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‘The drug game is changing’| DEA gives rare, inside look of operations amid search for more agents

The Drug Enforcement Administration is trying to get to 5,000 agents nationwide to fight the more dangerous drug threat: synthetics.

ATLANTA — There are five loud knocks and a warning call. 

"DEA police with a warrant!" 

A battering ram makes easy work of the door; a flash grenade flies inside, exploding with ear-shattering precision. Special agents work their way through the home, clearing rooms and taking out threats. 

And then they set it up and do it again. 

At an abandoned house on a shoot site in Braselton, the Drug Enforcement Administration's Special Response Team (SRT) runs through training. The DEA invited 11Alive along for a behind-the-scenes look into what agents go through when they meet a heavily armed threat. 

This time, the threat was fake. But the bullets were real. 

"We use live rounds to make it as realistic as possible of what may actually happen inside of a house. You can’t train enough," said Special Agent Sherri Kindred.

Credit: 11Alive

Cartels and gangs can sometimes outpower and outman agents, according to Special Agent in Charge, Robert Murphy. So, running through this type of training over and over in 95-degree heat, and hotter, is imperative. 

“There’s some of them that want to take us on and when we run across those we have to be prepared to win that and make sure the good guys come home," said Murphy. 

The SRT is the elite team. Before someone can get close to that level of expertise, they first must become an agent. And that means passing a series of tests. 

The first and hardest exam is the physical test.

"The physical abilities that applicant has to perform in the DEA Academy is one of the hardest parts," Special Agent and Recruiter Jeffrey Furman explained. 

The easiest part?

"There is no easy part. To become a special agent, you have to have that desire. And you have to be able to strive and give it give more than 100%," said Furman. 

Two weeks before the SRT trained at the shoot site, 11Alive tagged along as agents met new recruits trying to pass the physical portion of the test. Recruits must perform as many sit-ups as possible in one minute, run a mile and a half, then perform push-ups. It may sound like easy work, but on that particular day, only one recruit passed.

Credit: 11Alive

The DEA is trying to get as many recruits as possible to strengthen its team to 5,000 agents nationwide. Typically only 5% of applicants make it through the year to two-year process. 

The push for more agents comes as the most dangerous drug trend continues to escalate. 

"Synthetic drugs," said Murphy. "Cheaper to make, way more potent, way more additive. Unfortunately, we’re seeing the results of that with fentanyl, dropping dead.”

Murphy predicts synthetic drugs will soon outpace cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines. Fentanyl in particular is 50 to100 times stronger than morphine.

"It’s killing everybody. You have to have a special mindset to want to do the job," Kindred, who has been with the DEA for 11 years, said. 

As a female agent, Kindred explained the DEA and all law enforcement are in need of female recruits. 

"Women have a specific role that sometimes men can’t fill, whether it's undercover work, whether it be some type of investigation into a doctor’s office. Women have specific roles that men cannot fill," she explained. 

Typically, a majority of the applicants come from law enforcement or military backgrounds. But Murphy explains, that with changing trends, different cultures, races, genders, as well as people in finance, IT, and who speak languages other than English are needed as well. 

“The next 20 years is who we’re recruiting for now. This is a career and what we’re seeing is the drug game is changing," Murphy said. 

When asked what is needed to be an agent, Murphy, Kindred, and Furman gave the same answer. Passion and mindset. As far as size, background and age -- those things take a backseat if the first two qualities are apparent.

"You have to want and have the desire to save lives. You know, you have drugs out here that are killing moms, dads, brothers, sisters, children, and you have to want to save a life, drugs are killing; drug(s) knows no boundaries," said Kindred.

Agents say everyone's nervous when they apply, everyone has second thoughts on if they're good enough. But the training, as witnessed in the shoot house, gives people what they need to be a great agent. The only thing that can stop someone is themselves. 

“I’ve never dread going to work any day. It’s been, it’s unbelievable. I’ve briefed the White House. I’ve been all over," said Murphy. "Things that you never think you’ll be able to do. You’re limited only by your imagination.”

Applicants must be at least 21 years old and no older than 36 to be hired. Recruits must pass a physical test, a written test, and a structured interview. Passing all three moves people onto medical and psychological exams, a polygraph and background investigation. If all are passed, they must be approved by the hiring panel in Washington D.C.

To apply, visit the DEA's career page.

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