By Jon Schuppe, Joe Valiquette and Jason Tucker
MANHATTAN — In his 28 years of battling drug traffickers, John P. Gilbride has seen lots of changes in the way New York’s criminal underworld operates.
What he notices most is that the dealers have gone indoors.
Gilbride, who runs the Drug Enforcement Administration’s New York office, became a street agent in the 1980s, when large swaths of the city were plagued by open-air drug markets and Wild West-style shootouts. He was shot by cocaine traffickers while working undercover in 1988.
“When I first worked in the city in the early 1980s, New York was a much different city than it is today,” he said. “Drug trafficking groups were running rampant, you had the crack epidemic, you had crack gangs that were extremely violent, and individuals were controlling sections of New York City.”
Today the city is a much different place. Violence has dropped dramatically. The open-air markets have disappeared from many neighborhoods. Gilbride credits law-enforcement crackdowns—led by the New York Police Department — that returned the streets to law-abiding citizens.
But that doesn’t mean drugs aren’t any less of a threat. New York remains an international drug-trafficking hub. The purity of heroin has risen dramatically in the last few decades, making it easier, and cheaper, for people to use, Gilbride said. And the latest scourge is prescription drugs, which can be easily purchased over the Internet.
Gilbride, a New Jersey native, started at the DEA’s New York office in 1981 as an intern while he was an undergraduate at Northeastern University. He had no idea what the agency did at first, but working in the office’s command center, checking license plates and making criminal background checks for street agents, he soon fell in love with the place.
He became fascinated with undercover agents who “could go out and change their whole persona, meet with some of the nastiest drug trafficking bad guys in New York City at one point, then go home and play racquetball or take their kids to a basketball game,” he said. “At the end of that six months, I knew I wanted a career in drug law enforcement.”
Soon after his injury, Gilbride began rising through the DEA’s ranks. He stopped off at DEA postings in Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington, D.C., but always managed to return to New York. That was where he felt at home.
He became a supervisor with an expertise in using wiretaps to dismantle international drug trafficking groups. He also headed money-laundering investigations.
In 2005, he was named special agent in charge of the New York field division, which covers the entire state. His responsibilities include identifying kingpins who transport, package and sell illegal drugs, intercepting drug shipments from abroad, breaking up local drug gangs and educating the public about the dangers of drug abuse.
He remembers how New York used to be, and he knows his work is paying off.
“We’re having an effect,” he said. “We are winning in terms of the hearts and minds of some of our younger generation. And we still have a lot of work to do.”