In Guns Across the Border: How and Why the U.S. Government Smuggled Guns into Mexico, author Mike Detty documents how the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) ran a series of “gun walking” sting operations that failed to stop Mexican gun smuggling cartels — and even aided the cartels’ efforts.
Detty was a paid government informant deeply involved in Operation Wide Receiver, a precursor to the now infamous Operation Fast & Furious. Motivated by a sense of patriotic duty, Detty alerted the local ATF office when he was first approached by suspected Mexican gun cartel associates. Detty made the commitment to work undercover in Operation Wide Receiver and assumed the risks involved to help the feds make their case, often selling guns to cartel thugs from his home in the dead of night. Originally informed that the investigation would last just weeks, Detty’s involvement in the operation stretched on for three dangerous years.
Though the case took several twists and turns, perhaps the cruelest turn was his betrayal by the very agency he risked everything to help. Guns Across the Border is the exclusive inside story that reveals it all.
Mike Detty has been writing for consumer gun magazines and law enforcement journals for more than twenty years. He received a BS in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Arizona and later entered the officer ranks of the U.S. Marine Corps. His involvement in the firearms industry started with his own competitive shooting endeavors. He lives in Arizona.
The material below is excerpted in full from Chapter 9, “Mi Vida Loca,” of Guns Across the Border, How and Why the U.S. Government Smuggled Guns into Mexico: The Inside Story. Reprinted with permission, Skyhorse Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-62087-599-5.
Special Agent [Travis] Lopez had told me before he left my house that his cell phone wasn’t working, so when Pedro called and said that he’d be twenty minutes late, I had to walk out to his car to let him know.
I brought my laptop into the dining room to do some bookwork while I waited for Pedro. I was so engrossed in my spreadsheets that he walked up to my front door unnoticed by me. Shit! I let Pedro in and grabbed Morgan’s collar to take her out the back door. Once outside, I activated the transmitter and my digital recorder. When I came back in, Omar and Julie were at the front door. Omar shook hands and made a point of looking me in the eye and smiling when he crossed the threshold. Julie was her usual bubbly self and I invited her to have a seat while the guys picked out what they wanted. I still had not activated the Hawk in its Kleenex box. Did I dare do it now with everyone here? The wet bar was covered with a mirrored wall and I wondered if they’d notice. But I really didn’t have a choice as there was now a Kleenex box with wires and a toggle switch hanging out.
I walked over and pulled a Kleenex from the box and started cleaning my eyeglasses. I flipped the small switch and tucked the wires into the box as nonchalantly as possible. I turned around slowly, still wiping the lenses. Julie smiled sweetly—she was oblivious to what I had just done. All the electronics were now activated and I hadn’t lost anything meaningful because of the delay. I was lucky that time and realized I would have to be much more careful in the future.
Pedro and Omar walked among the piles of guns and talked between themselves while Julie and I made small talk while sitting at the dining room table. Omar pointed to the stacks of ten Rock River AR-15 carbines and spoke in Spanish.
“He wants all of those,” said Pedro. He asked if I had more.
“How many does he want?”
“He says at least ten more.”
Omar also wanted all of the .38 Supers that I had left. They had me do some quick math to see what the total came to. Pedro had not yet started picking out guns for himself and after a while it became apparent to me that Julie was going to do the paperwork for all of the guns and that Omar would just pay for Pedro’s guns, rather than give him a cash kickback. A little later, Pedro put one of the Rock River Entry Tactical rifles aside saying that it was for his cousin José.
With the selections now made, I tallied the order and it came to $33,994. Omar had brought a stack of cash in a Big Lots shopping bag. I had Julie and Pedro separate the denominations and count the money out into stacks of $1,000 which I then confirmed with the counting machine and banded. This took at least a half hour and with just one exception the count by my two “friends” was correct. While we were doing the counting, Omar went outside and came back in with a large black nylon case. Inside the case were two other similar bags. He started opening the blue plastic Rock River Arms cases and removing the rifles’ uppers and lowers and placing them in the bags along with the magazine that comes with each gun. Pedro asked if there was anything I could do with the cases because Omar wanted to leave them with me.
“They have no value. I really can’t give him anything for them.”
“Oh no, no he just wants to leave them here.”
“Sure, no problem. I’ll take care of them.”
When he had finished filling the bag, he strained to lift the strap onto his shoulder—its weight nearly pulled him over—and took it out and put it into the blue van. He repeated this process until all of the guns were loaded and then joined us back at the dining room table.
Julie seemed to be very happy that evening. She told me that she was going to use the cash they were paying her to buy the piece of land that she had her trailer parked on in Naco, a small border town in southern Arizona.
She was a pretty young woman, albeit a little heavy, and her impoverished lifestyle must have made it very difficult to say no to the easy money. She seemed to be a genuinely nice person and someone I would have liked to be friends with in any other setting.
I had finished counting the money and was now completing the #4473 Julie had filled out. After I got a “proceed” on her background check, I finished filling out her receipt. I asked Pedro when these guns would be loaded and he asked Omar in Spanish.
“Esta noche,” said Omar. I gave Omar a thumbs-up sign, which he returned.
“Yeah, don’t worry, Mike,” said Pedro, “these guns will be in Mexico before you wake up tomorrow morning.”
Julie, still smiling, got up and thanked me, and then she and Omar said goodnight and turned towards the door. As I walked with them, I noticed that Pedro was lingering behind. He was not going to leave with them. It worried me—Omar now had the weapons, and the cash was still sitting on my dining room table. Was this the night Pedro had been ordered to kill me? He seemed nervous.
“Do you remember the first time I came out here with Diego?” Pedro asked me. “The guy that had the T-Bird with the NY Yankees logo on it— he’s my nephew. I was talking with him last night and he said that Diego’s thug roommate, Santos, told him that Diego got stopped by the DEA or something and that they asked him all sorts of questions about guns.”
