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By Gabrielle Maxey

Carl Pike’s resume includes stints as a temporary letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service and as a ranger with the Tennessee Department of Conservation. So it might be surprising to learn that last fall a team of 3,000 law enforcement officers under Pike’s command struck a severe blow against a ruthless Mexican drug cartel that is responsible for distributing huge amounts of narcotics in the United States, smuggling cash and weapons back to Mexico and murdering Mexican law enforcement officials.

Pike (BA ’87) is assistant special agent in charge of the Mexico, Central America and Canada Section of the Special Operations Division of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). In October 2009 he led a 20-state, multi-agency strike against the La Familia Mexican drug cartel, resulting in more than 1,200 arrests and the seizure of one and a half tons of methamphetamine, $32 million in cash and 400 weapons.

Carl Pike
Carl Pike
Project Coronado involved nearly four years of planning and resulted in strikes in more than 50 cities, including Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and locations in California and North Carolina. The operation also required extensive follow-up in the days and weeks afterward.

The FBI special agent in charge calls Coronado “the best run multi-agency initiative that I’ve had a role in.” Other agents praise Pike’s personality and leadership.

“I have the greatest team in the world and I owe our success to my management who gave me the unbridled freedom to recruit the very best,” Pike says. “We are a team. We come from different agencies, backgrounds and fields of expertise, but all with one common goal: to give 110 percent every day to the mission at hand. Thousands of men and women around the world worked tirelessly on this project and others to make a difference. Without these individuals and their dedication to public service, we at Special Operations Division would be nothing.”

Sharing is the first and biggest step, says Pike. “We never want to find ourselves explaining to the taxpayer how we returned to the pre-9/11 mindset of not sharing intelligence and assets. Next is the recognition of the individual or agency’s needs to be successful in their endeavor. More often than not they are the same. We do our best to fill that gap. One victory is a victory for all.”

La Familia is a heavily armed cult and drug cartel that uses violence to further its narcotics trafficking business, and is responsible for murders, kidnappings and military-style assaults on the police and civilians of Mexico. It is one of the major traffickers of methamphetamine in the United States.

Project Coronado followed DEA operations against three other major Mexican drug cartels, and was part of a broader joint U.S.-Mexican effort to combat drug trafficking. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and other officials have met with Mexican leaders and pledged continued support for Mexico’s war against the drug cartels. They also acknowledged that much of the problem comes from the continued U.S. demand for illegal drugs.

Pike, who heads the largest section within DEA’s Special Operations Division, said one of the big obstacles and notable successes was working with the Mexican government. “Thtey are really trying to assist in this problem, but corruption is so widespread. Still, they knew what was going on and they took action.”

Danger, he says, is the elephant in the room. “Everyone knows it’s there, but it is seldom comes up in conversation, except in an occasional lighthearted joke, usually along the lines of, ‘Which is more dangerous, undercover work on a cartel or spending the day with your mother-in-law?’ Yes, the danger is real, whether it’s the uniform officer making a traffic stop on Poplar Avenue, the agent working undercover in a housing project in New Orleans, the DEA team stepping from a helicopter into a poppy field in Afghanistan, or the ranger walking up on a group of poachers in the middle of the night in a state park. I have lost friends on this job. We learn from our mistakes and take the concept of covering each other’s back very seriously, even though we may be thousands of miles away.”

Family is never far from the agent’s mind, Pike notes. “It takes a very special spouse to make a life with someone in this line of work. It’s that ‘strong spouse’ that makes this hazard of the job a very manageable bump in the road.”

His wife, Susanna, is a poster child for the ‘strong spouse,’ Pike says. “She keeps me grounded, not an easy task.” His calls his family, which includes three sons and a daughter, “my number one hobby and the most fun of any hobby I’ve ever had.” A big fan of the pugilistic arts, he also enjoys boxing, Jiu Jitsu, MMA and collegiate wrestling.

Pike got his start in public service through the U of M’s Park Ranger Training Program, which was directed by Dr. William Dwyer. He served at the Harpeth River Historic District and at Montgomery Bell State Park in Nashville before returning home to Meeman Shelby Forest State Park.

His transition to DEA agent came through the U of M’s criminal justice program. “It started with an unusual (some considered too dangerous) facet of the internship program led by Dr. Jerry Sparger,” Pike explains. “I was placed in the Memphis-Shelby County Metro Narcotics Unit. Through much legal research, frank negotiations and the fact that I was already a commissioned law enforcement officer, I had the chance to learn from what are, 25 years later, some of the most gifted criminal investigators I’ve come to know. Not only did I learn the trade, I got the most direct exposure one could have to the balance of federal, state and local government as they pull together to focus toward one goal. The whole experience changed my life.”

DEA Assistant Special Agent Carl Pike (second from right), a U of M alumnus, was a 2010 Service to America Medals finalist. The awards are presented by the Partnership for Public Service for outstanding civil service.
DEA Assistant Special Agent Carl Pike (second from right), a U of M alumnus, was a 2010 Service to America Medals finalist. The awards are presented by the Partnership for Public Service for outstanding civil service.

As far as Pike knows, he is the only student to have been placed in such a risky internship. “Working closely with all the agencies, I chose to move on with DEA,” he says. “It was and still is where I feel I best serve my country. But there are some days when I miss being a ranger.”

After graduating from the DEA Academy in Quantico, Va., Pike worked briefly in Memphis and then was transferred to New Orleans, where he served for nearly 10 years. After completing a project in Washington, D.C., he earned his first command as resident agent in charge of the DEA’s Panama City, Fla., office. “It was a great experience, as we worked with all the law enforcement entities in the 11 counties that made up our area of responsibility,” Pike says. “It was a great reminder that not all big crime happens in the big city.” He returned to Washington, where he worked in the Office of Professional Responsibility before being chosen to head the Special Operations Division.

Pike compares his collaborative management style to that at Google or Yahoo: getting the job done by recognizing the value of each team member. “Like Drew Brees leading the Saints to the Super Bowl,” he says. “He gave everyone on the team ownership. We all share here, too.”

The running joke in his section is, “There’s no adult supervision here,” Pike says. “I truly believe in the team concept; all are equal and all have something to contribute. The first thing one notices as they walk into our office is an old patio table with an umbrella adorned with chili pepper lights and a sombrero. It’s all squeezed into an otherwise typical D.C. pod office space. This is our epicenter. On any given day you will find most, if not all, of the group pulled up under the umbrella working together to resolve what could otherwise be a crisis. One team together, it so beats having 40 individuals coming up with 40 partial answers for me to chose from – not my idea of effective use of brainpower.”

Pike and his team also were involved in Project Deliverance, which looked at the domestic infrastructure of narcotic trafficking and the movement of drug money. Their goal was to pressure transportation and distribution groups, money movers and even corrupt public officials.

For his efforts, Pike was named a finalist in the Service to America Medals awards program, or “Sammies,” by the Partnership for Public Service. Although it’s an individual honor, Pike is quick to credit his team. “I’m very, very humbled, especially coming from a long family line of public service and understanding what this honor means to so many. Then to stand alongside of the other nominees and winners whose work was so phenomenal, it did make me ponder if there was some mistake. I want all to understand it’s not me, it’s the team. They made this happen. It’s their work that is being honored.”

The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals are presented annually to celebrate excellence in federal civil service.

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