A General in the War on Drugs


Jack Riley ’80 (center) has
been special agent in charge
of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Chicago field office since 2010. Photography
by Barbara Johnston / University of Notre Dame.

The introduction of Jack Riley ’80 to Bradley basketball was quick and merciless. “Originally, I thought I could play for coach Joe Stowell ’50 MA ’56,” recalled Riley, who played high school sports in the south suburbs of Chicago and participated in open-gym workouts at Robertson Memorial Field House the summer before he started college. “That didn’t turn out. I got knocked on my butt.”

That initiation didn’t deter Riley’s attraction to Bradley, however. He found success after switching to intramurals, particularly flag football, where his team won a couple of school championships.

“I liked Bradley. I liked the size of it,” he said. “It turned out to be a great experience.”

After completing his degree in administration of criminal justice, Riley earned a master’s degree at the University of Illinois and joined the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).  Rising through the ranks, he was named special agent in charge of the agency’s Chicago Field Division in 2010, responsible for 26 offices in five states.

“Everyone who works with us is part of my family,” he remarked. “I care about them like I care about my wife and son.”

Riley started his DEA career, coincidentally, in Chicago as a field agent, working undercover and making drug buys. “There were many risks and things that we probably wouldn’t do today,” he said. “We were locking up a lot of bad people.” 

He said the drug trade is far more violent now than in the past, adding that almost every case he sees also involves firearms. “It’s changed the way we do business,” Riley explained. “We plan, we plan, we plan. We train, we train, we train. There are 
a lot of bad people out there who intend to do harm.”

After training new DEA agents in Virginia, Riley served in various supervisory roles in cities such as Milwaukee, St. Louis, and El Paso, Texas. His DEA career included nine transfers. He is proud of being one of the founders of the DEA’s Special Operations Division, which unites with other agencies to focus on border attacks and drug cartels. 


For more information on Jack Riley and the war on drugs, including his visits to the set of the popular TV show Breaking Bad, visit

He noted that about a third of DEA agents work overseas, many in Afghanistan. The international drug trade fuels terrorism, he said, adding that proceeds from Afghan opium sales often wind up in al-Qaeda coffers: “It truly is a global terrorism issue.”

Riley said DEA operatives in other countries often gain trust and cooperation from the hosts because they are perceived as law enforcement personnel, not part of the military or intelligence community. He uses his knowledge of inter-agency investigations for a joint strike force of DEA and FBI agents, along with personnel from Chicago-area police departments.

“I learned what we faced is so massive we had to bring everybody together. It’s so important that we work side by side with all police departments,” he commented. “So much of what we do starts on the streets and works up.”

He said heroin and prescription drug abuse are major issues today, adding more people died from prescription drugs in 2012 than methamphetamines, cocaine and heroin combined. Heroin is now the drug of choice for gangs. New forms of the drug can be snorted or smoked, eliminating the need for needles and injections. “It [heroin] really has attracted a new user base,” Riley said. “For me, it’s the problem in Chicago.”

His father was a physician, but Riley’s grandfather was a retired Chicago police commander. “The bug skipped a generation,” he joked. He credits Bradley sociology assistant professor Dr. Bernard Zant with spurring his interest in law enforcement.

“Bradley was one of the best choices I’ve made in my life,” Riley said. “It helped me grow up. I like the sense of commitment it instilled in you. You met people from all over the place. If I have achieved any success, Bradley was a part of it.”

— Bob Grimson ’81