“What?” I looked at him with disbelief. “No, oh shit no.” I pretended to get angry and I clenched my teeth and raised my voice.
“But Mike, I think he was just making a joke. It’s been a long time since Diego has been around and nothing has happened yet.”
I took a deep breath. “No, it does make perfect sense. Think about it, he knows that you’re still buying guns. Why wouldn’t he come over and ask for his money?”
“I dunno. I think they were kidding, you know, joking.”
“That little p****. If he’s working for the cops I’ll shoot him!”
Pedro looked down at his feet. He wasn’t a killer and didn’t want to be responsible for someone else’s death, even Diego’s. But for me, this development was perfectly choreographed and would draw any suspicion regarding future arrests away from me and put it on Diego.
“Look,” I said slowly, as if I was trying to formulate a plan that would save us both, “call your nephew tomorrow and see if you can get any more information. Find out if Diego is still in town and where he’s living. Do you know if he’s still working at the same place?”
“Yeah, I think so. I know where he lives—in a trailer park by the airport.”
“That f******,” I snarled as I slapped my hand on the table.
“I’m sorry Mike, I’m sorry.”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do about it now. Let’s see what your nephew has to say tomorrow and then we’ll make a plan. But this worries me a lot.”
“Yeah, me too, I didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“S***.” I tried to look disgusted and would not look Pedro in the eye. He wore the look of a child who knew he was in trouble and kept looking down at his feet, ashamed. I intentionally said nothing that might ease his discomfort.
Pedro started gathering up his guns. He had two .38 Supers and a couple AR-15 pistols. He started to pick up a Rock River Entry Tactical AR-15 rifle but the case was empty.
“This one is supposed to be mine too,” said Pedro.
“No, Omar already packed it. Remember I handed you the case and said to put it where it’s separate from Omar’s stuff? He must have packed it with his stuff.”
Pedro opened his cell phone and called Omar, who had now been gone for less than ten minutes. He talked briefly and then closed his phone.
“Is he going to come back?”
“No, I’m going to go over to his apartment right now to get that gun. It is for José.”
I helped Pedro carry his load out to his truck. “Give me a call tomorrow about Diego, OK? I’m very worried about this.”
“I’m really sorry, Mike.” He said that he would call me the next day with more news. But I knew that there would be even more news to come that evening.
I walked back inside and turned off the Hawk and the transmitter. I also turned off my digital recorder and installed the ear mic so I could record the phone conversation I knew I would be receiving shortly from Pedro.
Lopez walked through the front door a few moments later.
“They stopped Omar but he bolted. They’re still looking for him right now. But they did get the girl.”
I could tell that he was excited.
“If Pedro comes back, try to turn on your transmitter and the Hawk, OK?”
“He’s heading over to Omar’s right now,” I said.
“Are you shitting me?”
“No, Omar accidentally took one of the rifles Pedro bought for José.”
“Oh shit. Well, this may add some validity to things. Let’s see what happens. Is there anything else important that I need to know about?”
“He told me that his nephew told him that Diego was stopped by the DEA and asked a bunch of questions about guns.”
“Yep,” I said.
“That’s beautiful,” said Lopez. He obviously realized the implications and timing of this news. “I’ll probably send one of the other guys over here to pick up the Hawk and transmitter later, OK? And make sure you record the conversation if he calls. If you don’t mind, could you please burn a CD with tonight’s meeting?”
I downloaded the conversation and burned it to a CD for Lopez. Then I started doing the paperwork that always followed one of these huge transactions. I had to complete and fax the Multiple Disposition form to the ATF West Virginia office and the Tucson office and I also had to complete the back of the #4473 that Julie had filled out. Then I had my own inventory and detailed sales ledger to complete. I also needed to take some digital pictures of the money, the bag they brought it in, the #4473 form, and my receipt. I took high-resolution pics so the agents could blow them up and read the serial numbers. It was just an extra measure that would cover us if a piece of evidence got destroyed or lost.
About ten minutes after Lopez left, Pedro called me. “Mike, you’re gonna be mad. I just went by Omar’s apartment and there’s a bunch of cop cars there. I almost got caught.”
“Do they have Omar?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you see his van?”
“Yeah, I saw the van in the parking lot. I could see that they had Julie. But I couldn’t see Omar. I called him a couple times and he didn’t answer his phone.”
I growled, “Don’t call him anymore. If they have him they’ll get your number on his caller ID.”
“I’m going to throw this phone out anyway. Wait, hold on. Omar is calling me right now.”
I stayed on hold for approximately four minutes before I hung up and started on my paperwork again. I knew he’d call back.
A few minutes later my cell rang and I activated the digital recorder again.
“They didn’t get him. He ran through the wash.”
“Where’s he at right now?”
“I think that he’s like at Golf Links and Prudence.”
“Are you going to look for him?”
“Yeah, I think I’ll go look for him right now.”
“Pedro, be very careful,” I said sternly. “If you see the helicopter with its light, don’t go anywhere near there, entiendes?”
“I understand. What should I do with the guns in my car?”
“Go home and hide them at your house. It will be tomorrow before anyone comes to see me. At this point there is nothing to tie Julie to you. Do you understand? You didn’t do any paperwork tonight so there’s no reason for them to arrest you.”
“That’s good. Julie doesn’t know my last name.”
“Good, I’m sure you won’t have any problems tonight. Call me tomorrow and let me know what’s going on, OK?”
“I’m really sorry about this.”
“It’s OK, Pedro. I know how to talk to these cops when they come to see me. I did everything legally and Julie passed the background check.”
After I hung up, I called Mando on his cell phone, knowing that Lopez’s phone was not working. I told him what Pedro had said.
