'American Cartel' Producers Share Insights

Apr 02, 2021

Cal U students interested in law enforcement careers benefit from insights into a high-profile police investigation.

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There’s a saying among law enforcement professionals, Ret. Lt. Adam Bercovici, of the Los Angeles Police Department, told Cal U students on April 1: “All good police work starts with a traffic stop or routine investigation.” 

Such was the case in 2003, when David Garcia fired shots in the parking lot of a Burbank, Calif., hotel, leading to the execution-style murder of Burbank Police Department Officer Matthew Pavelka. Officer Gregory Campbell was seriously wounded. 

The manhunt for Garcia, a member of the Vineland Boys gang, led to an unprecedented federal wiretap case with connections to a Mexican drug cartel. 

The case has been made into a documentary series, “American Cartel,” now streaming on Discovery+. 

Bercovici, who lent his investigators and surveillance teams to the manhunt and later the task force, is a producer for the documentary. 

“One of the biggest lessons learned is that the biggest part of an investigation like this is organization and management,” Bercovici said. “We had hundreds of people involved in this case, SWAT teams, surveillance teams, different agencies, and we all worked very well together in this manhunt. 

“I don’t take credit for much except holding the glue together. Have good people and let them do their job.” 

The audience of students included those studying criminal justice, Spanish, forensic linguistics, and Spanish for law enforcement. The producers discussed the important roles translators and linguistics experts played in the “American Cartel” case. 

“You have to have police officers who are familiar with the nuances of the language,” Bercovici said. “Gang members speak their own version; it’s a mix of English and Spanish and code. When you work the wire, you have to understand the language in a limited amount of time, even when they’re speaking in code.” 

“You have to get up to speed on the bedrock of the language, but also the disguises and codes they’re using,” said Dan Johnstone, the executive producer of “American Cartel.” 

“And information is being relayed directly to the field operatives, so you have to get it right. There is a lot of pressure on people ‘working the wire,’ Bercovici said. 

The Cal U Spanish and global studies programs, the Pennsylvania Center for Investigative and Forensic Sciences, and the departments of Humanities, and Criminal Justice and Psychology sponsored the Zoom presentation. 

Dr. Andrea Vargas Cencich, assistant professor of Spanish, was the lead organizer. 

“I found the perspectives informative, intriguing and insightful,” said Mercedes Bryant-Williams, who is pursuing her master’s degree in criminal justice with a concentration in forensic linguistics. 

“The levels of criminality at work from a routine traffic stop that resulted in the loss of life increased my appreciation for those that wear the blue uniform. Having grown up in Southern California, I am very familiar with the gang culture; however, it is no less disturbing to hear about the true magnitude of power and influence some of these organizations have acquired.  

“This presentation was a great opportunity to hear from experts and to gain an inside look into those involved in the case and the documentary,” added Marie Fuller, a senior in the criminal justice bachelor’s degree program.