Hidden Assets: The women of the DEA - Cincinnati News, FOX19-WXIX TV

Hidden Assets: The women of the DEA

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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) -

It takes a special person to be a special agent in the Drug Enforcement Administration. The job goes undercover, it's dangerous and it's male-dominated.

"We don't have that many female agents in the New Orleans office. We have about seven," said agent Debbie Webber, who's one of them.

After 12 years, Webber is now the public information officer for the New Orleans division. She said despite the gender imbalance, there's nothing the guys can do that the girls can't.

"They know we can do the job just as well as they can," Webber said. "We went through the same training."

That training happens at the U.S. Marine base in Quantico, Va. It's a demanding 19-week course that's part classroom, part boot camp.

Because they work undercover, FOX 8 agreed to hide the identities of some of the women who've joined the ranks of the DEA agreed to show us what it's like.

One agent said, "You have to be able to run with the guys, do pushups, sit-ups. It's very challenging. No one gets any favoritism."

"Put it this way," said another agent. "I had to carry a male that was 220 pounds on my back."

A third agent who has been with the DEA for nine years said, "In this job, you have to prove yourself. You work with a bunch of guys, so you've got a lot of egos to mess around with."

The women are among the more than 4,500 special agents tasked with trying to dismantle the illegal drug trade worldwide. It's a $500 billion a year industry, by some estimates.

"We are dealing with some of the roughest and toughest people in the world. These guys don't care. If you're taking a million dollars from them, it's going to be the million dollars or it's going to be you," said an undercover agent sporting a hot pink shirt under her DEA vest.

Waging the war against drugs, agents often pose as buyers and dealers. But Assistant Special Agent in Charge Susan Nave calls female agents "hidden assets" in many of their criminal investigations.

"They can elicit more information, sometimes make the situation, calm it down so to speak," said Nave. "People don't view women as someone who's going to come after them."

These women are for real, though. At the firing range, the girls show the guys how it's done. They say it's important to be on a level playing field.

"You'll run into a few guys you have to tighten up," said another female agent who previously worked for a police department in New Jersey. "Sometimes I've got to let them know I can do this."

They know the risks are great and the stakes are high. Webber speaks from experience.

"Anytime you do undercover, it's nerve-wracking and your adrenaline's pumping," she said.

It's why the women and men are always training for the possibility that something could go wrong. Several times a year, they practice raiding a mock drug house. Their emphasis is on training and teamwork.

In real life, one female special agent in the New Orleans division almost always leaves her mark.

 She says, "All the guys know when you put the pink handcuffs on, you've been really bad. They're like, ‘no she didn't put the pink handcuffs on you. You better start cooperating.'"

DEA has made a nationwide effort to attract more women to its ranks. But today, fewer than 10 percent of all agents are female.

After 27 years, Nave can't imagine doing anything else.

"It's one of the best jobs I could ever think of doing. You're doing something different every day, doing investigations, doing something to help your community, and to help your country," said Nave.

Some female agents admit they are married to the job. Others juggle their dangerous work with raising a family. One agent we spoke to has been with the agency for nine years, is married to another DEA agent and raising five children.

"I'm still able to go to my kids' PTA meetings, basketball games, football games. I try not to miss anything," she said.

Asked if the kids think she's the coolest mom around, she laughed and said yes.

Webber also has two children and she, too, is married to an agent. The two rarely work together and only train together occasionally. She says she constantly thinks about getting home safe and what she's cooking for dinner.

At the end of the day, the female agents know it's all about maintaining a balance.

"I'm a girly girl. I love to go to the salon, get my hair done, get a mani and a pedi," one agent said. "Everything about me is pink, but once my DEA hat comes on, I'm taking you down."

They are secret weapons who bring a valuable and unique perspective to the DEA's war on drugs. To find out if you meet the minimum qualifications to apply to the DEA, click here.

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