Lopez called an hour later. “Good work tonight. We have Julie in custody and she’s cooperating. Omar got away but we’re not too terribly concerned. I haven’t talked to Julie yet. They took her downtown and she has no idea I’ve been watching her all night.”
I put the cash in the safe and finally took off the Kimber pistol that I’d worn all evening and rubbed my back where it had made an impression in my skin. Next to my nightstand was a loaded AR-15 carbine with a tactical light attached to it. It was about 1 a.m. before I fell into a restless sleep. What if Omar realized I had set him up? What if he thought he could get the cash he spent here tonight plus the rest of the guns before heading back to Mexico? Even though Morgan is still a very good watchdog she doesn’t hear like she used to. I’m going to need a couple really good dogs in the near future.
The next morning Pedro called at eight and I was still in bed. I turned on the digital recorder that I had left next to my cell phone.
“Omar is already in Mexico,” he said. “One of his people came and got him and they went straight to Mexico. I’m leaving later today.”
“Call me on Monday. Try to have a good weekend and I’ll let you know if there are any problems.”
Lopez called me at about 11 a.m. to tell me I’d done an outstanding job the night before. He said he finished interviewing Julie at about two in the morning and he only got to bed around three and was up again at six thirty.
“You must be tired,” I said.
I heard him yawning. “Tell me about it.” He paused for a second before adding, “I have to tell you, Mike, these guys are very afraid of you. They think you’re some kind of badass.”
I waited for the punch line, thinking that Lopez was setting me up for a joke. Nothing followed so I asked, “Why are they afraid of me?”
“I guess you’ve got a good line. Apparently Julie and Omar spoke between themselves on the way over and Omar told her he wanted to do everything he could not to piss you off. You talk tough and you’re very believable. Yeah, they’re very afraid of you.”
Lopez explained that the only reason they did a formal interview with Julie was to throw any suspicion off me. It should have lasted no more than twenty minutes instead of two hours. But after an hour she still hadn’t given up any information and Lopez started to get frustrated. He raised his voice and told her all the charges she was facing and she started crying.
“She was sobbing. She said, ‘I’ll tell you everything, but please, please don’t tell Mike. He’ll kill us all.’”
Imagine that, I thought—I’d gone from a mild-mannered gun dealer to a rogue international weapons dealer who frightened even cartel associates. I was living la vida loca!
I had created an alter ego that these people believed and as far as I could tell, never suspected. I was a dirty gun dealer so obsessed with money that I had absolutely no compunction about selling guns to narcos. I had welcomed these criminals into my home and treated them like my best friends. It was a character so far removed from who I really was that it was laughable. The fact that I was able to hide my contempt for these people and all that they stood for was unbelievable, even to me. I was the kid in high school who never tried pot, the college student who never drank, I never cheated on my taxes, and I always drove the speed limit. Yet somehow, I was able to play the part of a sinister underworld gun dealer convincingly.
My work with the ATF had given me a sense of purpose and I felt as though I was involved in something that would be monumentally historic. The fog of depression that had hung on me so long had finally lifted. And I have to admit that I was enjoying this work and seemed to be well suited for it. The positive feedback that I received from Lopez and the other agents was all I needed to push myself a little harder. I followed orders like a good Marine and never lost sight of our goal to topple a powerful cartel—even if it meant placing my personal welfare secondary to accomplishing our mission.
Jack Hinkley’s plan to shut down one of our peripheral players was a success. Omar would never buy guns from me again and I have no idea if he ever had to pay a price for losing that load of guns. I hadn’t heard from Eduardo for a while and I was unsure if I would hear from him again. But, understandably, there was some fallout from the justice department regarding the number of guns that were being allowed to cross the border. When Pedro first started buying guns, Lopez would occasionally mention that the Mexican authorities were cooperating on the case. But by the end of summer 2007, he never mentioned them again and I never questioned him about it. As a confidential informant it was not up to the ATF to brief me or include me in case updates. There was no need for them to give me any information other than what I absolutely needed to know to aid their investigation. In fact, doing so could have created a huge liability for them. So, I never specifically asked them about the Federales but did make note of any information I could gleam in casual conversation. I was hoping that Jack and Travis would be able to fill in all the gaps for me when the case was over. In the meantime, I tried to work on my journal every day and included as many details as I could remember of my conversations with Pedro as well as with Travis.
It was still too early to arrest Pedro and his friends. The wiretaps for his phone had still not been approved and it was my understanding that this was critical to working their way up the cartel ladder and taking down a kingpin.
Pedro stayed in touch after Omar lost his load of guns. Lopez had me tell him that two agents came out and made copies of Julie’s paperwork but that everything had looked legal and they didn’t expect any problems. To my surprise, Pedro told me that his cousin José wanted him to start buying guns again and was ready to send him some money. My suggestion was to wait a couple weeks to make sure we weren’t being watched and Pedro thought this was a good plan.
A few days later I went down to the federal building to meet with Lopez. He opened his top desk drawer and gave me a stack of bills that had been paper-clipped together. “I’m paying you through July 20, that’s $800, and then another $600 for the rifle that we tried to put the transmitter into.” I put the money in my pocket without counting it.
I signed the voucher and checked that I had the serial number for the rifle so that I could log it out of my books. Lopez’s desk was piled high with papers. I noticed that my file was on the floor and was nearly as thick as any big city phone book. A pair of leg shackles lay next to it. As we talked, I watched a lightning storm as it moved past Picacho Peak, miles and miles away but clearly visible from the eighth-floor office.
“Well, I guess it’s a good thing that things are quiet right now. I’ve been working on the affidavit for the wiretaps and it’s sixty-one pages long.” He pointed to a thick stack of papers on his desk and rolled his eyes. “It has to go to Washington for approval and then comes back here and a judge signs off on it. At this point, it looks like it shouldn’t take long to get the approval. They’d rather we do this than let guns go to Mexico.”
