NEW YORK—Alex Perez was a fugitive from Miami, up for any criminal activity at the right price. He sported a long ponytail, with the appropriate amount of gel, of course. His gold chains and bracelets finished off the “high-end vulgar” look. His car, a late-model Chrysler Imperial with Metro-Dade plates, helped establish Perez’s credibility in the world he was about to enter.
Alex Perez was Marc Ruskin, an FBI agent who spent 27 years with the bureau, most of it in various undercover (UC) roles.
“The effect of having all these props, is that when I showed up, even to people who didn’t know me, before I even got out of the car, my job was 90 percent done,” Ruskin said in a May 19 interview.
A little modest, perhaps, considering the shady situations in which he had to carry these props in authentic transactions—drug deals, counterfeit money deals, fraudulent ID scams, mob dealings, corporate espionage, and many more.
“Learning to lie is one thing, and it takes practice, but learning to live a lie—that’s something else entirely, a much greater challenge, and that’s what undercover work is,” Ruskin writes in his new memoir, “The Pretender: My Life Undercover for the FBI.“
The book dives deep into the fascinating details of undercover work and the perils lurking at every turn. It also gives the reader a glimpse into the post-Hoover-era FBI, from 1985 right up to 2012.
“There are a lot of characteristics that make up a good UC. … Being fearless is not one of them—I certainly felt fear,” Ruskin said. For example, driving to a high-risk meeting as Alex Perez to buy heroin from a Malaysian-Chinese trafficking organization, Ruskin often wondered if he was out of his mind.
“But as soon as the meeting started, as soon as it was showtime, then the adrenalin took over and the fears were forgotten,” he said. “I would just be 100 percent on, because I had too much to think about. I had to think about every move I made, every word I said, and what the consequences could be if I made a misstep.”
“And then after the meeting was over, there’d be a feeling of elation and relief, and a little bit of ego too, that I’d been able to pull it off.”
The kingpin of the organization, and one of Ruskin’s ultimate targets to take down, was Yang Bing Gong, who was serving a life sentence in Lewisburg Prison for murder and kidnapping but still running his drug operation from the inside.
Ruskin’s Alex Perez became the “nephew” of another Lewisburg inmate, Gil Sandoval, who was a deposed Mexican drug cartel boss in the cocaine trade.
Sandoval had been sentenced to natural life, which meant he would die in prison, rather than a normal life sentence that included 20-plus years then parole, like Gong’s sentence. Sandoval was young and ambitious, and he was adamant about working to get his sentence changed.
He became a source, a confidential informant, for the FBI and worked with his “nephew,” Alex Perez, to take down Gong’s enterprise.
“Gil Sandoval was one of the most interesting people I’ve met as an undercover,” Ruskin said. The case was Ruskin’s first drug case as a UC and turned out to be his most challenging.
“I wanted to work it essentially to prove to myself that I could do it. That I had what it takes to work a large-scale heroin investigation,” he said.
Sandoval had found out that Gong was operating an international heroin organization importing high-quality, pure heroin from Malaysia through Canada and then into the United States, said Ruskin.
It was time for Alex Perez to meet Uncle Gil in Lewisburg Prison.
“I had my eye on the door where the inmates would come through,” Ruskin said. “I saw a short, muscular, Mexican-looking fellow who I recognized from the pictures as Gil. He saw me. He beamed. I beamed. A loving uncle greeting his nephew. We hugged each other and then sat down in a quiet area. And spent the day developing our scenario, which we then put into effect, which resulted in a relationship between him and I that really was a lot more than just an ordinary UC source friendship.”
Ruskin and Sandoval worked together for nearly two years.
“Both of our lives were in each other’s hands, because I was meeting with Gong’s minions buying large amounts of heroin,” Ruskin said. “If Gil had tripped up somehow and they became suspicious, I could show up at a meet with these people and that would be my last UC meet, it could have been a melancholy day. Likewise, if I tripped up during a meet, and the minions realized that I wasn’t who they said I was, Gil would have a shiv between his ribs before dawn.”
In the end, Gong got more time, his minions were imprisoned, and Sandoval got his resentencing.
“Just before he was released into the witness protection program, he gave me a call to thank me and wish me well, and I wished him well,” said Ruskin. “And I hope he’s made a good life for himself somewhere.”
