By Brad Heath / USA TODAY
ROMEOVILLE, Ill. — The three men in the back seat were supposed to be ready for battle.
They were waiting for a phone call that would launch a daring and dangerous crime, sending them charging through the front door of a Mexican drug ring's stash house to steal 50 pounds or more of cocaine from three armed guards. Their plan was to disguise themselves as police officers, tie up the guards, and slip away with a half-million dollars worth of drugs. If tying them up didn't work, they'd kill them all.
Only the small army of federal agents watching them knew that it was all a lie.
There was no house. No drugs.
And the only things waiting for them when the call came were a team of camouflaged federal agents with rifles and stun grenades, and the promise of a long prison sentence for a plot to steal and re-sell non-existent cocaine.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the agency in charge of enforcing the nation's gun laws, has locked up more than 1,000 people by enticing them to rob drug stash houses that did not exist. The ploy has quietly become a key part of the ATF's crime-fighting arsenal, but also a controversial one: The stings are so aggressive and costly that some prosecutors have refused to allow them. They skirt the boundaries of entrapment, and in the past decade they have left at least seven suspects dead.
The ATF has more than quadrupled its use of such drug house operations since 2003, and officials say it intends to conduct even more as it seeks to lock up the "trigger pullers" who menace some of the most dangerous parts of inner-city America. Yet the vast scale of that effort has so far remained unknown outside the U.S. Justice Department.
To gauge its extent, USA TODAY reviewed thousands of pages of court records and agency files, plus hours of undercover recordings. Those records — many of which had never been made public — tell the story of how an ATF strategy meant to target armed and violent criminals has regularly used risky and expensive undercover stings to ensnare low-level crooks who jump at the bait of a criminal windfall.
In many cases, the records show the ATF accomplished precisely what it set out to do, arresting men outfitted with heavy weapons and body armor, and linked to repeated, and sometimes bloody, crimes. In the process, however, the agency also scooped up small-time drug dealers and even people with no criminal records at all, including Army Rangers. It has offered would-be robbers the chance to score millions of dollars of cocaine for a few hours of work. In at least one case, the ATF had to supply its supposed armed robbers with a gun.
The stings are the latest and perhaps clearest reflection of a broad shift by federal law enforcement away from solving crimes in favor of investigating people the government thinks are criminals. Such tactics are common in law enforcement's efforts to prevent terrorist attacks, but they are also becoming a staple of its fight against everyday street crime.