July 2011

Traffic Stop

For the ATF, keeping firearms out of Mexico is like swimming upstream in an iron river

T. JEFFERSON
PARKER

ATFILLUSTRATION: SEAN PHILLIPS

Meet Omar. He’s a bad man who wants good guns. He’s got razor-cut hair styled like an Aztec warrior, fierce black eyes behind his Dolce & Gabbanas, plenty of gold on him. He’s got an iPod clipped to his Armani jacket lapel, the earbuds hanging around his neck, like he’ll just tune you out if he wants to. He stands in the blazing sunlight in a parking lot of a Barstow strip mall with two men who have what he wants—MAC-10 machine guns, AK-47s, M16s, all full automatic, all in very good condition and all illegal to own, of course, in most states, including California. He told these men he represents “Nicaragua.” They told him they don’t care. Not their problem.

Omar watches as the gun dealers lean over the trunk of his Trans-Am. They begin to count the $15,000 cash and test the five pounds of cocaine he will trade for the weapons. He looks bored. In fact, Omar is anything but bored. His heart is pounding, his palms are damp, and it feels like he’s roasting in the infernal desert sun. The Smith & Wesson five-shot in his waistband seems to weigh a ton.

In fact, Omar is not even Omar at all. He’s an Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) undercover agent named John Torres, and what he’s thinking is, As soon as these guys can count to fifteen thousand, test the coke borrowed from the Drug Enforcement Administration and bring me my guns, then I can say the bust words and we’ll take them down.

It’s the job of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives—run jointly by the Treasury and Justice departments—to keep illegal guns off U.S. streets. It’s been that way since 1942, when the organization’s predecessor, the Alcohol Tax Unit (which included Eliot Ness and his “untouchable” agents), was put in charge of enforcing federal firearms laws. Today, about 85 percent of ATF agents are involved in firearms investigations. In fiscal year 2009, they seized 16,383 firearms and traced 343,746 guns for agents and law-enforcement partners worldwide.

Much of the illegal-gun trade within the United States now targets end users in Mexico, because guns are almost impossible to buy there. American guns smuggled south are used to facilitate the flow of drugs coming north—it’s a two-lane highway littered with death, addiction and crime. The assistant director for the Office of Strategic Intelligence and Information, W. Larry Ford, puts it succinctly: “Guns are the tools of the trade. They make drug cartels and street gangs possible.”

For years, rocked by the violence in its country, the Mexican government asked the U.S. to end the flow of weapons into Mexico. The ATF responded in 2006 with the creation of Project Gunrunner, an crackdown on gun-trafficking operations aimed at Mexico. In fiscal year 2009, 2,589 firearms headed south were confiscated.

“It’s like unleashing the hounds of hell. Suddenly, all of the agents swarm... screaming, “Police! ATF! Put your hands up!” But one of the dealers doesn’t. ”

But guns continue to flow. In a 2009 speech, Eduardo Medina Mora, then Mexico’s attorney general, said his country had seized almost 52,000 firearms in two years. If even half of those came from the U.S., then 1,000 guns per month are crossing the border. (Officials from both the U.S. and Mexican governments place the number of American guns traveling to Mexico much higher.)

In 2008, the Brookings Institution put the figure at a jaw-dropping 2,000 guns per day. Law enforcers and reporters covering the gun trade refer to the U.S.-Mexico border as the Iron River: The iron is the guns; the river is the flow.

Because of Mexico’s restrictive gun laws, weapons are extremely profitable south of the border. For example, a used RomArm AK 7.62 mm assault rifle purchased here for $400 could fetch $2,000 in Mexico, according to the ATF, which says this gun is a current favorite of drug traffickers. Typically, smugglers pay straw buyers to purchase the weapons legally, then hand them over to couriers for the trip south.

