Rafael G. “Jova” Rodriguez ’98 insists he’s no hero.
When 7 World Trade Center collapsed near him Sept. 11, 2001, the then-patrolman admits he was running for his life with everyone else.
When he helped remove frightened bystanders from buildings near the Twin Towers that day and worked long hours in the weeks after the terrorist attacks, Rodriguez says he was just doing what any police officer would.
Law enforcement is about helping people, Rodriguez says, whether removing criminals from the streets as he did while a New York Police Department beat cop or helping convict terrorists as he does today.
Now a special agent with the U.S. government, Rodriguez is on the forefront of a federal fight against international narcoterrorism. The drugs that corrupt communities stateside are known to fund terrorist groups like Al Quaeda, Rodriguez says.
While he aspired to become a federal agent for years, 9/11 added urgency to his goal, says Rodriguez, who left the NYPD to conduct federal drug investigations in 2004. For the past two years, he has been on assignment in the Dominican Republic.
“I witnessed 9/11. I was there as one of the first responders,” Rodriguez says. “To see some of these narcoterrorists prosecuted in federal court is really fulfilling.”
Rodriguez and his team assist local military, police and border agents who bust drug-toting boats and planes at Dominican points of entry. The agents are there to observe and advise the authorities on evidence collection and proper procedure so the U.S. government can build solid cases against suspected terrorists.
“I’ve been in law enforcement for 14 years and the last two and a half years I’ve been here — it’s been a real eye-opener,” Rodriguez says. “It’s a whole different monster when you’re dealing with drugs.”
The link between drugs and violence is clear. Rodriguez is often appalled by the crimes drugs influence and his can be a dangerous job.
Linking drugs to terrorism is more difficult. Investigations can take months.
Terrorists do their best to hide drug money and muddy the link between themselves and seized shipments.
Typically, local authorities will make a bust at a port of entry, make arrests and take care of evidence. Rodriguez and his team are there to assist in investigations by local authorities and obtain evidence and information.
Rodriguez is a liaison from the U.S. Attorney’s or Homeland Security offices and briefs them on his findings.
Rodriguez says he feels good when thousands of kilograms of narcotics are taken out of circulation, but the real satisfaction comes from taking down terrorists at the source.
Rodriguez, who had dreamed of becoming a cop since his childhood in Manhattan, took his police exam in high school at 16. By the time he reached Oswego, he was angling to become a federal agent and majored in Spanish with the knowledge that drug activity at the time was strongest in Columbia.
He enrolled in the police academy within a few weeks of graduation from Oswego and for five years served on the force in his hometown. He made the leap to federal drug investigations in 2004, handling cases in the New York area.
Rodriguez says Oswego gave him the strong foundation he needed to keep advancing in his field.
“I had great study habits,” he says. Part of pledging for Alpha Phi Alpha was logging long hours in Penfield Library. That discipline proved crucial in his career.
“In these academies, if you fall below a certain grade, you get fired,” Rodriguez said. He has made the grade every time.
At Oswego, he also made lifelong friendships while attending school with sister Thaina Gonzalez ’93 and cousin Diana Miranda ’97.
“I hold Oswego very dear to my heart,” says Rodriguez, who plans to attend the Return to Oz IV reunion for alumni of color this September.
In the meantime, he’ll continue his six-year assignment in the Dominican Republic, investigating and dealing with associates of very dangerous people.
He downplays the risk of working amidst enemies of the state who are moving millions of dollars’ worth of drugs to fund clandestine terrorist operations worldwide.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” he says of his work so far.
By definition, a hero demonstrates strength and courage. A hero looks out for others. A hero gets the bad guys.
Maybe Rodriguez is right — he and his peers in law enforcement are “just” doing their jobs. But, whether patrolling boroughs or protecting borders, these are jobs for heroes.