Column: DEA Agent’s Death a Reminder of Courage in a Dangerous World and the Good Work of the DEA Survivors Benefit Fund
DEA Special Agent James “Terry” Watson had spent an enjoyable evening with friends at a Bogota restaurant watching Game 7 of the Heat-Spurs NBA Championship game. He was assigned to Cartagena but was in the Colombian capital as part of his duties.
Agent Watson knew how dangerous being in law enforcement could be but he had regularly volunteered for the most challenging assignments all over the globe. Like during one of his three deployments in Afghanistan for DEA in 2009 when he and Army Special Forces were under fire from 500 Taliban in the Farah Province. Or when he rappelled down 3,000 foot rock facings in the mountains near Pakistan to bomb heroin dens. He had also volunteered for difficult cases in Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Panama.
A short distance from the Bogota restaurant Terry Watson was stabbed and ran a block before collapsing. Several assailants immediately fled the scene without taking any money or other property. He died en route to a medical clinic.
Bogota police have arrested six men for the murders, and the Justice Department has indicated its intention to seek extradition. The police have announced their conclusion that the murder was part of a random robbery, but others have doubts because of the circumstances of the assault and question whether Agent Watson’s successful investigations of high level drug traffickers in Colombia was the real motive behind murder.
At his memorial service on Wednesday at the Rayville, Louisiana, Richland Arts Center near where he had grown up in Holly Ridge, his family said, “Terry dedicated his life to serving the public and making the world a better and safer place. Terry never wasted a minute of his life and never took it for granted.”
Agent Watson had recently married Fadia Margarita de la Rosa Watson, whom he had met during his service in Colombia.
Another DEA agent who had also been assigned to Cartagena during his deployment there told me that he was constantly aware of the potential for violence during his term. No matter how careful an agent was, if he did his job, the cartels were always in the front part of his mind. Years later he remembers his time there as an ordeal that required him to always remain aware of surroundings. But he also knew that even this awareness was no guarantee that he would survive the assignment.
Earlier articles in this column have made plain my own position that responsibility for these deaths and violence, both to Americans and those in Central America, civilians and law enforcement, can be directly traced to America’s insatiable appetite for the drugs.
Agent Watson’s death brought to mind another brave DEA agent who died in South America, 24 years ago last month. Special Agent Rickie Finley was assigned to the Detroit office from 1984-89, and his friendly Arkansas personality and his skill as a drug investigator made him a popular figure not only in his office but in the U. S. Attorney’s Office Controlled Substances Unit.
In 1988 and again in 1989, Agent Finley volunteered for Operation Snowcap, a program to assist Peru in cocaine suppression. On May 20, 1989, after a day of field operations, he was scheduled to return to base camp on a plane that had a pressurized cabin. He gave up his seat on the plane to another agent who had ear problems, and took that agent’s place on another plane. That plane crashed into the side of a mountain 65 miles from base camp in Tingo Maria, Peru.
At his memorial service at the Ft. Street Presbyterian Church in Detroit, his family from Arkansas showed us how he had grown up to be such a beloved and dedicated public servant. His family was from America’s heartland and their lifelong values of service, patriotism, and courage were clearly present as they faced the catastrophic loss no loved one should have to face.
After that day I never entered the DEA Office Building in Detroit, which was named after Agent Finley, without pausing, looking at Rick’s photo in the reception area and remembering what a great guy he was and what a loss his death was to us all.
At his memorial service, his family did not face the loss of this good man alone. There were hundreds crowded into the beautiful old church, and his memory fostered the establishment of an organization which has steadfastly supported the families of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in their most terrible of times. This organization is the DEA Survivors Benefit Fund.
The SBF provides both immediate and long term financial benefits for these family members. This support relieves some of the stress exacerbated by the expenses of funerals and other financial needs. Just as important are the costs of higher education for the currently eligible 52 children of deceased agents and officers. The tributes by these children demonstrate how much the Fund’s support, both financial and emotional, has meant to their lives.
The Fund is a private non-profit organization that depends on corporate and individual charitable donations to finance its good work.
The Survivors Benefit Fund has provided close to five million dollars to these families, but perhaps its greater contribution has been its mission that these men and women will never be forgotten for the sacrifice and service that they made to keep the rest of us safe. The stories and accomplishments of these fallen heroes are recounted on the Wall of Honor in DEA offices around the country and in the Fund’s web site at www.survivorsbenefitfund.org.
Representatives of the Fund as well as hundreds of law enforcement brothers and sisters were at Special Agent Watson’s memorial service yesterday. Their support and recognition of his many contributions were, no doubt, a comfort, but also a reminder that as long as we live in a dangerous world, we will depend on brave men and women willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to ensure our safety.
As his friend, DEA Special Agent Frank Tarentino said at the service, “The world is a better place for having Terry Watson who served his country with pride and honor. He was my friend. We carry on in his name and by his example.”
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