“So, once the taps are in place, things should advance pretty quickly, huh?”
“Yeah, I’m thinking that you’ll be able to get two more buys out of these guys before we wrap them up. But these taps should give us all of the missing pieces we need.”
“I asked Pedro to talk to José to see exactly what they need. But I’m going to talk to you before I order anything for these guys.”
“We should be ready to go within a few weeks.”
I walked through the security checkpoint in the lobby of the federal building and out into a summer monsoon. The wind was picking up and fat dirty raindrops stung my face as I walked to my car which was parked by the
fountain in front of the building. I glanced at my reflection in the windows. My limp was so noticeable that there was no way for me to hide it. I looked up at the sky and to the east the clouds were black and foreboding—I was about to drive headlong into the storm.
About a month later, Travis called at eleven and asked if I could call Pedro and just give him a heads-up that we wouldn’t do any buys for a week or two. I tried calling Pedro on both his cell phones, but he didn’t answer. I didn’t bother to leave a message but I was a little worried. Had his cousin given him advice to ignore me?
About a half hour later Pedro called me. I hurried to get my digital recorder activated before I answered.
“I just wanted to let you know that those two ATF agents from Tucson came by to see me at the Phoenix show,” I said. “They were asking about Julie. You know, has she tried to contact me? Have I heard anything from her? But I don’t think I’m in any trouble. These guys were laughing and joking around. They spent some time looking at my guns and wanted to know if I could get them discounts.”
“Everything is OK?”
“Oh yeah, these guys are stupid. I think the smart guys go into the FBI and the ones that are left over go into the ATF. Let’s give it another week or so before we do anything, OK?”
“Cool, Mike, when is the next gun show?”
I walked over and looked at the calendar on my refrigerator that lists all of the gun show dates. “It looks like the third week of September there is a gun show at the Tucson Community Center.”
“Maybe I’ll buy just a couple there?”
“No, Pedro there are too many eyes on us there. If you need something come get it at my house OK? But let’s wait for a few more weeks.”
“Oh, okay Mike. No problem. I’ll call you soon to see how things are going. José will need some guns soon.”
“Tell José that I got in some of those FN Five-seven pistols he was asking about.”
The FN Five-seven pistol is one of the common “bad guy” guns. It is a lightweight, polymer-framed gun with a magazine that holds twenty rounds and could easily be retrofitted to hold thirty rounds of ammunition. They are accurate and have very light recoil. The round it fires is a small-diameter, lightweight bullet which travels at hypervelocity. With the right ammunition, it will sail through bulletproof vests designed to stop traditional handgun bullets. For this reason, the Mexicans nicknamed them the Mata Policias or Cop Killers.
I downloaded the conversation and emailed it to Travis. A couple minutes later I got his email response.
Got it . . . thanks for talking up ATF . . . There is always some truth in sarcasm. Take care and I will keep you posted . . . later, Travis.
It was only about forty yards from my front door to the end of my driveway but it seemed like the longest walk ever to pick up the newspaper. It was the first time in fifteen years that I’d made that walk alone. The day before I had to put my dog Morgan down. She was the last remnant of the family I used to have, and I had never felt more alone. I busied myself with picking up dog toys, her bed, food bowls, etc. I cleaned them all and put them away in case I got another dog. With the company I was keeping, I felt I needed one.
A few days later, I adopted a beautiful chocolate Labrador from a local rescue. Fudge was about four years old, short, muscular and had the classic blocky face. They’d been having trouble adopting him out as he had a pronounced limp—the result of a bout of Valley Fever. But his eyes shone with intelligence and I couldn’t understand anyone underestimating this animal because of a limp. In that regard we were alike and, to be perfectly honest, I took it as a sign that we were meant to be together.
When the rescue came to do my home inspection they brought him along. As soon as he saw the pool he ran straight for it and made a huge belly flop. We bonded immediately and were best friends in no time. He was wonderfully protective of his new house and let me know whenever someone was near.
I introduced Mando to Fudge as my new guard dog on one of his visits. “Labradors aren’t known for being terribly ferocious,” he said, rubbing Fudge’s ears.
“It’s not his job to attack anyone. He only has to let me know when someone is here. I’ll handle the rest.”
Mando laughed. “Yeah, I can only imagine.”
A few days later Lopez called and said they had everything in place and were ready to flip the switch. “The phone company is already set up and we just have to do a couple things internally before we’re ready to go. Basically, we’re going to have you call him and tell him that you can’t do the buy tomorrow. Hopefully, since his load car is leaving Thursday, that will set into motion a bunch of phone calls. Thursday night is when we’d like to have the actual buy.”
Well, finally things were rolling again. Lopez told me that he would call back later and have me phone Pedro Trujillo.
At 12:30 p.m. Lopez called and told me that he was ready for me to call Trujillo and put him off until Thursday. I called his first number and had to leave a voice mail message for him. Lopez told me to try his other number.
I told Trujillo that I had to be up north the next day and that the earliest I could accommodate him would be Thursday evening. He called back around five and said that he had talked to José and that Thursday was okay. Lopez’s plan had worked, now he had the phone calls between the major players and would be able to match up phone numbers.
Later in the evening, as I drove home from dinner out, Pedro called. He told me that he had just spoken with Eduardo and that he wanted a bunch of guns. “He wants .38 Supers.”
“OK, I’ve got ten here right now. I think half have blued finishes and half are stainless steel.”
“I think he wants like thirty, Mike.”
“I can get him thirty. If he wants the ten I have, bring him with you on Thursday night. I can order the other guns for him but it’s going to be like before—he needs to give me half down as a deposit.”
“Uh, okay Mike. I’ll let him know.”
