The Gray Zone
Sovereignty, Human Smuggling, and Undercover Police Investigation in Europe
Gregory Feldman




I was always defined as too erudite and philosophical, too difficult. . . . It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.

Umberto Eco (1932–2016)1

“I trusted you with my gun,” David replied with a mixture of disgust and offense. And indeed he did.

Earlier that day, I drove north out of the city with him and four of his colleagues—Brian, Vincent, John, and Frank. They comprise five out of seven members of an undercover investigative team specializing in transnational crime, which usually involves human trafficking and smuggling, along with prostitution, burglary, begging, and pickpocketing. Based in a southern, maritime European Union (EU) member state, they seek not to arrest street-level players. Instead, their investigations hone in on those controlling the local operations, who are invariably tied into wider networks operating in the margins, gaps, and ambiguous spaces of the EU’s security-migration apparatus. That afternoon, they took me to a shooting range where they could refresh their skills and teach me how to fire a pistol. The range amounted to nothing more than an expanse of hilly terrain with sandy cliffs to catch stray bullets. The team carries Glocks, a well-known Austrian handgun and the first ergonomically designed sidearm. David provided me with thorough instructions. First, with the pistol’s bullets removed, he explained its design: the sensitivity of the trigger; the catch to release the magazine; the slide giving access to the barrel; and the sights through which to align the barrel with the target. He then specified the two cardinal rules of handling a gun and made me repeat them. I reiterated dutifully, “One, keep your index finger off the trigger unless you are ready to fire. Until then, it should be extended straight forward alongside the barrel. Two, always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction when it is not in use.”

After he had coached me through a few rounds without bullets, David then walked me to a spot twenty feet before the target so that I could fire a gun for the first time in my life. I learned that when shooting, one must slightly bend the knees to stabilize the body, like a shock absorber, from the gun’s discharge. The weak hand steadies the strong hand holding the grip, but with strong thumb on top of the weak thumb. Align the front sight notch so that it appears between the rear sight’s two posts and so brings the target into the line of fire. Gently press the index finger against the trigger: not too strongly and not too weakly. David stood behind my left shoulder. “Relax, Greg. Just breathe.” BANG! Even a relatively quiet pistol startles a first-time shooter, but one regroups quickly with the coach’s encouragement. “Good. Just relax, breathe, and shoot again, Greg.” BANG! And on I went until the fifteen bullets in the magazine had buried themselves in the sandbank behind the target. David continued his instruction. After firing the final bullet, first, press the catch to release the magazine from the grip; second, pull the slide back to expose the inside of the barrel, verifying that it is empty; and third, pull the trigger while pointing the gun in a safe direction so that it releases its cocked pressure.

David remained unarmed as he instructed me on how to fire his gun. While Brian, Frank, and John milled about, Vincent stood fifteen feet diagonally behind my right shoulder, just outside my peripheral vision. His Glock remained in its holster, perched on his belt. He kept his arms folded as he stood on guard, ready to defend David should I have gone off the deep end. Cops back up their colleagues much like one chess piece protects the square of another that has advanced toward the opponent’s line.

During the car ride to and from the shooting range, they had been telling me stories about breaking laws during countless investigations. I had heard many such stories already during the previous two weeks when I first began fieldwork with them: illegal entries, illegal detentions, illegally accessing information, blackmail, extortion, and so on. Two weeks proves a long time in this type of ethnographic fieldwork if measured in actual contact hours. The team spends most of their time on surveillance operations, which last anywhere from three to twelve hours straight. On balance, these operations are excruciatingly boring because their suspects, like most people, do not really move around that much. Most of the operation involves sitting in a car or a café while waiting for suspects to go somewhere to meet someone. So, the hours of downtime are spent talking . . . and talking . . . and talking. The team keeps no secrets from each other, and I had very few left in me by the end of fieldwork.

Yet, before then, I was unsure of the amount of skepticism I could show with my questions. That evening at dinner, Brian spoke of a plan, to gain them access to a Chinese-run brothel, that seemed both elaborate and harebrained to me. These brothels are particularly difficult to investigate because they only cater to Chinese clients. Such challenges push the team to the limits of their creative powers, and their legal ones. Yet, after Brian’s idea, I had finally heard one story too many. I yielded to my skeptical impulse, feeling confident that the question I had to ask would neither offend them nor cost me the unusual access they had granted me. In any case, I would have been academically irresponsible to not press them on the matter. I asked incredulously, “How do I know these stories aren’t all bullshit?” To be fair, the stories they tell can hardly be made up. Truth is stranger than fiction, as the saying goes. But enough was enough. Brian and Vincent belted out a hearty laugh at the deadpan delivery of my question. David took it to heart.

“Greg, I trusted you with my gun.” Yes, he had, and, unarmed himself, he had taught me how to deliver a fatal gunshot should I ever need to. I could have made him my target. My incredulity offended him: if he trusted me enough to hand over his gun, then why couldn’t I trust what he said? Strictly speaking, he had put his life in my hands, and I gave him skepticism in return.

