is it?"

"It's right in here," said the soldier, pointing to a building. "It was hidden."

Tarentino walked inside a building, where a hole had been uncovered.

"Oh, you are kidding me," he said. "Awesome. All right, that's a seizure here, my friends."

A soldier had climbed into the hole and was holding bags of drugs.

Tarentino called in a report.

"Yeah, we found a pretty significant size of, uh, cache of op-- correction, hash, at our location," he said. "It's going to take a great deal of manpower at this location. I'd like everybody to collapse onto the main objective area."

He turned to speak to his team.

"I want a sample of every single different bag," he said.

An agent explained how the drugs were hidden.

"Just, all these cans were on top of it, there was a blanket over it," the agent said, explaining that the soldiers had gone in after confirming the cache wasn't booby trapped.

"In this case," said Tarentino, "the agent did a great job of really doing a thorough search, and that thorough search resulted in this find. So, you know, I mean, you just really have to do all you can to clear away and find hidden spots. I mean, this is certainly hidden from the naked eye, so they could hide, keep their narcotics and distribute it at their leisure. So, this was a hide site that, you know, if you walked over it you wouldn't have seen it."

The team began to remove plastic-wrapped drugs hidden in a special packaging.

"Look, it's in Ragu sauce!" said one team member. The sauce packets had been used to hide the drugs.

"We found approximately 2,000 kilos of seed, loose hash," said another team member.

In total, the team has found more than three tons of hash.

After taking samples, the team destroyed the drugs by blowing them up, then headed back onto the helicopters and back to their base to prepare for another mission.