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Among the human RatSnakes

RatSnakes: Cheating Death by Living A Lie: Inside the Explosive World of ATF‘s Undercover Agents by Vincent A. Cefalu, BenBella Books, US $24.95, Pp 336, May 2019, ISBN 978-1946885968

Few Americans have heard of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives or ATF. If you have by any chance heard of the bureau, it is unlikely you also know that ATF undercover agents are known as RatSnakes — the world’s greatest undercover agents. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives is charged with the enforcement of our nation’s firearms, alcohol, and explosive laws. While the alcohol side of ATF is mostly regulatory in operation, the firearms and explosives agents deal with the worst of the worst criminals. Guns, explosives, and drugs co-exist side by side.

In RatSnakes, Vincent A. Cefalu says that the original rat snake is just a snake. It squeezes its prey to death, easily can be tamed, and eats vermin and other targets of opportunity. In the Wild West days, rat snakes were kept in jars, and, when circumstances dictated, these starving predators were released indoors. They would find and kill the enemy. In other words, they eliminated rodents that had infested frontier homes. Once their purpose was served, they were recaptured and put out of sight in jars — until the next infestation. ATF covert operatives are used much the same way. They are dispatched to infiltrate sordid, blood-spattered, degraded world, dominated by characters accustomed to vulgarity and violence. Only those mentally resilient and clever enough can navigate their way inside this dangerously clandestine setting and then survive in its confines while doing their jobs.

Vincent A. Cefalu says that ATF RatSnakes are rarely visible in public even when they live among the people. They risk their lives to perform their duties. Vincent A. Cefalu spent 30 years as an ATF undercover agent, moving from one dangerous assignment to another. Vincent A. Cefalu tells his story as well as that of the ATF. When Vincent A. Cefalu went on his first meet in San Francisco in 1987, he was wearing a lot of electronics. He writes, “I was afraid I was going to shut down the city’s electrical grid.” This was before the days of micro-recorders and computer chips, and the ratsnakes had limited equipment options. His job was to be introduced by a confidential informant to a violator. He was going to meet a bad guy at his house to buy a small amount of cocaine and a stolen pistol — a quick in-and-out deal. He was carrying a one-watt transmitter with a range of about two city blocks, on a good day, and if there were not too many structures between him and the agents monitoring the wire. He had taped the transmitter to his inner thigh. He had a repeater in place to boost the signal. He was wearing a Nagra recorder taped to the small of his back.

Undercover work is scary but nothing is as scary as your first significant undercover assignment. Everything is on the line — the respect of your fellow undercovers, the confidence of your bosses, and ultimately your life. The goal of the undercover work is to develop evidence and capture a recording of the violator talking, not a recording of the undercover talking. He writes, “Effectively kicking a door requires you to target the lock and physically break it away from the door frame. What you don’t want to do is kick at the dead middle of the door. That is the weakest part but kicking the center generally doesn’t defeat the lock.” Every endeavor assignment could be equated to kicking in the door and not knowing what awaited on the other side. All the training and planning in the world can get you only so far before that door eventually has to be flung open and you have milliseconds to react to an unforeseen scenario. Vincent A. Cefalu says that the greatest day in an undercover operator’s life is when he or she is turned loose to do just that — kick open the door and get out of the cage to show the undercover world what they have got.

Vincent A. Cefalu describes one of the most dangerous jobs in the world in a graphic and thrilling way. It is the insider’s story of the people who work behind the enemy lines. These are the people are in the front line of the war on crime. No ordinary soul can live the life of an ATF RatSnake. We seldom recognize the services of those who put their lives in danger to protect fellow Americans. RatSnakes is an effort to acknowledge their sacrifices and pay a tribute to them. RatSnakes is more thrilling than the best thriller you have ever read. You will surely enjoy reading this heart-pounding book and fall in love with the ATF RatSnakes.

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