In the last four and a half years, there’ve been more than 38,000 drug-related deaths in Mexico. Hundreds of the victims have been Mexican police, prosecutors, judges, journalists—and innocent bystanders. Much of the violence stems from guns. Both Mexican and U.S. authorities work under the assumption that 90 percent of the guns traced in those crimes have entered Mexico via the Iron River.

Better than Disneyland, Torres thinks. These are the bust words, and when he says them, they’ll be broadcast to the ATF takedown team through the earbuds of his iPod, which is not an iPod at all but a transmitter. Then the team will swarm in, and they’ll either pinch these guys...or all hell will break loose.

“The thing that makes gun deals so dangerous,” Torres says later at L.A.’s ATF Field Division headquarters, “is everybody has a gun. They’re everywhere, and you better not forget it.” The dealers in Torres’ scenario like the money and the cocaine. You can see a new looseness to their body language. One cracks a joke. This deal is about to go down, and they’re happy. Torres seems even cooler now, if that’s possible. Things are on the glide now, he thinks—it’s going to work out.

A moment later, a Jeep pulls up beside the Trans-Am, which sits baking in the sun with the trunk still open. The dealers start loading their wares. Torres watches the AK-47s go, then the MAC-10s, then the M16s. He watches them move the money and the cocaine. “Better than Disneyland,” he says.

“Yeah, really,” someone says back. Torres nods, puts his hands on his hips and waits for the takedown team to blast in. His heart is beating hard against his shirt, and his senses are all code blue. There are about 15 people on the takedown team—heavily armed and armored and salted around the busy parking lot—just waiting for the magic words.

From behind his sunglasses, Torres scans the area. But nobody is charging in. Nobody’s moving. No takedown team, no cavalry. Nobody.

“It seems like on these undercover deals, the audio always fails,” Torres says later. “If something can go wrong, it will. And it’s right then—in the seconds after you’ve signaled the bust and it starts to go down—that bad things will happen. Those first 10 seconds feel like 10 hours. Sometimes you have to go to plan B—and there’s never a plan C.”

Has high tech changed the nature of undercover work? The ATF admits technology plays a “significant part” in what it does. The bureau won’t disclose specific gadgetry but suggests that iPhones, iPads and Wi-Fi all play a part. Gone are the days when agents caught undercover encounters on Nagra recorders the size of cigar boxes.

Gadgets or not, Torres’ bosses in Washington, D.C., agree undercover agents have to be ready for anything. Ford, who spent years undercover, has two golden rules to help agents keep from getting their cover blown. “First, you have to pay attention to your gut instincts. Does something seem wrong? Is something out of place? Isolate it. Plan your next move. Second, you must be aware of your surroundings—there’s never a casual or relaxed moment when you’re undercover.”

Although an ATF agent’s cover is rarely blown, it does happen. Investigations have been ruined. Agents have been beaten, stabbed, shot. Special agents Ariel Rios and Eddie Benitez were both killed while working undercover in Miami in 1982 and 1983, respectively. To date, 186 ATF agents have been killed in the line of duty.

And who are these illegal gun dealers? “The overwhelming majority of licensed dealers follow the law,” says Torres. “But the ones who don’t have one thing in common: greed. One of those guys out there in the hot sun was federally licensed—but not to sell automatic weapons to a suspicious guy like Omar.

“Better than Disneyland,” Torres says again, a little louder.

“You just said that.” One of the gun dealers gives Torres a long look, then goes back to loading weapons into the Trans-Am. By now, Torres knows full well his audio can’t be working. It’s been two full minutes, he’s said the bust words twice, but the takedown team is nowhere in sight.

Time for plan B: If the audio fails, Torres’ backup signal is to put on his hat. He swipes it from his trunk and sets it on his head, then like any sharp-dressed guy, he strolls over and looks at his reflection in the car window. Not bad, he thinks.

“If something can go wrong, it will. And it’s right then—in the seconds after you’ve signaled the bust and it starts to go down—that bad things will happen. Sometimes you have to go to plan B—and there’s never a plan C.”

