Interview: Juan Antonio Juarez, Former Undercover Chicago Police Narcotics Officer

Ever wonder about the process of going undercover in law enforcement? How exactly does one successfully change one’s appearance in order to be credible and gain the trust of drug dealers and hardened criminals?

Recently I sat down with author Juan Antonio Juarez, former Chicago Police Officer and former member of an elite undercover narcotics unit known as the “Tavern Team,” to discuss his work as an undercover officer and how he artfully altered his attire and appearance to gain the confidence of drug dealers and purchase narcotics.

Disguising himself, Juarez faced certain danger night after night in the bars and nightclubs of Chicago, where he posed as a drug user in search of heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy, resulting in the arrest of the sellers, the bartenders, and sometimes closures of the bars where the drug deals took place.

Juarez details his work on the Tavern Team within a city police force pervaded by corruption, greed, and dishonest cops in his memoir, Brotherhood of Corruption:  A Cop Breaks the Silence on Police Abuse, Brutality, and Racial Profiling (ISBN-10: 1556525362, ISBN-13: 978-1556525360, 320 pages, Chicago Review Press, 2004).

A first generation Mexican-American, and a second-generation Chicago Police Officer, Juarez joined the force in 1992, at the age of twenty-three.  Before working undercover, Juarez worked in uniform for two years.

Lauren Michel:  You first worked in a standard police uniform.  What was that like?

Juan Antonio Juarez:  That’s pretty easy being in a uniform, because you don’t have to think about what you’re wearing.  You just put it on.  But I can’t say I really enjoyed polyester pants and uniform shirts.  And black shoes, shiny work shoes.  They always wanted them to be patent leather, but they really weren’t that good to run in.

LM:  Did you have to do a lot of running? What for?

JAJ:  Oh, yeah.  After people.  All you do is just start doing is rolling up and you see kids taking off.  I was a kid at one time and I knew that whenever I saw the police, if I was doing something bad, I wasn’t going to wait.  I was going to run.  My mind frame is if they’re running, they’re up to something dirty.  There were a lot of foot chases.

There were times when people would run, when the young guys would run, and it was hilarious to see them trying to run with these pants that were down at their knees [the fashion of wearing over-sized, sagging pants], because it was easy pickings.  They couldn’t really run too far before they’re falling down. I didn’t understand that at all, why they would be wearing something that would slow them down, especially they knew they were going to be running. 

LM:  When you first began working as a narcotics officer, what were your first undercover assignments like?

JAJ:  There was a time when I was “trying” to buy narcotics on the street.  Crack.  It didn’t work.  I would just try to wear street clothes, nothing that was outlandish, casual stuff, but even my casual stuff was cleaner than clean.

LM:  What were you supposed to look like?

JAJ:  Like a street person.  Like an addict.  Like a user.  Like you want it.  I only did that for a couple weeks, because I had no success.

LM:  People didn’t believe you were a drug addict?

JAJ:  They didn’t believe me at all.

LM:  And that was because your clothing and your appearance weren’t believable?

JAJ:  Everything.  Your stature, the way you hold yourself.  Just didn’t look like a junkie.  There were other people on our team who looked like junkies, and they weren’t.  That’s the funny thing, that they just weren’t junkies, but they looked like it.

What they would do is that some of them would start getting on the ground and roll in the dirt and get all dirty and not bathe for a couple of days. They would really try and get into the part of being a junkie and living that.  They would take beer cans and pour it on their clothes so that they were all nasty and smelly, and they’d have their money [marked bills] and it would be all crumpled up and all dirty and foul and fetid.

LM:  After unsuccessfully working undercover to purchase narcotics on the streets of Chicago, you switched to the Tavern Team and went undercover into bars and nightclubs, to purchase drugs, leading to arrests and potential bar closures.  What part of Chicago did you cover?

JAJ:  I got to choose the bars that I went into.  Any neighborhood.  We had the whole city.  We could go into any bar.  I could pick a reggae bar.  I could pick an upper-class bar. I could pick a members-only bar.

LM:  How did you change your appearance, and what did you wear when you were posing as a drug user who was looking to purchase illegal drugs?

JAJ:  If it was a hip hop bar, just try to dress in whatever attire I thought was hip hop.  I had a goatee at times, or I would just shave all my hair off.  Going into Boystown [Chicago’s gay district], I would wear tighter pants, and I would have wife-beater t-shirts on, try to be as provocative as I could be.  It was all about trying to fit the image of the bar.

I would go into bars in neighborhoods where blue-collar guys were, hardworking guys, and they all played 16-inch softball, so I would go in there with my softball shirt on, just to have some type of credence, so that they would say, “Wow, this guy could fit into the neighborhood.”

Some of the better clubs were the ones that were members-only clubs.  I would go to these clubs, and high-end dance clubs.  I would be all dressed up, because as I was growing up, I just loved having a wardrobe.  I loved having good clothes.

LM:  Can you tell me about an occasion when you found yourself in trouble in a bar, on account of your appearance not being appropriate, or believable, for what you were trying to accomplish?

JAJ:  One time, I went to a bar and I was in the wrong shoes.  I was wearing some Nikes.  They were black Nikes with a blue swoosh and a blue sole.  I went into this bar and I was just sitting at the bar, having some drinks and all of a sudden a guy comes up and he sits next to me, he’s like, “What you about?”

“I’m not about anything.  I’m just sitting at the bar.  I want to have a drink.  I got a girlfriend, she lives two blocks away.  I’m going to see her in a little bit.  She’s going to give me a page and I’ll go over there.”

He calls his buddies over and they’re like, “Look at his shoes,” and I’m like, “These are just my gym shoes, bro,” and they’re like, “No, no, no, dude, you’re with Latin Kings or something.”

No, dude, I have no gang affiliation whatsoever.”

They told me to stand up and they frisked me. One of the guys, he was talking about the shoes and I changed the subject somehow to Cancun and he was like, “Dude, I’ve been to Cancun!” and the topic totally changed, and he became someone that I marked and that I was able to score from, because of that change in the conversation.  But when I was leaving the bar, he’s like, “Dude, next time you come here, you’d better have some different shoes on.”

That’s really what I needed to do is I needed to fit in, because the last thing I wanted to do was be an odd man in a bar. The clothes were a good way of just getting in and getting their comfort zone sort of in conjunction with what I wanted to do, which was to purchase narcotics.

Juan Antonio Juarez left the Chicago Police Department after seven years, and since that time he has been a college professor and a high school and middle school teacher, focusing on English writing skills and English as a Second Language.  The next installment of his memoirs, covering his transition from officer to civilian, leading up to the pivotal point at which he left Chicago to start a new life in California, is in progress.  You can read more about Juarez and Brotherhood of Corruption, at his web site, BrotherhoodofCorruption.com.

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1 Comment

  • Ellen November 30, 2010 01.26 pm

    very interesting interview! love the shoe story!

     

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