As a girl, Karen Flowers was obsessed with Nancy Drew books and “Charlie’s Angels.”
“I wanted to be Nancy and I also wanted to be one of the Angels,” she recalled of her childhood in Springfield, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Combine that with her parents’ encouragement to work in a role that serves the public good, and perhaps her longtime stint as a Girl Scout, and she ended up at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Her 27-year career has brought her to San Diego as the DEA’s newest special agent in charge — and the distinction of being the first woman to hold the position here.
Flowers has actually worked in San Diego before, from 2013 to 2015, among assignments in Denver, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and El Paso, Texas, where she most recently headed the division.
The San Diego Union-Tribune sat down with Flowers, only two weeks on the job, to talk about her background, DEA’s role in the current drug crisis and the drug threat that keeps her up at night.
Q: You were hired at the DEA in 1991, at the peak of the crack-cocaine epidemic when crime was at an all-time high.
A: Cocaine cowboys Miami.
Q: What was that like?
A: For somebody who was 23 and just got a gold badge and a gun, it was exciting.
Q: Where did you start out?
A: I started in Reno, Nev. It was interesting. It’s a small office. I was assigned to a task force group comprised of agents and task force officers … They kind of taught me how to do the job. We were a local unit, so it was a lot of street-level stuff that we tried to develop into larger investigations. And kind of like here in San Diego, but nothing to the scale, the problem there is methamphetamine. So my first “clan lab” I walked in with no gloves, no gear whatsoever, followed by my informant and senior agent. We started to search the home. It’s not something we would do today. I had no clue. You just didn’t really understand the consequences of coming into contact with substances like that.
Q: What is your most memorable, biggest case?
A: It was a methamphetamine investigation. The targets were in Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico, who were trafficking heroin and methamphetamine in Reno and surrounding areas. It was one of the investigations we developed from state and local perspective, from buying loads on the street to pound quantities and controlled deliveries from Los Angeles proper to Reno.
Q: So your most memorable case was from when you were a young agent?
A: Yes. That’s because it was a big case then, it was an OCDETF (Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces Program) case, “Operation Savior.” It was just being able to take it from nothing and make it into a big investigation that impacted the source of supply as opposed to street level distribution.
Q: Which is the whole goal of the DEA, right?
A: The biggest and the baddest.
Q: Any good war stories?
A: I tried out and was selected to be part of “Operation Snowcap,” which was a cocaine eradication effort in South and Central America. I deployed to Peru in 1994. There was a selection process because you were going into non-conventional areas in the jungle in Peru for cocaine lab destruction and clandestine airports. … The U.S. Army Rangers devised a specialized training for DEA. That one week was a trial at Fort Benning. You have to complete the first week in order to progress into the 90 days of training and then six months of language training before deployment. It was probably one of the things I’m most proud of in my career. I was a female, 25 years old, at that time doing things that people enlisted in the military were not allowed to do as a female. It was a unique experience to be in that all-male environment.
Q: Were you involved with the plane crash that killed five DEA agents there in 1994?
A: As part of the deployment to Peru my team’s primary role had been identifying clandestine airstrips and then conducting demolition of those airstrips. So as part of that we do overflights with our King Air jets, and that’s the mission they went up on August 27. … I was at an airport base called Santa Lucia. That’s when I got off the plane and one of my teammates Jason got on the plane, and then they took off for a surveillance mission to identify confidential source information regarding a landing strip, and during that the plane crashed. At that time Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) was very active and we heard some chatter over some host nation radio intercepts that they were also looking for the plane. At the time we didn’t know if it was shot down or if we had any casualties. Unfortunately time progressed without being able to locate the plane. When we did it was in a very remote area where we had to have people rappel into the crash site. They basically were flying pretty low and got too far into a box canyon, by the time they realized where they were at they couldn’t pull themselves out.
Q: Is your job as a DEA agent ever frustrating or does it make you feel helpless? The drug problem seems so immense.
A: I think it can be in the sense that we are capable of doing a lot of things but we can’t do everything. It’s hard when you don’t have all the resources we need to target the problem. I think that it’s difficult personally to watch the news sometimes and it does seem overwhelming, the magnitude of the problem and the current opioid crisis we’re in. But one of the things from my mom teaching me is to just do what you can everyday to make somebody’s life better that day and break it down to the small things instead of looking at the overall picture, because it does get daunting. As I’ve progressed through my career — it’s not everyday I feel that way — but some days I do. … It's like whack-a-mole. We’ve had some really big maritime cases taking ton quantities of cocaine that are not coming into America, that’s huge. But how many other thousands of pounds are we not getting?
Q: What do role do you see the DEA playing in today’s drug crisis?
A: It’s always trying to disrupt and dismantle the highest level violator, actually going to the source of supply and staying on that high end to destruct those organizations. What we’ve seen with the opioid crisis in particular which was different from the crack cocaine epidemic is that we’ve gotten away from doing some of the work we did previously when I first came on. We were heavily involved in demand reduction activities … then we became hyper-focused on the enforcement angle, which is our main mission. What the opioid crisis demonstrated to us is we need to re-evaluate where we can have impact and it’s not just in the enforcement lane, it’s also on demand reduction and prevention.
Q: Can you give a snapshot of what the drug problem is like in San Diego right now?
A: San Diego is unique in that we are a border city, we have six ports of entry, we are right here on the water. We’re like Chicago in that we are a transshipment point, not really a destination for drugs but things come through here, both the drugs and money, in and out. However, we also have a very prolific methamphetamine addiction problem in San Diego and Imperial counties, which shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who’s from here because in reality this is kind of the birthplace of meth. It’s not where it was first manufactured but it certainly became the starting point of the fire starting up the West Coast. Meth is still our No. 1 threat in this area.
The second threat are synthetic drugs, specifically fentanyl. Here … we’ve primarily seen fentanyl being used in pill form. It’s counterfeit prescription meds, so it’s something you might think is a hydrocodone tablet or a Xanax or an OxyContin tablet is not what it appears, it’s actually some variant of fentanyl and some filler. I think that to me, is what keeps me up at night, knowing we are a society where taking a pill when you get a headache or an ache is second nature to us. Having someone unknowingly take this, who is not opioid indoctrinated, can have devastating consequences.
Q: Why do you think San Diego has escaped the extremely high overdose numbers of some other parts of the country?
A: Everything is being cut with fentanyl, we find it in marijuana, meth, heroin, cocaine, just about anything you think of. I think we don’t have quite the rate of overdose due to fentanyl or opioids because this isn’t traditionally a culture of heroin users. The northeastern United States has a long history of users wanting heroin. Here on the West Coast the lines are blurred more.
--Kristin Davis is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune