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A Shadow World of Life and Death : Working Mostly Undercover, DEA Agents Live With Danger and Often Die Unheralded

February 24, 1988|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

Special Agent Paul Seema had all the edges. Born in Thailand, he had worked its borders and jungle runs and at 51 was a unique and experienced hand on Asia, its drug dealers and their quickness to kill.

But in Los Angeles, it wasn't enough.

Special Agent George Montoya was younger but had caution. He was a meticulous arranger, an orderly 34-year-old with a knack for working any program and balancing its odds in his favor. He went to work with three guns, two government-issue 9mm Smith & Wesson automatics in his belt and a snub-nosed, five-shot revolver in the door of the car.

In Los Angeles, that still wasn't enough.

Both men died.

Montoya was killed instantly, shot in the head during a drug sting that turned into a drug dealer's rip-off on a quiet Pasadena street this month. Cautious George Montoya, who drank only Jim Beam on the rocks, liked eating soft steaks and firm sushi, was to have been married this summer.

Seema, also shot in the head, died later, on Feb. 6, the day before his 52nd birthday, at Huntington Memorial Hospital. Gentle Paul Seema, whose wife, Joy, was at his side when the life-support system was disconnected, had a son, Jason, 8, who that day hugged every nurse on the floor and told them: "Thanks for looking after my daddy."

Partners in Danger

Husband and father. Son and fiance. Seema's passion was fishing the big rivers of his wife's home state of Minnesota. Montoya, of a Latino father and a Japanese mother, liked the music of Hiroshima, a jazz fusion group, and one day wanted to tour Japan.

Ordinary men. Partners. The energy of youth playing off the stability of experience. Yet they also were companions in an extraordinary craft whose dangers, by their deaths, may now be seen in finer detail.

"Television glorifies us as fun and games and cops and robbers," said Rogelio Guevara, a Los Angeles agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, a friend of both men. "But it (DEA work) is also very real, a very dangerous job, and it is for keeps.

"We have the highest assault rate of any federal law enforcement agency, and if anything, we're seeing an increase. That's nothing to brag about, just a sad truth.

"Thirty-three federal narcotics agents have been killed in the last 50 years, and I venture to say the bulk of these were in the past 10 or 15 years. In the first 45 days of last year, one agent in Texas was shot and killed. One in Atlanta. A third in Florida. It's almost common for agents to be shot. It has become noteworthy only when they die."

Why did Seema and Montoya die?

Because, say fellow agents with the Los Angeles Field Office of DEA, there come moments when all the years of training and varieties of experience are overcome by drug dealers who hold the ultimate advantages: absolute greed, total cruelty and a facility for murder. Fearing no reprisals, they kill companion drug dealers. They murder federal officers who play too convincingly their roles as companion drug dealers.

"I wonder what they (Seema and Montoya) could have done if they'd had their guns in their hands?" asked Guevara. He answered his own question. "Nothing. It (the train of events) was all within the keeping of a, quote, legitimate, unquote, drug deal.

"Then it went down." Guevara snapped finger and thumb. "Like that. Before anyone had a chance to process what was going on, it happened. The only way they could have saved themselves would have been not to have been there that day.

"But they were paid to be there that day."

Guevara, a 16-year field agent before his transfer to a public information job with the DEA's 90-agent Los Angeles field office, carries the mark of such peril.

There's a long scar down the center of his forehead. It's from 1974 and an ambush in Mexico. Guevara was shot in the head and survived. His partner, Jose Luis Ballesteros, was killed.

Ballesteros can be named because he is dead. But those who live and continue to work in the faceless world of drug enforcement generally choose to remain anonymous. On the rare occasions they are interviewed, as for this article, the agreement is that they remain nameless.

Their dangers are everywhere, said one agent. So the mind-set, he added, must be constant vigilance, hit the ground running, always know an escape--and accept that you are the armed and dangerous one.

Many police officers have gone from induction to retirement without ever firing their weapons. In a January report in Insight magazine, Robert Bryden, training director at the DEA academy at Quantico, Va., raised the absolute contrast: "The DEA agent who graduates today probably will have to draw his gun within the first week."

For George Montoya, it was one month and two days from academy graduation before he probably should have drawn his gun. But then there wasn't time. Not even for a good, fast gun like Montoya, who, although new to DEA, had spent 10 years as a U.S. Border Patrol agent and then as an Immigration and Naturalization Service investigator.

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