I smiled. This was exactly what Travis had wanted when he asked me to start bringing up Eduardo’s name again in conversations with Pedro. But Pedro was so turned off about dealing with Eduardo that he’d resisted calling him. Earlier in the day I’d asked Pedro if he had talked with Eduardo and told him that I had his shoulder holsters. Pedro replied that he would buy them from me, presumably so he wouldn’t have to deal with Eduardo. But I was sure that Pedro could use the money since it had been almost six weeks since we’d done business. Eduardo paid him a $100 commission for each gun that he bought from me. This was the news that I needed, especially since Pedro intended a relatively low-volume purchase for Thursday.
I quickly dialed Travis Lopez’s cell number. It was eight thirty in the evening and I was worried about bothering him but knew that he’d want to know about Eduardo. I told him what had happened.
“Excellent,” he said, “that’s what I was hoping for. Good work as usual, Mike. It looks like everything is going to work out fine. I’m getting ready to leave in the next hour but I’ll be in touch tomorrow.”
“Are you serious? You’re still at work?”
“Yep, I’ll be heading home soon. I’ll be in touch tomorrow.”
Around seven thirty the next morning I received an email from Lopez thanking me for the conversations that I had emailed him. What hours that kid worked!
Pedro called later that evening just as I was about to turn off my computer. He said he would be getting the money from José’s people the next day at about noon and would call me when he had the money.
“Eduardo says that he doesn’t need any guns now. I think he’s scared. I think Maria told him about Omar and now he’s afraid something will happen to him.”
“Does he still want his holsters?”
“I think I’ll take his holsters. I’ll pay for them.”
“That’s okay Pedro, don’t worry about it.”
We hung up and I downloaded my recorder and emailed the conversation to Lopez with a brief synopsis.
I received an email from Travis after my morning swim with Fudge.
Thanks Mike . . . we did intercept that one . . . but please continue to send me the recordings . . . thanks and we will see you later . . . someone will be coordinating with you on the equipment. Travis
In the afternoon Mando dropped off the Hawk and transmitter. I invited him in and gave him a soda and we shot the shit for a while.
I expressed my concerns about Pedro possibly getting cold feet and maybe deciding not to come out that night. Eduardo’s input might have been all it took to scare Pedro from doing further business.
“Don’t worry about it. We’ve got tons and tons of information, more than enough to get indictments on everybody involved in the case. But I’m worried about them trying to rip you. If they’ve already decided they’re not going to use you anymore, what would stop them from ripping you for $50,000 worth of stuff?”
“Yeah, I think about that too. But I just don’t think Pedro is capable of doing it even if José called him and told him I was an informant and gave him orders to kill me. The kid just doesn’t have it in him.”
“That would be his mistake if he tried,” Mando said with a grim laugh. “Don’t worry though, we’ve always got at least four guys with M4s and raid shields outside when you do these deals.”
“Yeah, I know but I think that the shooting will be over long before you get inside.”
Arroyo laughed again. “Well, we’ll get inside as soon as possible so we can drag them outside so they don’t ruin your carpet.”
I looked at the mauve carpet that had looked so stylish when I bought the house fifteen years before. “Nah, take your time, it needs to be replaced anyway.”
Mando told me about the night Omar was arrested. “I was on the tail and once we got around Prudence Street, I radioed the Tucson Police Department guys in a marked unit and told them to get behind them. We had him dead to rights on a failure to yield. They lit him up and I saw him start to slow down. I knew that he was going to bail—I’d seen it hundreds of times when I was a border patrol agent. I pulled around and in front of their van and pulled into the parking lot. Then I heard the radio call that he had bailed out and jumped over the wall into the wash. I was walking back towards the lights and here comes this chubby little Mexican girl running down the sidewalk. I stopped her and asked her what her name was. She stammered and was unable to come up with a name so I put her down on the curb.” Arroyo chuckled as he mimicked the waddling motion of a fat girl running.
“Travis did the interrogation that night and I gotta tell you, he’s a natural. He was getting so pissed off at her. It took him almost an hour of solid hammering before she flipped and started giving up names. She gave up Joaquin and Omar first. Travis asked her if she was absolutely certain that she had told him everything she knew when she pulled your receipt out of her bra. Travis was ready to explode. She started crying and said, ‘Please, please don’t let Mike know I told on him—he’ll kill us all.’ That girl is scared to death of you.”
It was funny to hear Mando’s account of the story. I had thought that maybe Lopez had embellished it a little. Before Mando left I gave him a stack of gun and police magazines that had accumulated on my dining room table to read during his stakeouts.
But Pedro never made it that night. He called and let me know that he did not yet have the money. He said that someone in Tucson owed his cousin a large sum of cash and that they were supposed to deliver it to him soon.
I lost track of the number of times Lopez had me call Pedro over the following ten days to see if he had gotten his money yet. Each call would generate a series of calls from Pedro to his cousin and those calls not only gave the ATF the details of the drug dealers in Tucson that owed José money, but also the inner workings of his organization. The ATF found out that José was cash poor as he had harvested his last crop of marijuana but had not yet brought it to market.
Finally Pedro got some money and we arranged to meet at 6 p.m. By six thirty Pedro was still a no-show. I stood by the front window, determined not to let him catch me by surprise so I could turn on the Hawk video and transmitter. Around six forty I was just about to call Pedro when Travis called.
“Pedro and Maria are on their way. Maria was having a little trouble getting the money. They were talking about bringing Eduardo with them but from what I heard it doesn’t look like he’ll be coming.”
That made me happy. I wouldn’t have to deal with that little asshole that night, but I’d still be getting his money. As I was talking to Travis, I saw Mando drive by. He made a couple laps through the neighborhood and finally parked where Lopez normally parked. A little later he sent me a test text message on my cell. It would be a prearranged signal that he was having trouble hearing me through the transmitter.
