HEIDI HERRERA HAD THE BLONDE good looks of a James Bond bad girl. Five-foot-nine, blue-eyed—and known within the international cocaine trade as an icily efficient money launderer—Herrera, at 37, was an underworld sensation, as adept at navigating South American banking laws as she was at clinching multimillion-dollar drug deals aboard her yacht off the coast of Southern California.
On this day in late September 1992, however, Herrera was sweating. With the morning sun streaming into her smartly decorated office in La Jolla, Calif., she made final arrangements for a long-awaited meeting between her father, a retired Mexican drug lord who lived on a nearby ranch, and a pair of prized Colombian clients: drug cartel money-manager Silvia Velez, 43, and Carlos Rodrigo Polania, 42. Herrera forced a smile as she bustled the Colombians out of the office door toward a waiting car. “I’ll see you at the ranch in 20 minutes,” she said.
But the Colombians never made it to the ranch. Within minutes they had been pulled over by agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the 24-year-old federal agency charged with investigating drug crimes. Velez and Polania were arrested and sent for questioning to the agency’s offices in San Diego. There, Velez seemed momentarily relieved to see Herrera sitting alone in a bare interview room. “Que les digo?” she whispered urgently. (“What should I tell them?”) Only then did Heidi Herrera speak the truth. “My name’s Heidi Landgraf,” she calmly replied. “I’m an agent with the DEA.” Velez stared back in silent defeat.
With those arrests a worldwide web of intrigue started to unwind. Before the end of the day, police in the U.S. and six other countries had busted a total of 140 suspected criminals and seized some $50 million. Operation Green Ice, as it was called, had delivered a stunning blow to the bosses of the Colombian drug cartels. More than 100 agents had participated, but at the center of the multinational sting stood Heidi Landgraf, a San Diego-based agent tapped to play the part of Heidi Herrera. Her shrewd, two-year performance won Landgraf a 1993 DEA Administrator’s Award for distinguished service and has provided the inspiration for a Columbia Pictures movie titled The Ice Queen, currently being developed for Michelle Pfeiffer. “Heidi Landgraf was like the glue that held Green Ice together,” says Craig Chretien, a former special agent in charge of the DEA’s San Diego office. “She went up against criminals who would cut your heart out in a second.”
For Landgraf, Green Ice was the capstone of a meteoric career that had seen her move quickly from buying a $200 vial of cocaine in a darkened La Jolla bar to persuading a wary Mexican dealer to sell a bag of heroin to a blonde gringa. Though fellow agents always monitored Landgraf’s undercover drug dealings from close range, her life was in constant danger. Once, during Green Ice, a nattily dressed Colombian trafficker casually told Landgraf after lunch in a seaside cabana in Curacao that if he ever doubted her, he could have her “taken care of for $10,000.” But Landgraf says she always felt relatively safe while undercover-as long as, like a method actress, she was securely in character. “It’s all about the picture you paint of yourself,” explains Landgraf, who lives with her husband, fellow DEA agent Ken Davis, 41, in Carlsbad, Calif.
Landgraf had good role models for living with danger. Her late father, Rudy, was an L.A. firefighter who rose to department chief. Her mother, Dorothy, 79, was one of the first women to join the LAPD detective bureau. “I think she thought my job was neat,” says Dorothy.
Landgraf’s parents ran a strict household in suburban Van Nuys. “No beach parties, no drive-in movies, no lipstick,” Dorothy says. A classic Southern California girl, Heidi was a cheerleader at Birmingham High. From her father, a self-taught linguist, she picked up the rudiments of Spanish, which she perfected by spending a year in Ensenada, Mexico (where the Landgrafs owned a beach house). In 1974, Heidi enrolled at a Mexico City medical college but came home without graduating when her romance with a Mexican boyfriend collapsed in 1977.
Landgraf eventually graduated from San Diego State with a degree in psychology in 1981. But finding the right life for herself was a challenge. “She was trying to mend from Mexico City,” says her friend Mary Beeunas, 39, “trying to figure out what she wanted to be.” After jobs in health care marketing and radio ad sales, Heidi had a chat in 1987 with a family friend who worked for the DEA. He told Heidi she had the perfect résumé for a special agent: She was fluent in Spanish and had work experience. Since male agents made up more than 90 percent of the DEA force, the demand for women was high. “I thought, ‘Wow, this could be exciting,’ ” Landgraf says.
