Pam Brown: DEA Agent

 |  October 29, 2009

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration has had an office in Chiang Mai since 1973 (it also has offices in Udon Thani and Bangkok), when it was set up to monitor the emerging drug situation in northern Thailand and Burma, both of which were heavy producers of opium, which flowed freely through Thailand’s porous 2,200 kilometre northern border with Burma and Laos. Today, the DEA office consists of a resident agent in charge, four special agents, two intelligence analysts, an administrative officer, five Thai narcotics investigators, and Thai office staff. In addition, the staff is supported by four Sensitive Investigations Unit personnel, making the DEA the largest US agency in the Chiang Mai US Consul General.

The DEA also works closely with the Royal Thai Narcotics Suppression Bureau Police, the Office of Narcotics Control Board, the Provincial Police Narcotics Suppression Unit, the Thai Third Army, the Thai Immigration Bureau and the Royal Thai Customs. In short, the DEA works closely with all major drug-related Thai counterparts to focus on identifying, disrupting, and dismantling high-level drug trafficking organisations in the region.

In charge of all this for the past four years is Pam Brown, the first and only female supervisory DEA special agent to have served in South East Asia.

When Brown, 51, walked into Citylife’s office for her interview, heads turned. Tall, athletic, lithe, and very attractive, she has the commanding presence of someone used to being in charge. It had taken us a few months to set up this interview, as permission had to be granted from headquarters in Washington D.C., her job requiring sensitivity to diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Brown has been with the DEA for 21 years, since her recruitment in New Orleans. “I come from a small town in Louisiana where there were no women in law enforcement, it never entered my head to go into that field, so when I was recruited I was immediately excited by the challenge,” said Brown in her incongruously lilting southern accent. “The DEA was having a hard time finding women, and being athletic, with a master’s degree and not hindered by any family responsibilities, I was a good fit,” continued Brown, who is a lesbian, one of the contributing reasons which has allowed her more mobility in her career. “I had to sign an agreement that I could be relocated whenever it was required of me, something few women with children could commit to.”

“After graduation from Quantico my first assignment was Miami, Florida, which was the best job for a young agent.

Cocaine was literally falling out of the skies then; bales were being dropped all the time into the blue waters of the Caribbean, fast boats zipping out to retrieve them. Everything was happening in Miami, the financial headquarters of South and Central American drug trading.” Brown rose rapidly up the ranks, building her reputation by volunteering for dangerous jobs. “My colleagues liked me because I would work on Christmases and holidays so they could be with their family, and constantly raising my hand to take on extra work helped me gain respect in an agency which was dominated by male agents _ only 6% of us are women. I would be the first to grab the machine gun and lead a raid and I even volunteered for one of the most difficult and dangerous assignments, Operation Snowcap, completing three tours in the jungles of South and Central America.” Brown’s early career was fraught with danger as she led raids, made arrests, went to court against large drug king-pins as a prosecution witness and did undercover work, but by 1999 she had entered the supervisory ranks and has worked in management for the past decade. Her assignment to Chiang Mai was her first, and most likely last, overseas relocation.

After talk of submachine guns, high speed racing, heated court cases and undercover danger, Brown becomes more reticent when discussing her time in Chiang Mai, which draws to a close this November. “Our job here is on going, and soon there will be someone here to replace me, I must be careful not to say anything that will make their work more difficult, I also must be careful not to jeopardise ties with my Thai counterparts,” explains Brown.

“Thailand is a transhipment country, mainly of heroin and meth, ‘ice’, because of a number of contributing factors,” she explains. “Thailand has a sophisticated transportation system _ great airports, excellent trucking industry _ which is conducive to export and a very long border which offers drug traffickers ease of access from Burma, and especially Shan State, where the United Wa State Army are the major producers of drugs in the region. Apart from ya ba, there isn’t much of a consumers’ market here in Thailand and our job is to look at the larger picture: we know that chemicals used to produce these drugs come from China and India, we know that the drugs are produced in Burma, we know that they come to Thailand _ sometimes even entering Laos before doubling back into Thailand again in an attempt to outsmart authorities _ and then we know that they are exported to the United States, Europe, Australia, Canada and Taiwan.”

“In Thailand we have a good group of counterparts which we work with,” continued Brown. “We train, we equip, we offer expertise and we share intelligence.” When asked about corruption, Brown gives a diplomatic answer, “In every society there is an element of corruption, there is no more here than I have seen elsewhere. We are only guests here and through the years we have always considered the Thai government a good partner of the US.”

When asked about success rates Brown explains that much of what the DEA does here is interagency cooperation; any arrest is done by Thai authorities, though Brown is licensed to, and always does, carry a gun while on duty for protection. While drug lords in Burma can not be arrested, extradited or prosecuted, the DEA can and does put pressure on them to limit their mobility, “these people are very smart, they have world class lawyers and accountants, we are talking about sophisticated international criminals here. At the end of the day the most frustrating thing is that we have to play by the rules, and they don’t,” laughs Brown.

“We are, overall, happy with our track record,” she explains. “When the DEA first set up office here, Thailand was a source country but today there is no real significant drug production here, the risks and penalties have been a deterrent and HM the King’s Royal Project is one of the most impressive programmes I have ever encountered. Thailand’s education efforts regarding drugs is something Thais should be proud of. I am also proud of our new airport interdiction programme which is to be based on intelligence, good police work, scrutiny of flight patterns and the development of intelligence through the study of patterns.”

“Joining the DEA was the best decision I have ever made,” says Brown with a smile of pride. “The challenge, the excitement, the feeling of doing something altruistic, I, like most people, like feeling that I am making a difference. I feel good about what I do every day. I have also enjoyed living here. The Thai people are generous and kind and I have made so many friends. My role as head of the agency is different from other agents; I manage investigations and activities, I work with the local business community. Importantly, I am constantly aware that I need to create a good impression of my country while in Thailand. I will be sad to leave, but am also looking forward to working at the DC headquarters on policy to support our offices domestically and internationally. Then there is mandatory retirement at 57. After that, who knows, I may want to spend some selfish time on me!”