Undercover agents are pretty much a pop culture staple at this point.
It’s no secret as to why. Throwing a character into an undercover assignment is an instant recipe for a story rife with danger, intrigue, and interpersonal drama.
That’s why there’s such a diverse sprawl of movies that depict undercover agents.
“The Departed” racked up four Oscars as an American remake of “Internal Affairs,” depicting competing moles in the Boston mob and state police, respectively. Films like the classic noir “White Heat,” crime drama “Donnie Brasco,” and surfing thriller “Point Break” depicted undercover agents coming to sympathize with their targets.
“Face/Off” verged into sci-fi territory, while things just got ultra-violent in “Reservoir Dogs.” “The Fast and the Furious” started as the tale of a LAPD detective infiltrating a drag, spawning what is now a massive movie franchise. “21 Jump Street” and its sequel put a comedic spin on its source material, an eighties procedural about undercover cops infiltrating a high school.
Business Insider recently spoke with former DEA agent, “Deal” author, and Cipher Brief contributor Mike Vigil about his own experience working as an undercover agent. Vigil worked for the DEA for 31 years and worked on numerous undercover operations against drug traffickers.
Pop culture actually inspired Vigil to pursue law enforcement — he grew up watching shows like “The Untouchables” and “Dragnet.”
He revealed four things that Hollywood tends to get wrong about undercover work, along with three things it gets right.
You'd think that in order to gain acceptance with criminal elements, undercover agents would have to actively participate in the illicit activities they're trying to investigate -- like drug use, thievery, or murder. This trope was recently played for laughs in the film '21 Jump Street,' where the two protagonists had ingest a new synthetic drug as part of their investigation.
That wouldn't happen in real life, Vigil said. The reason is simple -- undercover agents are working to build a case against the individuals they are investigating. If they take part in the criminal activity as well, they completely destroy their credibility. Their testimony would essentially fall apart in court.
And if an undercover agent was ever in a situation where someone attempted to force them to participate to prove themselves, they'd probably just be considered compromised and pulled from the case immediately.
Vigil spoke with Business Insider about how he'd simply decline when drug traffickers would ask him to sample their wares.
'Most of the big drug dealers would not want to deal with you anyway if you were an addict, because you'd be too unstable and if you got arrested, you would rat them out in a heartbeat just to be released so you could go out and score drugs,' Vigil says.
Understandably, most fictional depictions of undercover agents skip the paperwork.
Some of Vigil's undercover operations stretched on for over a year. However, he'd always have to make sure to process drug evidence in the lab and file investigative reports, which were crucial to building a case for prosecutors.
Vigil says that most of the drug busts he sees in police procedurals are pretty minor, in the scheme of things.
'They show, for the most part, undercover agents working on minor drug deals that really are totally insignificant,' he says. 'They have no impact. They're buying grams of cocaine and they make it appear like that's going to have a major impact on the distribution of drugs here in the United States. Unfortunately, it's not.'
Many films depicting undercover agents play into the storyline that features the law enforcement officers becoming sympathetic to their criminal contacts overtime. In fiction, this can lead to maximum dramatic impact once the truth is reveal.
However, it's not always true to life. Vigil says this trope didn't apply to his experience -- he didn't sympathize with the drug traffickers he investigated. However, he says he could understand how this could happen to others.
'I think for some undercover agents, when they deal with drug traffickers and they live with them for an extended period of time, they start to sympathize with them,' he says.
While Vigil didn't necessarily sympathize with the drug traffickers he worked against, he notes that interacting with them so frequently began to change his own persona. He had to learn to switch his undercover persona on and off.
'TV Tropes,' an online wiki of fictional works, refers to this trope as 'Becoming the Mask.'
In pop culture, working as an undercover agent is one of the most secretive and mysterious jobs out there.
In real life, most undercover agents aren't necessarily banned from talking about their work to family and friends. However, sharing any sensitive information is definitely out. Additionally, many undercover agents might make the decision to keep quiet about their occupation.
Vigil previously told Business Insider that he kept many aspect about his job secret, because he didn't want his loved ones to worry.
Today, Vigil says he believes that undercover work is becoming a 'lost art,' as law enforcement agencies focus more on using wire intercepts and other technology to combat crime.
Still, the stories about undercover agents probably won't fade away any time soon.
Vigil says that, for him, working as an undercover agent was an exciting and fulfilling career.
'When you are working undercover, you are actually participating with these criminals as they were evolving their criminal acts such as drug trafficking and drug distribution and money laundering, things of that nature,' he says. 'That to me was fascinating, that cat and mouse type situation.'
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