“Travis, I’m sure that you would have told me, but have you ever heard these guys talking about ripping me?” I asked.
“No, nothing even close Mike and of course we would tell you. To be honest, these guys love you and don’t suspect a thing. They were trying very hard to get the money tonight just to save face with you.”
Pedro and Maria pulled into the driveway in Pedro’s blue pick up at about six forty-five. I hadn’t seen Maria since Eduardo had come out for the first time. She was carrying a big leather purse with a shoebox wrapped in a plastic grocery bag. Fudge met both of them at the door and promptly shoved his muzzle into Maria’s crotch. Then, excited to have company, he ran in circles in the living room bothering both of my customers for attention. Pedro walked over to the dining room table, lifted his shirt, and withdrew a stack of bills. “I have a problem, Mike. José needed some of the money so I had to give him back $2,000. Now I have a little more than $10,000.”
This was a perfect segue way for me. Lopez had wanted me to talk about the guys who owed José the money. “What’s going on with those guys? Did they finally give José back his money?”
“No, I think that this money came from Mexico, not the guys in Phoenix.”
“José hasn’t got his money yet? Does he need me to talk to those guys? I work cheap.” I smiled and pointed my finger like it was a pistol.
Pedro shrugged his shoulders and diverted his eyes. “I’ll ask him, but only he knows what’s wrong with those guys. I got this money tonight from my uncle.”
Maria sat down at the table as Pedro pointed out the ten Colt .38 Supers that she would be buying. Lopez had asked me to get her to make a statement saying that the guns she was buying were for Eduardo.
“I have Eduardo’s shoulder holsters too.”
“Oh, OK,” said Maria.
I looked directly into her eyes. “You’re buying these pistols for Eduardo, right?”
“Oh yeah, they’re all for him. Pedro doesn’t want to do the paperwork for us so I’ll do it.”
Great, that’s exactly what Lopez needed. She just implicated herself on audio and video tape.
I handed her the clipboard and gave her some simple instructions to complete it. She gave me her driver’s license and I started a receipt for her. Pedro asked if he could start his paperwork.
“What’s the matter? Are you in a hurry?”
Maria started laughing. “He’s a big pussy! He’s afraid there are police outside watching him.”
I laughed too. “Well, if they come through that door without knocking, I might get scared and accidentally shoot one or two or three of them.” I watched her smile turn into abject horror. It was as if all the blood had drained from her face. She quickly looked down at her clipboard. I could tell my comment bothered Pedro as well.
“So you haven’t heard nothing more?” he asked me.
“No, not since those two guys came to see me at the Phoenix gun show a couple weeks ago. I told you they were joking around and asking me if I could get them discounts on guns. I don’t think we’ll have any more problems. Have you heard anything from Omar?”
“Omar is in Mexico.”
“I know but they have phones in Mexico.”
“No, I think he panicked. Maybe the cop was just behind him and he didn’t use his turn signal; he thought that they were following him.”
“How about the other Omar? Have you heard from him?”
“He’s still in jail.”
“He’s up at Florence right?”
“Have you been to visit him?”
“No, not yet, but I will. He’s stupid though, Mike. He held that gun against the girl’s head, that’s why he was arrested.”
“Are you serious? I thought they found the gun when they arrested him for the fight.”
“No, he held the gun against her head.”
“He’s getting out of prison next year,” said Maria.
I turned to her, “Are you related to Omar?”
“No, but he’s married to my sister-in-law.”
“Do you know his girlfriend?”
“I’ve only seen pictures of her and heard about her,” she said, exhorting a catty chuckle.
“See, Pedro,” I said, “women are nothing but trouble. Be happy with your wife.”
Pedro looked a little embarrassed.
They both finished their paperwork and I called in the background checks and finished their receipts.
Maria’s purchases were simple. She would take the ten Colt .38 Supers and one Micro Galil AK pistol. It wasn’t so easy with Pedro. He knew that he needed the seven FNH Five-seven pistols and, of course, his pimped out Taurus 9 mm that I had special ordered for him. But he had to count and recount his money. Finally he decided on two of the AK-47 underfolders priced at $800 each.
Pedro had stacks of money rubber-banded into $1,000 increments. The trouble was that each stack was made up of different denominations so I had to separate the bills and then run them through the money counter. Fudge stood with his paws on the pedestal and tried to bite the money as the machine spit it out—his fat brown tail swinging from side to side. Maria and Pedro laughed at his antics. “He likes money, Mike!” said Maria.
Eventually I had all of Pedro’s money counted and strapped. He had brought $10,200 with him and that covered his purchases. Maria’s money was easier to count as it was all $20 bills that had been rubber-banded into stacks of $1,000. “These stacks are coming out perfect,” I told her. “Eduardo must have found someone new to count his money.”
She laughed. “Yeah, me,” she said, implicating herself again. Maria had brought $11,000 but did not have enough left over to pay for the shoulder holsters. “Maybe Eduardo will come to the gun show to get them,” she said.
While I counted the stacks of money at the wet bar, I used one of the stacks of money to push the Kleenex box into a better position to video Pedro and Maria as they sat at the dining room table. Once all of the paperwork and money counting was finished, I sat down at the table and asked Maria how quickly she’d be able to get her guns to Mexico.
“They’ll be loaded tomorrow,” she said.
“And when will they get down to Mexico?”
“Tomorrow, it only takes a couple hours to get down there.”
“You’re not going to load these at your house, are you?”
She looked as though I had punched her in the stomach. “No, no, of course not,” she stammered. “Eduardo has someone to do that for him.” Of course I knew this was a lie because Lopez had told me in May that he watched her from a neighbor’s rooftop loading guns into a car in her backyard.
