Tony Bacco wakes up at 5am to make a secret phone call. The woman at the other end of the call is begging him for information. Tony refuses to give in to her demands. His wife must wait for him to get home to open her Christmas present. It took him three hours to cross over the border to Mexico in a truck full of drug dealers to buy her that nice iguana purse. He wishes her a Merry Christmas and says hello to his three kids. No, he and his wife aren’t separated…he just doesn’t get to spend a whole lot of time back home. Having to travel for work over Christmas is not his favorite aspect of the job, but he knew what he was getting into. He''s hoping to make it home by New Year's Eve, after Operation Heavy Hand is complete.
As Tony starts his day, he strolls through the warehouse where he has been spending the past several months, passing stacked crates filled with guns. It usually takes him a few minutes to get into his role as "Jose Borrallo." His background couldn't have been more different than his alias. Tony grew up in San Diego. He surfs, loves vegetarian burritos, and went into law enforcement to make a difference in his community, which has often been plagued with crime. "Jose Borrallo" was from the wrong side of the tracks in Venezuela. He loves horse racing, steak dinners, and shooting his gun in the air when drunk.
We've got Guns A-Blazin’ to show.
When he first took this assignment at the ATF, he was both nervous and excited. Training camp gave him a good foundation for going undercover, but nothing prepared him for the real thing. The day-to-day stress of running with criminals has taken its toll. After the first few months of working undercover, the excitement had waned, but now that the operation was nearing its finale, the danger is reaching a fevered pitch. Today, "Jose" is to sell $100,000 worth of firearms to a Mexican cartel.
Tony's partner, Fernando, is hogging the bathroom as usual. Tony is pumped about ending his "roommate" status with his partner. He has always been amazed by Fernando's vast array of hair and skin products. How good do you need to look while busting baddies? The guy had one entire suitcase devoted to his favorite soaps, mud masks, and exfoliating lotions. Tony was content with a bar of soap.
"Hola. Nice to be able to use the bathroom for a change," Tony says as Fernando exits the bathroom.
"Don't try telling me you don't use my conditioner behind my back," Fernando says.
The phone rings and Fernando drops his Latin accent for one commonly used in Veracruz. Both of the men had to study the local traditions and culture before embarking on the operation at hand.
"No me lo dijiste," he says and hangs up.
"What did they say?" Tony asks.
"They said they are going to be here in 20 minutes. Man. This is not good. I hope our guys can get here in time or we’re going to have to watch these guns walk."
Tony couldn't imagine letting the guns walk. When he and Fernando first met the guys who introduced them to the drug cartel, they were excited that they had made such fast progress. Their operation was only on the third day. They met Don and Pedro at a bowling ally in Tijuana. They were able to convince them that they were in town looking for some buyers for firearms. Pedro and Don were lowly firearm runners who bought guns from the United States and brought them back into Mexico. Though they were terrible bowlers, they knew the right people the ATF was trying to target. Once they met the higher ups in the drug cartel, they knew that they were in it to win it.
Manny "Jaguar" liked them immediately, but had a few reservations about buying guns from them off the bat. It took over six months of being part of their organization for them to gain trust. In fact, Fernando had to "kill" someone to prove his loyalty. The ATF set up a mock fight where Fernando shot a gun right into an ATF agent’s bulletproof jacket.
He may need a second one for his gut.
Slowly, they were able to gather more and more evidence. It was risky wearing a wire sometimes. They had to get really good about hiding them underneath thin tank tops and t-shirts. The heat in Texas made it difficult to get away with wearing a sweater. They obtained photos of other crates within the cartel's warehouse, numerous names of their other contacts, and video of the criminals committing felonies.
Both men get ready to meet the cartel. Because they have gained a considerable amount of trust, they feel comfortable wearing wires during the "sell." Tony tapes the microphone to Fernando's chest.
"See how easy that is when you conduct some rudimentary man maintenance?" Fernando asks as he points to the smooth skin on his chest.
"Please. I cry when I have a bandage taken off," Tony says.
Outside, they hear the roar of several motorcycles and cars. Fernando opens up the doors to the warehouse and strikes a tough guy looking pose. Tony shakes his head. He's not sure how tough one can look with a freshly waxed chest.
He turns his microphone on.
Three of the cartel members get out of a car. One of them is carrying a duffle bag.
"Hola. Como estas?" one of them asks.
"Can’t complain," Tony answers as he looks into the distance for the other ATF agents. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a shadow on the roof. He's instantly more relaxed, but wary. There is no way of judging how this could go down. The men talk for a few minutes before Fernando shows them a few of the high-powered assault weapons in the crates.
"Where is Manny?" Fernando asks. It makes him nervous not seeing his main contact during the transaction.
"He got picked up for questioning. Someone must have tipped off the police because they knew he was buying some illegal fireworks in Arizona for his son's birthday party," Carlos says.
Tony and Fernando try not to look at each other. Sometimes working with criminals is complicated, because they are often involved with numerous other illegal activities.
"Everything looks good," says Juan "the Cougar." As the cartel's chieftain, Juan was one of the important guys to impress. In fact, Fernando and Tony had to spend months with him before they could secure this deal. Sometimes, they would drive to his home and spend the day with him. They participated in soccer games, ate Juan's badly burnt barbecue and even played with his kids.
Fernando and Tony help the men load up their car and truck with the crates. Before the men leave, the duffle bag is given to Fernando so he can quickly count the rolls of money. Fernando starts sweating profusely. He is quietly praying that the ATF stops these guys before they reach the border.
Over 90 percent of guns found at crime scenes in Mexico can be traced back to gun dealers in the United States. When these illegal guns fall into the hands of the drug cartel, tens of thousand of people die. In fact, 23,000 have been killed by the drug cartel since 2006.
"Bueno," Fernando says. "It looks good."
"This doesn't look good," Juan says.
Tony's heart skips a beat. He begins to worry that Juan's been on to them from the beginning. Oh, no. He's too young to die.
He starts to feel slightly faint, but finally forces himself to pull it together.
"This rain," Juan says. "It doesn't look good. Anyway, I'll see the both of you at my sister's wedding."
As the cartel leaves, Fernando and Tony look at each other, smiling broadly. Fernando slips on his ear piece to hear directions from the Head of the ATF in El Paso.
"They are picking them up right now. It looks like we can go home now," Tony says. "They should get picked up in about 20 minutes. What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get out of here?"
"Other than preparing a report and some paperwork, I'm going to treat myself to a relaxing spa day," Fernando says.
"You know what, man? That actually doesn't sound half bad."