What It is Like to Infiltrate Criminal Organizations as a “RatSnake”


MERRY JANE spoke to former ATF agent Vincent A. Cefalu, whose new book facts the lives (and double-lives) of undercover operatives tasked with breaking up organized crime.

All pictures courtesy of the BenBella Books

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (recognized as the ATF or in some cases the BATFE) was founded in 1972 to defend the nation from violent criminals, acts of arson, bombings, and terrorism, the trafficking of firearms and explosives, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco merchandise. It was initially element of the Bureau of Internal Income, but the history of the ATF can be traced back to prohibition agent Eliot Ness and “The Untouchables,” the infamous crime fighters who battled Al Capone and his bootlegging gang in Chicago. 

Regardless of its colorful history of law enforcement, the agency has faced criticism in current occasions for its mishandling of the “Fast and Furious” investigation (unrelated to the film series), and the Waco and Ruby Ridge instances in the early 1990s. The ATF has created a reputation for challenging-charging agents who are hellbent on capturing the most nefarious poor guys, even if it suggests breaking the law themselves.

Just ask ATF operative Vincent A. Cefalu, who witnessed the inner-workings of the agency for 30 years and lately came out as a whistleblower. He claims that the law enforcement group has serious accountability challenges, and the former agent would know: Cefalu worked in a specialty unit inside the ATF, serving in a function that is recognized as a “ratsnake” — somebody who functions deep undercover to break up organized crime groups. 

In Cefalu’s new book, RatSnakes: Cheating Death by Living A Lie — Inside the Explosive Globe of ATF’s Undercover Agents and How We Changed the Game, he gives readers an inside appear at what it was like to operate undercover, a job exactly where one particular slip-up could expense you your life. To the ATF, “ratsnakes” have been a required evil, as undercover agents could move by means of the criminal ranks and hierarchy with ease. These enforcement officers would go so far undercover that no one particular would ever suspect they have been operating for the feds. 

The book dives into the threat-laden and secretive careers of these “ratsnakes.” In chapters like “Snake Code,” “Executive Douchebags,” and “The Price of Performing America’s Small business,” Cefalu explains how one particular approaches a clandestine operation, facts moments when his cover was just about blown, and discusses what it was like to reside a accurate double-life. MERRY JANE got in touch with the former agent and author to chat about the new book and get some insight into the trade. Here’s what the one particular-time “ratsnake” had to say. 

MERRY JANE: When did you determine to create a book about your profession in the ATF, and why did it really feel like the proper time?

Vincent Cefalu: I in fact began a incredibly loose diary, for lack of a superior word, or outline, in 2006. I did it mainly because, collectively, we —  “The RatSnakes” — usually discussed our dynamic globe and have been afraid our actions would be lost to history. Plus, possessing worked with such dynamic persons inside such a dynamic plan inside ATF, I felt their stories need to be immortalized. I got significant about placing with each other a book about 2014 when I retired. Although I had to inform the stories by means of my eyes, the book is in fact about this crew of undercover agents.

Why are undercover agents inside the ATF referred to as “ratsnakes”?

It was a moniker that was floating among us. It is stated that the pioneers kept “ugly” ratsnakes in jars out of web site. When rodents infested their residences, they would let the snakes out to hunt down and kill all the nasty rodents. When they have been performed, they would be placed back in the jar till the subsequent infestation. A lot like the snakes, ATF undercover agents have been not the favored youngsters of the Bureau, and they kept us quite a lot hidden till they required us once again. 

How did you 1st get involved in law enforcement and the ATF and what produced you determine to pursue that profession path?

Considering that I was a young teenager, I was involved with law enforcement, only on the getting finish. I was a thug as a kid, so I had way also lots of interactions with law enforcement. I in fact admired them. Following a judge gave me a decision, jail or the Marines, all the things changed. I became a military policeman and loved it. Then I became a street cop and loved that even additional. It was good not possessing to appear more than my shoulder any longer. I crossed paths with some feds more than time and believed they have been bigger than life. At some point, I met some ATF unique agents, and that was it. They had a super robust undercover plan, and because I came from the streets, it was only all-natural that I would return to them. That is it in a nutshell. My street experiences as a kid sort of ready me for later undercover roles. It was a all-natural match.


Most persons feel of the ATF as the law enforcement group that targets bikers, is this accurate and why?

The 1 percenter bikers, as I get in touch with them, place themselves in our sights decades ago with narcotics, firearms trafficking, and violent crimes. The truth is, biker instances make up a super modest portion of our prosecutions. Because we had lots of instances more than decades, across the complete nation, we have followed their activities closely. We never target them, but we never ignore them, either. They have shown all through history they are worthy of law enforcement focus. Notice I stated 1 percenter clubs.