Pedro told me that he would wait until Friday and might actually take his guns down himself. He also asked me if I could deliver the guns to his house next time. “José is afraid that I will get stopped and lose all the guns and his money. I can come over here and do the paperwork and give you the money but then you can bring the guns for me to my house. Is that OK?”
“Yeah, I don’t have a problem with that. I will do that as a favor for José.”
We carried the guns outside to Pedro’s truck. Fudge followed us thinking he was going to get to go for a ride. When Pedro opened the passenger side door, Fudge jumped in and sat in the child’s seat. He resisted my efforts to pull him out so I let him sit in there while I talked to the two.
“Okay Pedro, make sure that you use your turn signals and drive the speed limit so you don’t have any problems.” I noticed that he didn’t seem to be paying attention, his eyes locked on the pickup truck parked on the side of my house.
“Whose truck is that, Mike?” asked Pedro warily.
“That belongs to my friend. He’s in Baghdad right now doing contract work. The last time he came home on leave his wife gave him divorce papers. He didn’t have anywhere else to park it.” Of all our conversations, this statement was probably the only truthful one I had made all evening.
Pedro continued to look at the truck. Was he thinking that someone was in it watching him? He seemed extra paranoid.
We loaded the guns in the bed of his truck and said goodbye. I watched as he left. He sat at the end of my driveway eyeing Mando’s car for what seemed hours before he pulled out onto the street and left.
There was no doubt that he was rattled and I had to remind myself that the last time he was at my house was the night that Omar and Julie were stopped.
I went back inside and photographed the money with the receipts. Mando rang the doorbell and came in.
“Hey nice work, Mike. I could hear about 90 percent of your conversation inside but when you came outside it was crystal clear.”
“Is it just a matter of range?”
“Yeah, we could use an amplifier but basically we’re relying on the transmitter for your safety. We’ll use the Hawk and your recording for information.”
Mando grabbed the Kleenex box outfitted with the Hawk and the transmitter that I’d had in my cargo pocket.
“Lock up tight behind me. I want you and Fudge to be safe tonight,” he advised.
I took the money and put it in one of my gun safes and then put Fudge in his crate. I was hungry and left to have dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant. Just after nine when I returned home, my cell phone rang—it was Pedro. I hurried to the couch to get my digital recorder and struggled to get the ear mic inserted before I answered.
He sounded frantic. “Someone followed me to my house from your house tonight.”
“What did you say?” I fumbled with the mic and tried to get the recorder activated.
“On my way home, a gray Dodge Dakota followed me.”
“They followed you all the way to your house?”
“No, not all the way, but for a long time.”
“Well, the easiest way to tell if you’re being followed is to drive into a cul-de-sac and see if they follow you out.”
“That’s a good idea but I don’t know if he was just following me or some guys just said, ‘Hey, let’s follow that car.’”
“That doesn’t seem very likely. Did you ever do that when you were a kid?”
“No, maybe it was just a coincidence. Maybe it was a couple trucks that looked alike?”
Pedro had an odd way of getting very upset about something and then convincing himself that it wasn’t as bad as he thought. Like when his nephew had told him that Diego was arrested by the DEA and was now working for them. He had called me all excited and then by the end of the conversation had said that he thought the kids were just joking. Or when Omar was stopped by the cops, he said that Omar had panicked and had probably just forgotten to use his turn signal or something. Now he was saying that the car following him home was probably just a random follow-up.
“Yeah, it’s probably just a coincidence,” I said. “Cops don’t use pickup trucks for work. They almost always use a four-door car in case they arrest someone, they can put them in the back. But I’m more concerned that it might be someone who knows what you do and that you have money and guns.”
“I don’t know anyone with a Dodge Dakota. Tonight I got the money from my uncle, the same as always.”
“If someone was going to rip you they wouldn’t use a car you recognize. Can you think of anyone who knows when you get a bunch of money that might try to rob you?”
“I don’t know, I will have to think about that. But they didn’t follow me all the way to my house.”
“Did you get the guns unloaded?”
“Yeah, they are in my house right now.”
“OK, give me a call tomorrow and let me know if everything is alright.”
I hung up with Pedro feeling a little pissed. This was the second time since I started working with the ATF that a tail was spotted. They were supposed to use a rotating tail with different cars taking turns behind the target. Their ineptitude was amazing especially since I was the one who would have to pay the price for their recklessness. Honestly, I didn’t know why they even bothered to follow him. They knew he usually drove from my house straight to his house.
I sent Travis an email asking if he needed me to save the shoebox Maria had brought her money in. I also asked if the Dodge Dakota was one of his guys. I attached my phone conversation with Pedro. He called me a half hour later. It was indeed one of his guys and they called him off the tail a couple blocks before Pedro got home.
“I like how you turned that around on him,” said Lopez. “Now he’s thinking one of his own associates is going to burn him. I also like how you told him that cops can’t use pickups because they don’t have backseats. I broke a rib laughing at that one!”
But, just like with the case of an agent shining a flashlight on the license plate and setting off my motion detector lights while I was inside alone with bad guys the first night I met Pedro, there was no apology for their careless work.
I was working a gun show at the Tucson Community Center and late in the afternoon I saw Eduardo and his very pregnant girlfriend making their way towards my tables. I activated my digital recorder before saying hello.
Using his girlfriend as an interpreter, he asked if I had the shoulder holsters that he’d ordered from one of my friends. I told him they were at home.
He asked if I could bring them the next day and I said I would. He turned and spoke rapidly in Spanish to his girlfriend—so quickly that I was only able to understand a couple words.
“He says that he wants to order thirty .38 Supers but his people won’t give them the money for a deposit because you had some problems. They’re afraid they will lose their deposit.”
