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How ATF’s Fast and Furious crashed and burned

By David Amoruso

It was to be the a huge blow against Mexican drug cartels. “These cartels will be destroyed,” Attorney General Eric Holder said. Led by the ATF, Operation Fast and Furious was to cripple the cartels’ ability to traffic and use American guns. But things turned out very differently and people continue to die from ATF-facilitated gunshot wounds. 

No matter how you view it, America is a land of guns. On December 15, 1791, the newborn nation adopted the Bill of Rights. Included was the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution which is the part of the United States Bill of Rights that protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms. Every American has the right to own a gun. And many do. The United States has 310 million guns among its population and counts 48,676 licensed gun dealers. With the American automobile industry in shambles the United States can still count on the mighty gun as a mascot to show to the world. Everyone knows that if you need guns, America is the country of endless possibilities. But endless possibilities don’t always attract the right kind of crowd.

MEXICAN DRUG CARTELS GO SHOPPING FOR GUNS

In any other business a customer like him would be valued. When he entered the gun dealership in Phoenix, Jaime Avila Jr. (right) was exact and clear about what he wanted. The gun dealer immediately knew he was dealing with a weapon connoisseur, someone who knew his stuff. Of course, no matter how much knowledge a customer may have, he isn’t worth much if he doesn’t buy anything. Avila on the other hand bought in bulk. Several simple handguns, some AK-47s, a couple .50 caliber Barrett rifles. Avila Jr. wanted it, paid for it, and kept coming back for more.

The best customer any business could want. Except that Avila Jr. was buying firearms. Lots of them. Weapons that could be used for hunting or some fun target shooting at a remote location, but that also had a proven track record in many vicious wars around the globe that cost the lives of millions of people. Now, in the United States assault rifles and shotguns are sold to many upstanding citizens who just want to feel safe in their homes and also to those that get a kick out of shooting up beer cans. Avila Jr. could be doing precisely that when he got home with his three AK-47s and .50 caliber sniper rifles. Sure. But if that was the case then why did he come back month after month buying more and more guns? Avila Jr. was a customer too good to be true and the gun dealer knew it. Matter of fact, so did the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

On October 31, 2009, special agents working in the Phoenix office of the ATF received information from a local gun store owner about the recent purchases of multiple AK-47s by Avila Jr. and three other men. After an investigation, agents came to believe that the four men were so-called “straw purchasers,” persons who buy firearms they claim are for themselves when in reality they are buying the weapons for another party. These four men were involved in a large-scale gun trafficking organization responsible for buying guns on behest of Mexican drug Cartels.

They may have dope and money by the boat load, but Cartels are in desperate need of guns, guns, and more guns. Traffic between Mexico and the United States can easily be broken down into categories. Drugs are smuggled across the border into the United States and in return firearms are smuggled out of the United States and into Mexico. The American consumer loves him some dope and is paying the Mexican suppliers royally. According to a 2009 Justice Department report, the top estimated amount Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations make in wholesale profits is around $39 billion annually. A dazzling figure that is within reach of those organizations that control the precious drug routes from Mexico into the United States.

THE WAR OVER $39 BILLION-DOLLAR-DRUG ROUTES

The U.S. Department of Justice says these billion-dollar-routes are controlled by seven main Cartels. Those are: The Sinaloa Cartel, Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, the Juárez Cartel, the Beltrán-Leyva Organization, La Familia Michoacana, and the Tijuana Cartel. Authorities view the Sinaloa Cartel as the preeminent organization because its members traffic all major illicit drugs, and its extensive distribution network supplies drugs to all regions of the United States. The Sinaloa Cartel is particularly dominant because it is one of the few Cartels that can obtain multi ton quantities of cocaine from South America as well as produce large quantities of heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine.

With seven players all vying for a piece of that $39 billion dollar pie things quickly got violent. Wars over drug routes became as regular as siesta. And when Mexican president Vicente Fox decided to combat the country’s major drug Cartels by arresting their leaders things only got worse. With large Cartels splintering into smaller groups, each with its own agenda, the violence spread and became more vicious. It was like each reprisal had to be more brutal than the initial attack. Most of it was captured on video and uploaded to the internet. There are countless videos online of murders, beheadings, torture sessions, interrogations, and “end-result” videos in which the viewer is treated to a crime scene where the floor is littered with body parts and severed heads. As the cameraman zooms in on the gore and blood he eventually pans to a note or masked spokesperson after which a message is delivered to a rival Cartel or the Mexican government.

After watching such a gruesome video the rival’s first thought will be to get himself some protection or some payback. For both he will need guns. And that’s where guys like Jaime Avila Jr. come in. Various trafficking rings across the United States will buy as many guns as they can get their hands on and smuggle them back into Mexico where they can be put to use by the Cartels.

