ATF agents risk lives for dangerous job

May 1, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Working undercover to infiltrate crime groups is the most dangerous assignment cops can have. They have to live and breathe the role they're playing or they risk being killed. ABC7's Vic Lee takes a look at the lives of a couple of veteran undercover agents.

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"I've had guns pulled on me. I've been challenged as a police officer and had to deny it. I've been in a room, locked in a room with multiple individuals smoking crystal meth and everyone's armed," says Ritchie, a Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agent.

Ritchie, which is not his real name, still works as an undercover agent for ATF. That's why ABC7 has altered his face and voice. Ritchie has been working undercover assignments for 20 years.

"You could be working a kilo-cocaine deal in a hotel room with Mexican nationals and the next day you could be talking to an airline pilot who flies dope and guns for a major distributor," says Nina Delgadillo.

Delgadillo is an agent for the ATF who worked undercover for 16 years.

"It is acting to a sense, however you're without a script. You're free flowing," says Richie. "The biggest thing an undercover agent has is not your gun that you're carrying, it's your mouth. That's what's going to get you out of trouble."

"Undercover is creating an illusion. And that's what our job is to do is to create the illusion that we are in fact people interested in illegal activities," says Delgadillo.

Both agents worked deep undercover on the most dangerous assignments. Hidden cameras recorded a sting when Ritchie posed as a cartel member negotiating to buy weapons from European gunrunners. He's infiltrated the violent Latino gang called MS-13, the Hells Angels, Russian mob, and drug cartels.

"Ever been afraid?" asks ABC7's Vic Lee.
"All the time," says Richie. "It doesn't take much to kill you and you have to understand that, but you have to control that fear. That's what it comes down to."
"Anybody ever pull a gun on you?" asks Lee.
"Yes. I just talked my way out of it. You just, you know just gain dialogue with the individual. You just talk yourself out of the situation," says Richie.

Delgadillo has played many roles such as a biker's girl, a rich wife, and streetwalker.

"I had my older daughter do my hair and she teased it up and did my makeup and I mean I was almost embarrassed to go to the grocery store," says Delgadillo.

A female undercover often acts as the eyes and ears of her male partner when he's busy negotiating a deal.

"We can sit there and just watch. We can look at everything. We can look to see if there are guns. We can look to see how many people," says Delgadillo.

Some of Ritchie's cases last a long time. When he infiltrated MS-13, he went undercover for 18 months. Sometimes, he feels a bit guilty when the arrests are made.

"You begin to develop a relationship and you do, to some extent at the end of a case, feel you're betraying this person even though you know deep in your heart they're criminals and should go to prison," says Richie.

SO what's the toughest assignment Ritchie's had in his 20 years as an undercover? He says it's the one he can't talk about. The one he's on now.

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