My individual opinion is that the Hells Angels and just about every club like them are gangs and criminal enterprises. In my humble opinion, when your [group’s] written bylaws are anti-law enforcement and have serious penalties for speaking to law enforcement or reporting crimes, it is likely a “where there is smoke, there is fire” circumstance. Again, I am speaking of outlaw motorcycle gangs, aka 1 percenters.  

What’s it like getting undercover, playing a function, and getting out there with only your personal wits to maintain you secure?

It really is scary. It really is difficult. It really is thrilling. It really is an ever-altering atmosphere and can evolve in seconds. You in no way know what to anticipate and have to pretend none of what goes on about you surprises or shocks you — even if it shocks the shit out of you. It really is way various than standard law enforcement exactly where you can normally summon up all the backup you require in an immediate. An undercover agent knows that even if you have a fantastic cover group just down the block, they likely can not get to you quickly adequate when a meeting goes to shit. The very best they can do is recover your physique and/or get in touch with an ambulance. We attempt not to feel of that in the course of the approach. 


What is the diciest moment you have ever knowledgeable, and have you ever felt like your cover was about to be blown?

My companion and I had infiltrated a prominent biker gang. We came up with the thought to drop one particular of our wallets at the clubhouse realizing they would rifle by means of it. Of course we had fake shit in the wallet — photographs of naked girls and other shit bikers could possibly have. However, a couple factors in the wallet sparked their paranoia and they referred to as us into the clubhouse to query us. They separated us, and when I got referred to as in, the chapter president placed a .357 Magnum revolver on the table to start out the interrogation. We worked the challenge as planned, and they came away satisfied… or I am fairly particular I wouldn’t be about to answer this query.

Why do so lots of undercover agents appear to have difficulties with the administrative sorts in law enforcement?

Undercover agents do not conform strictly to typical policies and practices. If a uniform officer gets beat up, they have to report it, make an arrest straight away, and prosecute the crime. An undercover may perhaps have to take the beating and come back at a later date to pursue the prosecution, so as not to compromise the undercover. That’s just one particular instance. There is a fantastic deal of liability possessing your subordinates operate in a secret atmosphere with incredibly small oversight. Poor factors can take place and the suits don’t like to have to clarify poor factors. They’d rather just maintain all the things squeaky clean. But, of course, that is not probable on all undercover assignments. Sometimes undercover meets take place in strip clubs or brothels. At times there is drug use going on in an undercover’s presence. Most undercover events never take place in churches. 


How do you go from living a lie to adjusting back to your frequent life?

This is clearly the most difficult element of the job. It gets confusing in some cases. When you obtain oneself enjoying the dirty side of life additional than your standard side, it is time to take a break. We have protocols in location to aid assure that doesn’t happen. But in some cases you are in and out so a lot that you can have some character fragmentation. We train challenging and regularly evaluate our undercovers to decrease the effects of prolonged undercover operations. We are just like everyone else, even though. We enjoy our children and our wives and husbands, play sports, like cookouts, and that stuff is way stronger than a small adrenaline rush from meeting a poor guy.  

What do you feel about cannabis culture and what is the ATF’s connection to it? 

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Location in the ‘60s and ‘70s. We have been the original cannabis culture. It’s gotten definitely difficult now for law enforcement and specifically the ATF. Law enforcement officers never get to infuse their enforcement of the law with their individual beliefs, no matter which side of the argument they are on. The elected officials are solely accountable for creating law or altering laws. There are statutes that ATF enforces that are tied to federal narcotics laws, which at the moment incorporate marijuana. 1 specific statute becomes troublesome with regards to marijuana: 18 U.S.C. Sec. 922 (g). This statute says if you are a user of illegal narcotics, which marijuana at the moment is below federal law, you may perhaps not possess a firearm. There are other folks, but in my thoughts, this law and state marijuana laws are on a collision course. 


What do you feel of the War on Drugs in retrospect, now that cannabis is acquiring legalized nationwide?

Considering that this query was directed solely at me, I will share my thoughts. I feel the emphasis placed on marijuana more than the decades could have been superior spent fighting heroin, cocaine, designer drugs, and these drugs that are actually killing our youth. The challenge with ignoring the marijuana trade is that big violent criminal organizations advantage from trafficking weed. When cartels and that sort profit so a lot from marijuana, it is challenging to appear away and attempt to decipher who is a hippie grower from Humboldt County and who is a trafficker from Mexico. Just mainly because it is challenging to cease the flow of fentanyl into the nation and onto our streets doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. 

For additional on “RatSnakes,” order your copy by way of BenBella Books right here

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