Trying not to lose my composure, I replied, “El problemo no es mio.” I shook my head. “Look, Omar’s problems had nothing to do with me. If Eduardo wants more guns then he’ll have to give me a deposit. If he wants thirty guns he’s going to have to bring me a deposit for $15,000 before I will order them. I’m a businessman, if I don’t have a guarantee that he’s going to take these guns, then I won’t order them. That would be a three-year supply of guns for me.” She nodded politely but did not bother to repeat the information in Spanish.
I was disgusted by Eduardo’s bullshit. He was obviously trying to place an order without giving me a deposit and was using Omar’s problems as an excuse. Yet he had no problem sending his own cousin, Maria, out to buy more guns just a couple days earlier. It made me wonder if he was planning to rip me.
He made his way around my tables and looked at the different styles of AK-47s. He asked how many I had in each style and then said, through his girlfriend, that he would have Maria come out that week on Thursday or Friday to buy twenty rifles. He explained that the rifles had to have the slant muzzle brake on the end for his people. Again, he wanted to buy stuff in stock so he wouldn’t have to give me a deposit.
“Maria es mi prima,” he said.
I nodded that I understood that she was his cousin. He went on to say that she had bought the ten .38 Supers for him when she was out at the house earlier in the week. He came all the way around the tables to the front where I had the AR pistols. He wanted to know how many I had and then asked if I could send an email with pictures of this gun and the FNH 5.7 pistols. I asked his girlfriend to write down her email address and I then asked her for Eduardo’s cell phone number. Travis had asked me to try and get it. Eduardo’s girlfriend looked at him quickly. “Why do you need that?”
“I’ll need to call him and let him know when I have the guns for Maria.”
She spoke to him in Spanish and he told her to give me her cell number. They said that they would be back the next day and I shook hands with Eduardo. I offered my hand to his girlfriend. “I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself earlier. My name is Mike.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Mike, my name is Charlene.”
On my way home I received a call from Lopez. “This investigation has taken a turn. To be honest, I don’t agree with it but we’re going to try to tie Eduardo and Maria into this deal.”
“Why would that be a problem?
“I just want to arrest Pedro. We’ve got way more than we need to convict him and I’m not sure what else we need. I’m getting bored with this case. Now, the AUSA wants us to get more on Eduardo and Maria.”
I could understand Travis’s frustrations. He’d been locked in the listening room since they got the wiretaps rather than out in the field. For a guy like him, that was tantamount to torture. But arresting Pedro, Eduardo, and Maria was a far cry from taking down a cartel. These were the people who Hinkley characterized as mules and I couldn’t see how they could climb the ladder to the kingpins by arresting these three.
Travis asked if Charlene was wearing a wedding ring and I had to admit I didn’t notice one. I promised to look the next day when they came to pick up the holsters. I told him about Eduardo wanting the Supers but not wanting to leave a deposit.
“What an asshole! I guess he won’t get the Supers then, huh?”
“Not from me.” I told Lopez that I had made a tape of the conversation and that I would download the conversation and put it on a CD and give it to Mando when I saw him at the gun show in the morning.
Eduardo showed up towards the end of the day. I had his holsters and the four .38 Super magazines that he had asked me to bring. Each of the Colt pistols came with two magazines but he didn’t know that. I took each extra magazine from the pistol box and sold the extra magazines to him at a later date.
I told him that I needed to run to the restroom and left. While I was there, I activated the digital recorder and returned. Just as I got to the tables, Mando called me on my cell and asked if that was Eduardo at my tables. He was up in the blacked-out office that looked over the show floor and had told me earlier that he wanted to get some more pictures of Eduardo.
I lifted the grocery bag with the three holsters and four magazines onto the table. “He just wants the one holster for himself today,” Charlene told me.
I was about to explode. “You’re f****** kidding me. Are you serious?”
Charlene recoiled and Eduardo got that same stupid look on his face again. I’d had it with his bullshit but I regained my composure quickly.
He looked through the three holsters for a left-handed one for himself. He didn’t stay long to chat—he knew I was pissed at him. Every time I had to deal with that guy I ended up aggravated. I hated him but I couldn’t let my personal dislike of this criminal screw up the investigation.
A few days later I worked late to finish an article to submit to my publisher in the morning. It was close to ten when I decided to run out to get something to eat. I put Fudge in the backyard and went out to the garage. My Suburban took up every inch of garage length so my practice was to hit the automatic door opener and walk around the back of the car to get into the driver’s seat. The garage door was about halfway up when I got to the car’s rear passenger quarter panel and was hit with a tremendous surge of adrenaline and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I didn’t understand what caused it but I didn’t hesitate—I ran to the driver’s side door, ripped it open, retrieved my Kimber .45 pistol and Surefire flashlight from the console, and ran back to the now-open door.
As I neared the door I could smell the lingering odor of Old Spice aftershave. That was what had set me off.
Just as I spun around the corner, I heard Fudge give an alert bark from the back yard. Whoever was there had just run past him and was most likely now on Fort Lowell Road which my backyard butts up to—maybe 150 yards uphill. I realized I’d never catch him by running through the thick tangle of cactus and mesquite so I jumped in my car and drove up to Fort Lowell Road at least hoping to get a license plate number or see who it was. But the person was gone before I got there.
What was their purpose? Was it a scouting mission to test my alarm or had I unwittingly spoiled a planned rip? Why had Eduardo asked so many questions at the last gun show about how many of each style of rifle I had? Was this Eduardo’s bodyguard—the guy that had reeked of Old Spice at that first meeting? What would have happened if I hadn’t opened the garage door when I had?
I went back inside, put a .45 on a belt holster, and donned a vest that held multiple AR-15 magazines, a first-aid kit, flashlight, and my cell phone. Then I made a sandwich and as I ate it, I moved through the house with my carbine slung around my neck and blacked out all of the lights. That night, Fudge slept on my bed and we got up several times to walk through the house and yard. I woke up in the morning still fully clothed with my AR-15 draped over my chest.
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