Tom Diaz


In Gangs, Transnational crime, undercover investigations on November 23, 2008 at 1:43 pm

Four undercover agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) have fooled the Mongols MC.


This is not exactly a virgin group.

ATF agent William (“Billy”) Queen told the story of how he infiltrated the Mongols — a largely Latino motorcycle gang spawned in California — the first time in his book Under and Alone.  Queen’s courageous work resulted in the conviction of about 50 Mongols members.  The Mongols swore it would never happen to them again.


Bruce Ely/The Oregonian


After Queen’s penetration of the gang,  the “motorcycle club” increased its already stringent deep background checks on new members.  Pictures of known undercover agents were circulated among the membership.  One agent was able to convince the gangsters that they should not believe their own eyes — that the picture of him “palling around” with fellow ATF agents was not really him.  Three of the four agents were required to take polygraph (“lie detector”) tests and all passed.

Oops, they did it again!

A humongous (q.v.) 86-count, 177-page indictment was unsealed in October after more than 1,000 federal agents and police officers scooped up 61 Mongols gang members in California and five other states.  The federal RICO indictment was based on a three-year investigation.

You have to admire the courage of these ATF agents.

First they risked their lives going deep inside the Mongols.  These recreational motorcyclists are not such nice people.  The charges in the indictment include murder, attempted murder, racially motivated attacks on black people, torture, and gun and drug offenses.

Of course, in a court of law these bikers are precisely entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.  (However that legal presumption does not mean and never has meant that people in a free society cannot make up their own minds about legal contests.  You really are allowed to be your own judge.)

As the case moves to trial, you can bet that the agents will be attacked, maligned, and traduced by the Mongols’ defense lawyers.  As Chris Rock’s mosquito character, Mooseblood, says in The Bee Movie, “Ma’am, I was already a bloodsucking parasite. All I needed was a briefcase.” (For more lawyer jokes, go here.  Or just watch the U.S. Senate “debates” on C-SPAN.)

Right now, for example, an annoyance of briefcase-bearing mosquitoes in Las Vegas is buzzing around the federal courthouse in the wake of another ATF undercover investigation code-named Operation Sin City Ink.  The bloodsuckers are dive-bombing erstwhile undercover agent Peter McCarthy with accusations that he toked up weed and used “racial slurs” during the investigation.  Accusations like these are standard blunt instruments from the defense bar’s tool box.  Oh my goodness, the lawyers contend, these agents even act like the criminals they are pretending to be. Heavens to Betsy — how could anyone believe them against the word of our recreational biker clients? (If the law is against you, pound the facts.  If the facts are against you, pound the law.  If the facts and the law are against you, pound the agents.)

Even if these scurrilous charges were true, none of them bear on the factual guilt (or innocence) of these clients.  But here is one fascinating refutation of the charge:

Charlie Fuller, executive director of the Georgia-based International Association of Undercover Officers, has provided a letter for the court record stating that he supplied the ATF with a quarter-ounce of the phony marijuana, “Wizard Weed,” which he says he had purchased from an established online smoke shop.

The substance smells like marijuana when it is smoked, but does not have its main chemical ingredient, THC, Fuller says in the letter.

“This product is used by many undercover officers from all over the United States as a legitimate and very effective undercover prop,” he explains.

Not Undercover Agents

Not Undercover Agents -- Not Mushroom Farmers

Finally, if recent history is a guide, ATF management will panic at the first sign of trouble.  Perhaps uniquely among federal law enforcement agencies, ATF has a history of getting into ugly contests with its deep undercover agents.

One of the most notorious examples is that of agent Jay Dobyns.  Highly decorated, shot twice in the line of duty, widely praised by his peers in the front line for his physical courage and steady nerves, Dobyns has somehow become a scapegoat for the “mushroom farmers” at ATF heaquarters.  You can read some of the long-running sordid story here and here.  (I have gathered a pile of public documents on this case and plan to return to the subject in depth next year, here and elsewhere.)

The root of Dobyns’ problems may go back to the publication of a book about the Hells Angels, another recreational group of fun-loving motorcyclists known for their civic spirit.  Boy Scouts on wheels.  Angels of Death: Inside the Biker Gangs’ Crime Empire describes in some detail Dobyns’ infiltration of the Hell Angels, even becoming a full patch member, as part of ATF’s Operation Black Biscuit.  I was told that the book’s description of undercover “sources and methods” gave ATF management a serious case of heartburn.  It did not help that the federal prosecution basically fell apart when the case went to trial, with ATF management and federal prosecutors turning on each other as the mosquitoes dive-bombed their case.

It all brings to mind a tee shirt I once saw.  Printed on the back was the following rueful observation on the dynamics of bureaucratic organizations:

Seven Stages of a Project

Phase 1: Uncritical acceptance.

Phase 2: Wild enthusiasm.

Phase 3: Dejected disillusionment.

Phase 4: Total confusion.

Phase 5: Search for the guilty.

Phase 6: Punishment of the innocent.

Phase 7: Promotion of non-participants.

Of course, there is nothing funny about any of this.

Motorcycle gangs, like street gangs, are primary conduits of the illict drugs being pumped into the United States by the Mexican drug trafficking organizations. The consequences of this smuggling can strike anywhere in America.  The drug traffickers are building and strengthening their links through their alliances with the street gangs, giving the DTOs a strong and ruthless chain of retail outlets.Undercover work is not a game.  It is an essential part of our national defense against this wave of plunder, violence, and corruption.

The reach of the drug empire is illustrated by a recent case in Fairfax County, a Virginia suburb of Washington, DC.  Ten teenagers and young adults — all between the ages of 19 and 22 — have been indicted for their roles in a heroin distribution ring targeted at teenagers.

They are allegedly responsible for several cases of overdose — including the deaths of three youngsters.

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from

  1. Your Seven Stages of a Project could be titled the Seven Stages of an ATF Undercover Operation. The analysis fits like a glove. I worked on an ATF task force five years ago and I know these guys you mention through the International Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association. ATF embraced them for the purpose of glory and kicked them to the curb at the first sign of trouble. The ATF bigshots call a press conference and pat themselves on the back for the work of their line agents and then proceed to attack the same agents once the story is out of the headlines. There must be some type of award package for ATF bosses who ruin undercover agents. ATF’s bosses have the worst rep in copland as backstabbers. How else can they explain the repeats of what they do? The undercover cops of the world stand in awe of what the ATF agents have done. In most PD’s, the FBI, DEA, they would never be forsaken like ATF. Mr. Diaz, I suggest you keep digging. You won’t believe what they did to Dobbins last summer. You think you gathered the paperwork behind story that CNN put out. The new story is the same but only about a billion times worse. Way to go ATF – not!

  2. Over and over and over with ATF. Maybe Obama’s people will pay closer attention. The stories of these agents being thrown out like last weeks meatloaf is disturbing. Our federal police deserve better. My question is why would an agent take those risks just so the cowards can take the credit?

  3. […] here. As the author notes, the guys who do this face two risks. (1) Getting killed by the targets, who […]

  4. […] ATF Undercover Ops – Routine Failures […]

  5. On the Mongol photo above suggest giving source credit to: Bruce Ely/The Oregonian

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