Raised in an Army family that eventually settled in the Boston area, Carlos Canino considered three career choices when he graduated from college with a degree in criminology: law enforcement, military service or coaching.
But after working as an assistant football coach at a Massachusetts university, he realized that he didn’t have the stomach for it — the agony of defeat proved too much to bear.
So, in the late 1980s, Canino followed his brother to South Florida to look for a job as a cop, applying everywhere. The Miami field division of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was the first to call him. That launched a law enforcement career dominated by dangerous undercover work, which eventually led to managements posts and his latest assignment: special agent in charge of the office that initially hired him. He’s now the highest-ranking Hispanic employee in the agency.
Asked how coaching football could be more stressful than battling gun traffickers, the 49-year-old Canino laughed during an interview at his office in Doral. “I just found that tougher than this,” he said on Thursday. “If a kid missed a field goal and we lost the game, it would just tear me up.”
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Canino, who has moved nine times for the agency over the past quarter century, does not see himself as the typical bureaucratic boss — nor do the 100 agents and 90 task force officers who work for him in Florida, the Caribbean basin and U.S. Virgin Islands. And that’s because he worked as an undercover agent for 15 years before switching over to management.
“He doesn’t forget where he came from,” said veteran ATF agent Carlos Baixauli, who trained Canino in undercover work as a rookie. “He doesn’t forget that the guys on the street are doing what he used to do. He put a lot of bad guys in jail.”
Canino said he was naturally drawn to undercover work because of the excitement of playing a role to con violent criminals who deal in illegal weapons. Canino, who joked that he played so many parts he felt like “Inspector Clouseau,” compared the rush of undercover investigations to “chasing the dragon.”
He said the most important asset for an undercover agent is not necessarily bravery but humility. “You’re not yourself,” he said. “You have to play a role. You’re a good guy playing a bad guy. But you can never forget you’re a federal agent and you have to play by the rules. Sometimes people forget that.”
While working a long undercover assignment in Puerto Rico in 2005, Canino was tapped to move to Los Angeles to infiltrate an outlaw motorcycle club called the Mongol Nation. But he met his future wife, Kim, at an ATF undercover conference in Miami and began having second thoughts about spending the rest of his career as a bachelor constantly on the move.
“It’s the best choice I ever made,” he said about getting married.
Canino also thought that with his background, he could make a difference in management. He cut his teeth as a supervisor of an undercover unit in St. Louis, where he targeted gang members, white supremacists and home invaders. But the supervisory work reminded him of being a coach again. “When you’re doing undercover work, you’re so focused you’re not afraid,” he said. “When you’re sitting in the car and listening in as a supervisor, it is a white-knuckle experience.”
In 2009, Canino was transferred to Mexico City to be the agency’s deputy attache. He helped train Mexican law enforcement officers on tracing guns and conducting weapons-trafficking investigations. But his stint was overshadowed by the ill-fated Fast and Furious gun-trafficking sting operation launched by ATF officials in Phoenix. Straw purchasers were allowed to buy guns so smuggling routes into Mexico could be traced. But the agency lost track of hundreds of weapons and a number of them were later recovered at crime scenes in Mexico, infuriating Canino’s counterparts.
Canino and other U.S. officials in Mexico were initially left in the dark about the operation. Canino testified before Congress and was moved out of Mexico after his photo was published by the news media. “My testimony was an opportunity to tell the street agents that this isn’t who we are,” Canino said.
In 2012, Canino was transferred to the Phoenix office to help turn it around after the Fast and Furious scandal. Two years later, he was tapped for the top management job in Los Angeles.
But Canino didn’t last long there because top ATF officials wanted him to take over the reins in Miami in late summer with the retirement of his predecessor as special agent in charge, Hugo Barrera.
Canino said Miami has evolved since the days when he was an undercover agent in the 1990s, with crime generally down. But he said the agency’s mission is still the same: seizing illegal firearms from criminals, breaking up weapons-smuggling rings and cracking down on violent street gangs. He also said the agency, working with local, state and federal law enforcement, has developed greater trust with the community. And, he said he likes being back where he started his ATF career.
“I feel like I’ve hit the lottery,” Canino said. “I consider these people my family.”