Her new career began at the DEA academy in Quantico, Va., where she learned hand-to-hand combat and how to fire a submachine gun. Working for the usual starting salary of $35,000 a year, she made her first undercover heroin buy at an old house in a tough part of San Diego in the spring of 1988. Ken Davis, who was then married and working cases on the Mexican border, noticed Heidi her first day on the job: “I’m up at the division office, and I see this beautiful woman, and I’m like, ‘What’s she doing here?’ ” After working with Landgraf a few times, his wariness turned to infatuation, but she refused to get involved with a married man. One afternoon that summer, Davis appeared at Landgraf’s apartment complex to announce that he had separated from his wife of five years-and to ask Heidi if he could move in with her. “I remember looking at him and saying, ‘I need to think.’ Then about two seconds later I said yes,” recalls Landgraf. They were married the following summer.
By then, Landgraf had already filled a large cardboard box with information on money laundering in preparation for Operation Green Ice-the brainchild of former DEA financial crime specialist Tom Clifford, 52. Clifford chose Landgraf to be the operation’s central undercover agent after noting the drug cartel’s reliance on professional, educated women for financial matters. Her good looks, too, were a factor. “We’re allowed to bait the traffickers,” Clifford says. Still, though she wore flashy clothes for her undercover roles, Landgraf says she has never been harassed or even hit on by a trafficker. Nor, she says, is she intimidated by the DEA’s own male-dominated work environment. “Maybe it was seeing my mother leave for work with a gun in her purse,” she says. “I knew I could handle being with guys.”
With the cooperation of a San Diego bank, the Green Ice team created a new identity for Landgraf, including tax returns, Visa cards and a passport. Posing as Heidi Herrera, she rented offices for a phony business, Trans Americas Ventures Associates, decorating them with pricey furniture—and hidden video cameras. Through a network of informants, she offered clients a simple deal: Her team of money launderers would collect cash anywhere in the U.S., then wire the money—less a 5 to lO percent commission—to bank accounts. Valued clients were invited to a hilltop house above La Jolla, where the houseboys were DEA agents in disguise.
Soon, Heidi’s cellular phone was ringing day and night with requests to schedule cash pickups in New York City, Miami and Chicago. Midway through the Green Ice, “one of the crooks said to me, ‘What can you do for me in El Spaghetti [a clumsy reference to Italy]?’ ” recalls Landgraf. With that, Landgraf and Clifford flew to Rome to enlist the cooperation of Italian police. On a return trip several months later, Landgraf helped picked up $700,000 in lira notes stuffed into two duffel bags in a Milan high-rise garage. “We had to get the load on the 7:30 p.m. train to Rome,” says John Costanzo, then the DEA attaché in Rome. “She was good.”
But Landgraf was also getting tired. As the network of criminal contacts grew, the pressure on the agents mounted. Careful accounts had to be made of each illicit transaction, and every conversation with a crook recorded. “I was just overwhelmed by the amount of evidence,” says Landgraf, who occasionally wept under the pressure. When Landgraf and Davis learned that some of Heidi’s Italian contacts were in the Sicilian Mafia, they were both frightened. “You always hear about [them] killing judges,” he says. Finally the DEA and other agencies involved in Green Ice scheduled the “take down” for Sept. 25.
Today, striding through the DEA division office in San Diego dressed in a jade-green pantsuit, Heidi Landgraf has all the poise of her criminal alter ego, with none of the attitude. “You have permission to fiddle with me,” she playfully tells a cameraman who is struggling to attach a microphone to her lapel for a TV interview—all part of her new position as the agency’s official spokeswoman in San Diego.
Landgraf’s spectacular success in Green Ice has cost her the chance of ever working undercover again since her face and name have appeared in press accounts of the operation. For the foreseeable future her life at the DEA will involve media relations and drug prevention education. Landgraf says she has no regrets, nor serious fears of retribution from traffickers. Her priority now is to work her way into DEA management. Those who know her think she’ll continue to be a star, albeit of a different sort. “You see law enforcement people as being hard and cold,” says best pal Mary Beeunas. “But having seen Heidi through all of this, I realize I know one of the really good guys out there.”