Each state has different regulations regarding purchasing guns. “Examples of state regulations include requiring a waiting period or license for firearms purchases or limiting the number of firearms that an individual can purchase within a defined time period,” according to the Department of Justice. “Like several states, Arizona law does not impose any licensing or permit requirements for purchasing firearms, does not limit the firearms an individual may purchase by quantity or time period, and does not require background checks for firearms  purchased at gun shows.” In short, Arizona is a paradise for these “straw purchasers” looking to buy a lot of guns without any hassle. Avila Jr. and company had gone shopping in the perfect state. The Justice Department’s report continues, “Several witnesses told [the Department of Justice] that it is not unusual for individuals to buy multiple firearms during a single visit to a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL). Some agents told us that they were surprised by the volume of firearms purchasing that occurs in Arizona as compared to their experience in non-Southwest Border states.”

Surprised but on the case. Despite the lack of regulations, the ATF still had the law on its side. Each buyer had to fill out Form 4473. This form, among many things, requires the buyer to certify that he is the actual purchaser of the firearm.  Form 4473 indicates that it is unlawful for an individual to purchase a firearm for someone else (unless it is a gift), and a gun dealer may not sell a firearm to anyone he knows is not the actual purchaser. After some investigating it was obvious that men like Jaime Avila Jr. were not buying dozens of guns for their personal pleasure. Nor were they planning a big birthday party for a friend. Many straw purchasers also lied about their residence when they filled out the forms.

“THESE CARTELS WILL BE DESTROYED”

All in all, ATF agents had more than enough ammo to shoot the gun trafficking ring down. But with these straw buyers in its sights, the top brass at ATF and their bosses at the Justice Department were broadening their target. On February 25, 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech noting the danger of the Mexican drug cartels, focusing on the Sinaloa cartel in particular. Attorney General Holder (left) said of the cartels: “[They] are lucrative, they are violent, and they are operated with stunning planning and precision.” He promised that under his leadership “these cartels will be destroyed.” In an April 2, 2009, speech in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Attorney General Holder gave further insight into the Department’s new strategy for combating these dangerous cartels. He spoke about the development of a prosecution and enforcement strategy with respect to firearms trafficking, noting that the “administration launched a major new effort to break the backs of the cartels.” In particular, he said that the Justice Department was committed to adding “100 new ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives] personnel to the Southwest Border” and that Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) would add “16 new positions on the border.” Most importantly, the Attorney General noted that there must be “an attack in depth, on both sides of the border, that focuses on the leadership and assets of the cartel.”

For the Attorney General and his underlings at the Justice Department it was pretty simple. If they arrested the straw buyers the Cartels would just replace them with others, so why not let these straw buyers go free and let them lead ATF to their bosses? The idea was to let the trafficking of guns continue until the whole route was mapped out by the ATF and the gun ring was linked to the Cartel higher ups. Invigorated by this new strategy set out by the Justice Department, the ATF went to work and began Operation Fast and Furious.

OPERATION FAST AND FURIOUS

In the days following October 31, 2009, the newly formed Group VII in the ATF Phoenix Field Division opened an investigation into four suspected straw purchasers who were buying guns in and around Phoenix, Arizona. Now called Operation Fast and Furious it was originally named the “Jacob Chambers” case, after the straw purchaser who was the first to pop up on the ATF’s radar. Chambers had been arrested in 2008 for felony burglary and trafficking stolen property and was now a very active member of a gun smuggling ring. Other members of the ring were Jaime Avila Jr., who was identified by the ATF in November, and Uriel Patino, who would turn out to be the most prolific straw buyer of the bunch.

Background checks conducted in November 2009 established that the suspects did not have criminal histories. The agents further determined that the men were paying cash for the firearms purchases but did not have identifiable sources of income to support their buying activity. Surveillance conducted during November identified two “stash houses” for the firearms being purchased. One stash house  was American Autobody, an automotive shop located in Phoenix and owned by Hector Carlon. This location created a challenge for agents conducting surveillance because they could not observe activity, such as transfers of firearms, within the shop’s garage or on its fenced-in parking lot and therefore could not make informed judgments about which, if any, vehicles to follow when they left the auto body shop.

The other stash house was a Phoenix residence owned by an individual named Manuel Celis-Acosta. ATF agents soon identified him as the leader of the various straw buyers. A man in his mid-twenties, Celis-Acosta was unemployed, dumped cellphones as if they were vegetables gone bad, and drove a BMW. Not exactly the life of an average citizen. The ATF saw Celis-Acosta as the first step towards nailing two drug lords they had their eyes on. As the Justice Department had changed the goal from closing down gun trafficking rings to shutting down entire Cartel branches Celis-Acosta went from target number one to just another stepping stone.