It’s like unleashing the hounds of hell. Suddenly, all of the agents who have been waiting swarm. They’re running between parked cars and dodging moving cars, guns raised and screaming, “Police! ATF! Put your hands up!”

But one of the dealers doesn’t. In fact, he’s reaching into his coat as he turns on Torres with a look that says it all. The dealer knows he’s been betrayed, and he’s unhappy about it. Very. Torres reads that look as easily as he might a billboard and makes a move for his sweat-drenched Smith & Wesson.

Although undercover work is not required, fully half of ATF agents do it at some point. There is no policy on how long. Many have spent months, even years, doing the nerve-racking, body-stressing, soul-testing work among some of the country’s spookiest and most violent criminals—mafia, militia, motorcycle gangs, cartels. “It’s a tradition here,” says Ford. “We rely heavily on infiltration.”

Sometimes infiltration comes at a high cost. The fear of having one’s cover blown and the strain of constantly proving one’s “badness” to the bad guys can exacerbate any difficulties an agent was having before going undercover. There can be depression, divorce, drinking.

“One big side effect of undercover work is on the spouse,” said Scot Thomasson, the ATF’s chief of public affairs. “They function almost like a single parent. School events, childcare, maintaining the home—they do it all without a lot of help.”

“I got divorced during my first year of UC work,” says Stephen K. Martin, an ATF special agent now stationed in Washington, D.C. “You can feel pretty alone. There were times undercover I wanted to talk to someone.”

In the early 1990s, Martin infiltrated the Warlocks, a violent Florida-based motorcycle gang. He went by the name Steve May, and he looked as rough as any of the gang that trafficked guns and weapons. For the West Point grad and army helicopter pilot, riding with the Warlocks put him in with people who were against everything he believed in.

Martin found senior agents to talk to who had done extensive undercover work. “We trusted each other,” he says. “They got it. They helped me get through some tough situations.”

In 1998, the ATF established a program in which an agent is assigned to each medium or long-term undercover agent. These days, Martin still heads a loose confederation of ATF agents always willing to talk to undercover agents. “It’s an unofficial channel,” he says, “but sometimes we’re the life raft.”

With all the pressure and danger of working undercover, just what is the upside? “It’s a thrill,” says Martin with a bit of a grin. “And it’s good law enforcement. You can’t get much better evidence than the eyewitness testimony given in court by a good UC agent.”

Torres agrees: “You feel exhilaration after a good operation. You’ve gotten some guns and bad people off the streets.”

“A lot of defendants plead out,” Ford says, “because the evidence collected by the undercover agent is so strong.”

Back under the scalding Barstow sun, Torres draws his weapon so fast the dealer never gets his own gun out. Instead, the ATF takedown agents overwhelm the man and the other dealer, and an operation that has been weeks in the planning has come to a successful, and not quite violent, end.

But Torres’ workday—like that of any ATF undercover agent—isn’t over yet. They must also report back daily to their respective field offices in order to keep up with their deskwork. There are reports to file, leads to pursue, meetings to attend. And who knows—the phone might ring with news of a suspicious package left in a public place, an explosion, an anonymous tip of the illegal buying or selling of guns or even cigarettes being smuggled across state lines to avoid taxes.

The caseload is heavy. In addition to investigating the illegal-gun trade, in the fiscal year 2009, the ATF investigated 26 explosives thefts, 129 cases of alcohol and tobacco “diversions” (to avoid paying taxes) and 2,927 arson and explosives cases, including bombings and attempted bombings. Many such seizures and investigations involved undercover agents. It’s all in a day’s work for the Omars and Steve Mays of the ATF.

“To do undercover work, you need a natural fit,” says Ford. “You can’t program or mold a good UC agent. It has to come from character.”

Note: On June 20, the L.A. Times reported ATF acting director Kenneth E. Melson would step down from his post in the wake of growing public outrage over the flow of guns into Mexico.

T. JEFFERSON PARKER’s next Charlie Hood mystery, The Jaguar, will be published in January.