Not So Black and White
Ruskin said undercover work changed his view on humanity.
“My perception of criminals prior to doing undercover work was the typical perception that agents and police officers have—that there’s the good guys and the bad guys,” he said. But a few years of undercover work made him realize it’s not quite so clear-cut.
“There’s a continuum—at one end of the continuum, you have absolute evil, like [Dominican gang boss] Santiago Kuris, who was the seller of counterfeit currency. …. And at the other end of the continuum, you have Mother Teresa. And in the middle, there’s a little line. You have honest people, a little bit honest people, and slightly dishonest people. And most people are right near the middle.”
Ruskin said a lot of the criminals he was dealing with were not all the way to the evil end, they were “just a little bit off to the side.” For example, they thought it was OK for insurance companies to lose a little money.
“They weren’t thinking about the consequences of the false IDs that they were putting out into the street. But they were still maybe good parents, good friends, had a sense of loyalty,” Ruskin said.
“As long as I could remember what side of the continuum I was on, I was able to deal with them without too much risk.”
Ruskin said it was the year he worked undercover on Wall Street investigating fraud on the commodities exchange that he dealt with some of the most despicable people in his career, calling them “ruthless, heartless people.”
“Many of the drug dealers I dealt with were more human than the subjects in [that case],” he said.
Ruskin said an undercover agent needs to have a pretty strong sense of his or her own ethical rules and regulations.
“And part of the selection process to become an undercover agent is to find people who—while being chameleon-like in nature—have a core that is very strong and not subject to being easily moved to the other side of the continuum,” he said.
Ruskin entered the FBI in 1985 at age 29—and it was a big shift from the assistant DA position he held in Brooklyn.
“I was the hard-nosed, aggressive prosecutor, passionate about helping the victims of violent crime. … I loved the work, but realized after a few years that I didn’t want to spend my entire career and life in Brooklyn. Nor did I want to follow my fellow prosecutors into the big law firms across the East River,” he explained in his book.
“I wanted to move in the opposite direction: more, not fewer, encounters with the juiciest field the law has to offer—the law of the wild.”
And it was wild times for undercover agents. Old, clunky recording devices, spotty reception, and backup that was too far away to be anything other than a clean-up crew if something went wrong. Ruskin used his innate ingenuity to devise hidden pockets for equipment, and plans that pushed investigations forward to successful conclusions.
His experience as an attorney helped him ensure the cases he put together while undercover were “slam-dunks” for prosecutors. He was fluent in English, French, and Spanish, and a proven pro under pressure.
“My career spanned a transitional time,” Ruskin said. “When I came into the FBI, all the midcareer and senior agents had served under J. Edgar Hoover.”
Ruskin speaks fondly of those times—when the esprit de corps was strong and the sense of camaraderie was so thick “you could cut it with a knife.”
Hoover had instituted the “10 percent rule,” which required agents to spend no more than 10 percent of their time in the office.
“If you were not spending 90 percent of your time out in the field investigating cases, you weren’t doing your job as an FBI agent,” Ruskin said.
In 2012, the year he retired from the agency, Ruskin said the amount of time agents spent in the office was up to 53 percent. “Naturally, that’s caused a major shift in both the culture and in the effectiveness of the agents,” he said.
The Seminal Moment
Ruskin’s first assignment for the bureau was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as a regular street agent. He was involved in an investigation of the Macheteros terrorist organization, which had targeted two FBI agents for assassination. One of the targets was the special agent in charge of the unit, while the other was still unknown.
“The mood in the office was one of paranoia,” Ruskin said.
He lived in a building with four other agents at the time, and the building security guard had told him about a car that was often parked in front or behind the building with a couple of shady-looking individuals inside.
“One night, during this period, I drive back, it was dark, and I make a left turn into the cul-de-sac. When I make the turn, I see a car parked, an old sedan, all the lights are off, and there are two men sitting in the car doing nothing,” Ruskin said. He parked by the gate that led to his building.
Instead of going through the gate and into the safety of the building, Ruskin said he had “an epiphanous moment.”
“I had feelings of fear and a lot of paranoia … leading up to that, and I kind of unconsciously had a feeling of ‘enough’: ‘That’s enough. I’m going to go on the offensive.'”
He had replaced his bureau-issued revolver (this was still in the ’80s) with a stainless steel .357 with a four-inch barrel.