UP THE CHAIN: AKs AND “COP KILLERS”

On May 29, 2010, U.S. Customs and Border Protection stopped Celis-Acosta’s BMW at an Arizona point of entry for an outbound inspection. After inspecting the vehicle they recovered “an AK type high capacity drum magazine loaded with 74 rounds of 7.62 ammunition underneath the spare tire in the trunk.” When CBP ran the Celis-Acosta’s name through the computer they learned he was the principal target of a firearms investigation and contacted their colleagues at ICE, who in turn made a call to the ATF. Within a few hours the gun trafficker was sitting opposite two agents, one from ATF - the lead case agent of Operation Fast and Furious - and one from ICE. At first he denied knowing anything about the magazines and ammunition found in his car, but after some interrogation he slowly but surely began giving up information. He admitted that his venture to Mexico was for the purpose of starting up a drug trafficking business and went into great detail about his relationship with a cartel figure, who supposedly was Sinaloa Cartel leader “Chapo” Guzman’s right hand man. He also told the agents that the Cartels like the AKs more than the ARs because the AKs never jam. He explained that a person can dip a shoe lace in oil and run it through the barrel and the AK would never jam. He stated they also like the FiveSeven and Colt 38 Super “El Jefe”. The FiveSeven (FN Herstal model FiveSeven, 5.7 caliber pistols) are referred to as “cop killers,” he added. The “El Jefe” is famous in Mexico and seen as a status symbol. After the interrogation ended, and Celis-Acosta agreed to become an informant, the ATF agent wrote her contact information on a ten dollar bill and gave it to Celis-Acosta. He promised to call her when he returned to Mexico, but he never did. It was the first sign that despite appearances Fast and Furious was not rolling along exactly according to plan. Still, with the help of Celis-Acosta the ATF should have no problem getting close to Cartel bosses.

With the drug lords in sight, the ATF proceeded to allow the gun trafficking ring to smuggle hundreds of firearms into Mexico unhindered. Like a child playing with fire, it seemed the ATF had no real clue what was transpiring under their very own eyes. November 20, 2009, marked the day of the first known recovery of weapons purchased by Fast and Furious straw purchasers. ATF and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) agents recovered 42 weapons in Naco, Sonora, Mexico. Although trace results from the seizure were not officially completed until ten days later, ATF had entered some of the recovered weapons into the Suspect Gun Database two weeks before they seized them, since suspected Fast and Furious straw purchasers had bought them. This allowed ATF agents to learn almost immediately that the weapons seized in Naco were connected to the Chambers straw-purchasing ring. When the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona was told of the large weapons recovery in Mexico, he responded: “Wow, frickin-A! They were already across the Border heading south?”

ATF quickly learned the guns were making their way to the Mexican border in extremely short periods of time. On December 10, 2009, an ATF agent wrote: “On Tuesday we followed a guy who purchased forty AK-47s, nine of them were already recovered near the border in Douglas, AZ on Wednesday night… 24 hours!” Realizing that these shipments contained tools for murder and that they were being moved faster than anticipated effectively becoming a liability, agents started recommending that some action had to be “taken in attempts to slow down the purchasing and exportation of the firearms and ammunition. Our agents have now been involved in two incidents that have had major seizures relating to this case. We are being told that they have documented over 300 firearms being purchased by this group. Our investigative efforts reflect that the suspect in this recent seizure is responsible for purchasing over $25,000 in ammunition. Only $10,000 worth of ammo was seized.” While the ATF was nowhere near arresting any drug lord, the gun trafficking was escalating in a way that befitted the operation’s name, Fast and Furious.

The gun dealers who were working with the ATF and knowingly sold hundreds of firearms to the straw purchasers were also becoming extremely worried. One dealer expressed his concerns to an ATF agent via e-mail. He was worried that some of the guns he sold as part of Operation Fast and Furious might end up “south of the border” or “in the hands of the bad guys.” Two days before, the dealer had seen a Fox News report about firearms and the border. What he saw heightened his anxiety. “I want to help ATF with its investigation but not at the risk of agents’ safety because I have some very close friends that are U.S. Border Patrol agents in southern Arizona […] If possible please e-mail me back and share with me any assurances that you can.”

The gun dealers who were part of the operation since its inception were constantly assured by the ATF that there would be no risk. All the while, more guns were being sold and shipped across the border. Yet, no arrests had been made and the ATF was no closer to indicting the drug lords they had targeted with the help of Celis-Acosta. All the participants were on a bus ride that wasn’t going anywhere and no one ever stopped to ask for directions. Then on the night of December 14, 2010, the whole thing came to a screeching halt.