I do not expect this vignette to compel the reader to believe that the team never stretched the truth, or that they never dramatized to impress, or make fun of, the naïve ethnographer. I do expect, however, that this ethnography be held to the same standard as any other. It is tempting to think that an accurate understanding of people’s daily routines is harder to obtain when they work clandestinely for the state. However, ethnographic interlocutors of all backgrounds shield, conceal, and partially reveal themselves and their knowledge. Some have secrets to keep; others are more forthcoming. The ethnographer tries to uncover as full an understanding as possible. The bar to cross, basically, is whether the written representation of one’s interlocutors rings true to anyone generally familiar with the issues at hand. Does the writing convey that the ethnographer knows what s/he is talking about? Ethnographers cannot verify each other’s fieldwork as laboratory scientists verify each other’s experiments through replication in contrived conditions. In this regard, the point I wish to make with the opening vignette is that, I believe, the bond I established with the team after more than six hundred hours in direct, engaged, face-to-face contact with them (not just hanging out in the general vicinity), plus dozens more hours in various other forms of communication, was sufficiently strong for me to understand what their work is about and how they themselves approach it. I participated in scores of their surveillance runs, ate long lunches with them on a daily basis, socialized with them outside of working hours, visited some of their homes, studied their investigative tactics, interviewed and engaged others in adjacent units in the Immigration Service, and examined a dozen of their open and closed cases. I interviewed them formally and informally, and some of their wives too, and ethnographically studied with them parts of the city and surrounding country where their cases often lead.

Another question also comes up, again one that any ethnographer would have to answer: Why did these people want me around in the first place? In my case, this question was usually asked as a prelude to the question of whether these investigators hid their real dirty work or only showed me a sanitized version of what they do. Yet, while one never knows what one does not know, the question misses a more pressing point: that my continual presence posed a great risk to them. An awkward foreigner is well capable of screwing up a street operation that requires subtlety and discretion. An outsider can also, accidentally or not, go public with information that could deeply embarrass the team and land them in political or legal trouble. The associate director to whom they report, one of four in the national Immigration Service, clarified to me over a two-hour lunch that “no journalist would ever get this access” for fear of cherry-picked stories, unfair biases, and sensationalized headlines. While my presence was their risk, I had no material or political benefit to offer them. They had no professional interest in my research, and there is nothing I could do to advance or protect their careers. They had no reason to open their professional world to me only to conceal some other “double secret” component of it from my view.

Nevertheless, they had one understandable incentive, familiar to ethnographers, which convinced them to bring me on board after Brian, upon my request, suggested it to them in spring 2012. (I first met Brian in 2008, during fieldwork for The Migration Apparatus [G. Feldman 2012], and we maintained a correspondence from then on.) It was David again who captured the sentiment. When I asked during my first lunch with them why they had agreed to my project, he replied, “Greg, we’re glad you’re interested. This is like therapy for us. We have no one to talk to but each other and our wives . . . and our wives are sick of hearing it!” Genuine interest, however, is not flattery or callow admiration. Good ethnographers are more than passive stenographers of what they are told and what they see. On this point, Clifford Geertz argued that a compelling ethnography “does not rest on its author’s ability to capture primitive facts in faraway places . . . but . . . to clarify what goes on in such places” (1973: 16). He thought that the ethnographer should not copy raw social discourse, but rather “only that small part of it which our informants can lead us into understanding” (19–20). To get there, ethnographers must ask questions; they must present different perspectives to force their interlocutors to clarify their own. Per Umberto Eco’s point in the epigraph, I suspect that the team, like people in general, want to be challenged with tough, but fair, questions because the challenge draws more insight out of them. They risked bringing me on board because they saw just such a chance.

Such chances allow us to speak, clarify, and articulate our own views on the world, and, if we stay open-minded, then we get to enlarge those views through the glorious mess of verbal exchange. We distinguish ourselves through speech, but speaking implies an audience that listens critically. Speech becomes navel-gazing without an audience, and, without a critical one, it amounts to nothing more than an echo chamber, mere navel-gazing in a social setting. A critical audience grants the speaker a worldly reality—a presence in the company of others who are different but willing to fairly examine difference. Through our exchanges in a world of others—whom we do not Other—we obtain “being,” that thrill of knowing that the space we share with others depends to some extent on our own particular presence, just as our being depends on it. Without this engagement with others, we are condemned to our private lives, comfortable though they might be, but certainly isolated. Fieldwork with the team, then, consisted of an ongoing debate and discussion prompted by what Heyman (2003) calls “counterpart ideals”—that is, alternative moral claims in fields of structural power that undercut the position of authority that a given actor occupies. This approach pushed them to both complicate and refine the meaning they ascribe to the sovereign actions they take when imposing themselves on the lives of others, to steal the title from a film about the former East Germany’s secret police.

To create a situation in which one’s interlocutors do not feel threatened by the exchange, but rather come to thrive on it, the ethnographer must be willing to learn what they do and to hear why they choose to do it the way that they do. The ethnographer must not sacrifice his/her ethical judgment, but neither should s/he rush to judgment about theirs. If the interlocutors are confident that the ethnographer’s judgments are reached in measured steps, then they will enjoy the differences of opinion that emerge. To be sure, had it just been the flattery of my attention, then the team would have grown bored with me before long. The callow admirer has nothing to offer on his own and ultimately cannot stand eye-to-eye with the admired. Had I been unreflectively antagonistic like an overeager journalist, then they would have grown defensive and dismissive. Had I mirrored them and simply tried to be like them to win their acceptance, they would have disparaged me as a pretender. Instead, just as they expect from each other, they expected me to be myself and to ask anything I wished as long as I was willing to listen and watch before I judged. In turn, I had to answer their questions and accept their challenges too. Most of these involved their critiques of North American political correctness, which they perceived to inform my own outlook. It must certainly sound like a cliché to hear that I grew tremendously with this project. Yet I did. I do not agree with many opinions the team members expressed, and I question the ethics of several actions they took. However, it is no exaggeration to report that their flexibility of mind, allowing them to comprehend the plurality of standpoints tied to a common situation, like a crime, exceeds that of anyone I have known.


1. Stephen Moss, “Umberto Eco: The G2 Interview,” Guardian (UK), November 27, 2011. Last accessed May 25, 2016.