“It’s a psychologically heart-stopping, ‘Dirty Harry’ weapon,” Ruskin explains in his book.
“I got out of my car, I took out my revolver, and holding it down to the side …. I started to walk toward the darkened car, thinking ‘OK, let’s see what’s going on here,'” he said.
“And I walked, and I walked, and I walked, and there was no movement, no reaction, until I was just maybe four or five feet from the car, when all of a sudden the motor kicked to life—these were cool characters—and slowly, slowly, I heard the car clunk into reverse, and with the headlights still off, it backed up, back, back, made a turn, and calmly drove off.”
And that was the end of the surveillance. It was also the moment Ruskin’s nerves became forged of steel. He knew he had made the right decision in becoming an FBI agent.
“And the anxiety that I had been feeling—the anxiety had been such that it was causing insomnia, it was a real anxiety—that was gone at that point.”
Ruskin said his undercover work was still three or four years to come, but this moment helped lay the foundation for his career as a UC.
Behind a Big Arrest
Marc Ruskin explains a nail-biting arrest that took place just south of East Houston in the mid-1990s, when he was undercover as Alex Perez.
Perez and his girlfriend, Alice (also an undercover FBI agent), had ingratiated themselves to one Santiago Kuris while they were working a fraudulent ID case.
Kuris was a Dominican gang boss, the type of bad guy you’d expect to see in a Hollywood crime film, Ruskin said.
Kuris asked Perez if he would be interested in buying some counterfeit money, $50 bills. After a couple of deals to test the waters, it was time for the big arrest.
“I had a lot of cash with me, real cash, and I was going to exchange for a huge amount of the counterfeit fifties,” Ruskin said.
Perez parked his Jeep Cherokee on Mangin Street, on the left side facing Houston, so he had a good view. Alice was in the passenger seat. “Her job basically was to provide immediate security and surveillance for me,” Ruskin said. Usually, when the target arrived, Alice would get in the backseat while the target did business in the front with Ruskin (aka Perez).
“The Jeep was literally bristling with weapons. It was almost like a parody. Anywhere I could reach out, there was a gun within a few inches of one of my hands.”
He also had a bulletproof jacket under a blanket in the back seat.
The Secret Service has jurisdiction for counterfeit, so there was a squad of Secret Service agents spread all around the area.
“All of a sudden, Santiago shows up and before Alicia has time to get out, he jumps up into the rear seat right behind me—which is like the worst possible scenario,” Ruskin said.
Kuris’s partner Paco was about 20 feet up the street, pacing back and forth, looking, as Ruskin described him, “hinky.” As a sideline, Paco used to rent machine guns for drive-by shootings and robberies, Ruskin said.
But the deal with Kuris went down smoothly, and it was time for Perez to say the code sentence. “I said to Santiago, ‘Hey, OK man, I’ll see you when I get back from Miami.'”
Two seconds later, the unmarked Secret Service cars with the red balls on top and the sirens blaring, rushed in from both ends of the street, blocking it off, Ruskin said.
“Santiago jumps out of my car and starts to run down this way, south. They have Paco done in cuffs right away,” Ruskin said. The Secret Service were also making a show of arresting Perez and Alice.
“But they’re not really cuffing me until both Santiago and Paco are secured. Because the last thing I wanted was for me to be cuffed and Alice to be cuffed and we’re running around like chickens while a shooting incident is occurring around us.”
Although he has helped lock up many criminals, Ruskin said he is not concerned about retribution.
“Trying to get retribution on an FBI agent is essentially an invitation to a world of pain,” he said.
The biggest concern is at the moment of arrest, he said, because that’s when “emotions are raging and there’s a feeling of betrayal.”
“Someone who has thought of me as sometimes a business associate, sometimes as a friend even, they have a strong feeling of betrayal and … there could be a violent reaction.”
Ruskin was absent for the arrest process as much as possible, and if he had to be there, he would be arrested along with the criminals, so as to not reveal his cover yet.
In his book, Ruskin details several suspenseful arrests that could have gone awry at any moment. And a myriad of cases and personas—from H. Marc Renard, a Wall Street wannabe; to Eduardo Dean, a versatile guy called on for many one-off jobs; to Sal Morelli, who got in on an insurance scam.