“I’M HIT!”

Despite being 18 miles from the Mexican border, the very remote and rugged area between Rio Rico and the border town of Nogales was notorious for bandit activity. A tactical unit of the Border Patrol had received intelligence about bandits being in the area and was conducting surveillance. Bandits preyed on illegal immigrants coming into the United States. After a long journey that left most of them exhausted they were easy targets for the criminals, who would assault and rob them. Sometimes they would even rape a woman or two.

The Border Patrol agents were determined to prevent any such crimes on their watch. One of the members of the unit was 40-year-old Brian A. Terry (photo above). He had been a Border Patrol agent for  three-and-a-half years now after having served his country as a United States Marine. As the unit moved through the dusty land they encountered a group of five people. Agent Terry and several other agents were attempting to apprehend the group when shots were exchanged between the suspects and agents. Terry was struck in the pelvis by a round fired by a suspect armed with an AK-47. “I’m hit!” he yelled. One bandit, Manuel Osorio-Arellanes, a 33-year-old Mexican from Sinaloa, was shot and apprehended while four others managed to flee. With their wounded partner a priority, agents immediately started giving him emergency care. They kept him alive until he was flown to a hospital. Unfortunately he succumbed to his wounds early the following morning.

Two AK-47s were found at the scene of the crime, one of which was used to shoot Terry. Following his death, on December 15, ATF requested an urgent trace of these two weapons. To their dismay they found out that both were guns trafficked by suspects in the Fast and Furious case. They could even see which straw purchaser had bought the gun: Jaime Avila Jr. The ATF and Justice Department had been so focused on catching Cartel leaders that they had forgotten about the dangers of the cargo they were letting through. When a supervisor of the Fast and Furious case was notified about the find, he wrote to the lead Fast and Furious case agent: “Ugh..! Call as soon as you can, things most likely will get ugly!” He had no idea.

As soon as the guns traced back to Avila Jr., agents burst through his door and placed him under arrest. A few weeks later, on January 19, 2011, twenty people were indicted and charged with straw buying for the Mexican drug cartels. Hundreds of firearms were shipped from the United States into Mexico under the eyes of American authorities and no Cartel bosses were arrested when the operation came to a close on December 15 of 2010. Operation Fast and Furious was the largest firearms trafficking case involving the U.S.-Mexico border in the history of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives yet it’s results were far from stellar.

NO END IN SIGHT: ACCEPTING MURDER

After traveling on the wrong side of the road for years, those involved in Operation Fast and Furious, both criminals and members of law enforcement and Washington’s elite alike, were scrambling for cover when outrage over their behavior rained down on them.

Republicans accused the Obama administration of a cover-up when the President used his executive privilege to block the release of internal communications from February 4, 2011, in which Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice claim they said they did everything they could to stop the flow of illegal weapons to Mexico, while facts thus far show the contrary. It was the first time Obama had used his executive privilege during his presidency. Republicans then voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. He is the only cabinet member in U.S. history to have that distinction.

Fourteen officials involved in the operation “bore a share of responsibility for ATF's knowing failure in both these operations to interdict firearms illegally destined for Mexico, and for doing so without adequately taking into account the danger to public safety that flowed from this risky strategy,” an investigative report later claimed. Two of them, former acting ATF chief Kenneth Melson and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein, quickly stepped back after the report was released, Melson retired, Weinstein resigned.

The goal of the people behind Fast and Furious was bringing down gun rings and drug cartels. They failed miserably to accomplish that. The five men involved in the shootout that cost the life of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry have all been indicted, but three remain fugitives of the law.

Twenty individuals were arrested as a result of Fast and Furious. Jaime Avila, Jr., the man who bought the guns that would cost Brian Terry’s life pleaded guilty and received the maximum penalty of 57 months in prison for gun dealing and conspiracy. A joke compared to the havoc his crimes wrecked upon society.

Actions taken during Operation Fast and Furious continue to be felt. In shootouts involving Mexican cartels many of the guns used were traced back to the botched ATF operation. It is estimated that hundreds of people have lost and will lose their lives after being shot by a gun trafficked under the “watchful” eye of the ATF.

In a statement the ATF acknowledged that, “Regrettably, firearms related to the Fast and Furious investigation will likely continue to be recovered at future crime scenes.”

With all eyes focused on the blame game that is in full swing, the dead seem to have become an accepted part of Fast and Furious. Though “regrettable”, there, apparently, is nothing ATF or others can do to catch the murderers or prevent other killings from happening. They went from combating crime to accepting it as part of the way things are.

It’s the circle of life, Cartel-ATF style.

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