Guns and the Mexican Drug War: two related stories


US gun tracing operation let firearms into criminal hands

A federal operation aimed at tracing weapons to Mexican drug cartels lost track of hundreds, including two guns found at the scene of a Border Patrol agent's killing in Arizona.

By Kim Murphy

Los Angeles Times

March 3, 2011,0,2309966.story


A federal operation that allowed weapons from the U.S. to pass into the hands of suspected gun smugglers so they could be traced to the higher echelons of Mexican drug cartels has lost track of hundreds of firearms, many of which have been linked to crimes, including the fatal shooting of a Border Patrol agent in December.

The investigation, known as Operation Fast and Furious, was conducted even though U.S. authorities suspected that some of the weapons might be used in crimes, according to a variety of federal agents who voiced anguished objections to the operation.

Many of the weapons have spread across the most violence-torn states in Mexico, with at least 195 linked to some form of crime or law enforcement action, according to documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity and The Times.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which ran the operation, said that 1,765 guns were sold to suspected smugglers during a 15-month period of the investigation. Of those, 797 were recovered on both sides of the border, including 195 in Mexico after they were used in crimes, collected during arrests or intercepted through other law enforcement operations.

John Dodson, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who worked on Operation Fast and Furious, said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit research group based in Washington, that he was still haunted by his participation in the investigation.

"With the number of guns we let walk, we'll never know how many people were killed, raped, robbed," he said. "There is nothing we can do to round up those guns. They are gone."

The ATF said agents took every possible precaution to assure that guns were recovered before crossing into Mexico.

Scot L. Thomasson, the ATF's public affairs chief in Washington, said the Fast and Furious strategy is still under evaluation.

"It's always a good business practice to review any new strategy six or eight months after you've initiated it, to make sure it's working, that it's having the desired effect, and then make adjustments as you see fit to ensure it's successful," he said.

But enough concern has been raised that some Washington officials have begun to dig deeper into the details of the operation.

On Thursday, as President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon met in Washington to discuss the increasing problems with drug and gun smuggling, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. asked top officials at the Justice Department to consult the inspector general to determine if further investigation of the operation was needed.

U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, initiated an inquiry to determine whether guns traveled to Mexico through inadvertence or deliberate policy on the part of U.S. law enforcement.

"We still don't have the documents we've asked for. Maybe we will get the documents. But right now it's stonewalling," Grassley said in an interview Thursday.

"Too many government agencies always want the big case," he said. "They keep these gun-running sales moving along, even when they have people within the agency that say something bad's going to happen. They had plenty of warnings … and the prophets turned out to be right."

Much of what is now known about the case has only surfaced in the last few months following the December shooting death in Arizona of Customs and Border Protection Agent Brian Terry.

But the investigation was underway more than a year earlier, when Mexican customs agents in the small border town of Naco stopped a passenger car traveling from the U.S. that was carrying a surprising cargo: 41 AK-47s, a .50-caliber rifle, 40 semiautomatic gun magazines, a telescopic rifle sight and three knives.

At least three guns found that day were traced through their serial numbers to a gun shop in Glendale, Ariz., which then led to a Phoenix man, Jaime Avila, who had purchased four weapons there.

Over the course of the next year, federal agents watched Avila and several associates buy more heavy-duty weapons, which investigators were convinced were intended for Mexican drug cartels.

Despite their suspicions, the ATF allowed Avila to continue.

It was part of a new strategy embarked upon after the agency had found it increasingly difficult to build cases against "straw buyers," who purchased weapons for the cartels.

The buyers were working for increasingly complex trafficking organizations in which guns were passed among several legal owners in many locations in the U.S. before being transferred to Mexico.

As a result, the ATF decided to go after not just the buyers, but the organizations, Thomasson said.

"That was the shift in strategy. We recognized we were facing a far more sophisticated trafficking organization. We recognized the organization was a lot deeper in bodies, and we recognized that unless we went after the head of the organization, the person ordering the guns, ordering the violence, we were going to have little to no success in stemming the violence down there," he said.

It was an attempt to apply the tactics of a narcotics investigation, in which small-scale drug buyers are allowed to operate under surveillance in the hope of catching their more powerful cartel counterparts.

But several veteran agents were outraged at the shift, saying that there is a big difference between tracking drugs and tracking guns. They saw the change as a violation of a sacred ATF policy: Make the big case or don't make the big case, but don't let the guns go.

"We're not talking about bags of dope. We're not letting the guy walk away with a stolen flat-screen TV. We're talking about guns. Our job is to keep guns off the street and out of criminals' hands and prevent them from being used in violent situations," said Jay Dobyns, an ATF agent in Phoenix who was not part of the Fast and Furious team but who has watched it unfold.

Dodson, the ATF agent who did work on the operation, was transferred last fall to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. He said a supervisor justified the strategy by saying, "If you're going to make an omelet, you've got to scramble some eggs."

"I took it to mean that whatever crimes these guns were going to be involved in, those were the eggs, those were acceptable," Dodson said.

One agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added: "We voiced our concerns quite vocally to the point of yelling, screaming. We were overridden."

The dissent prompted a harsh e-mail last March from the ATF's group supervisor in charge of the day-to-day operations, David J. Voth, warning agents to stay on board.

"Whether you care or not, people of rank and authority at HQ are paying close attention to this case, and they also believe we … are doing what they envisioned the Southwest Border Groups doing," he wrote.

"I will be damned if this case is going to suffer due to petty arguing, rumors or other adolescent behavior," he added. "This is the pinnacle of domestic U.S. law enforcement techniques. …Maybe the Maricopa County Jail is hiring detention officers and you can get paid $30,000 (instead of $100,000) to serve lunch to inmates all day."

But even Voth became worried about the number of guns moving to Mexico — 359 last March alone, according to an e-mail he sent to the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix.

The risks of Operation Fast and Furious became apparent on Dec. 14, when Terry was killed in a shootout with bandits near Rio Rico, Ariz.

To the horror of federal authorities, two guns whose serial numbers matched guns purchased by Avila the previous January were found at the scene. Avila was promptly arrested.

Two months after the shooting, Sen. Grassley sent a query to the Justice Department, asking for more detail on Terry's death.

In response, the department denied that any guns had been allowed to enter Mexico as part of an investigation.

"The allegation … that ATF 'sanctioned' or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico — is false," Assistant Atty. Gen. Ronald Welch wrote. "ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico."

The department said that Project Gunrunner, the umbrella operation across the Southwest border of which Operation Fast and Furious was a part, has resulted in the seizure of more than 10,000 firearms and 1.1 million rounds of ammunition destined for Mexico since 2006.

But Grassley produced documents provided by ATF agents in Phoenix and elsewhere that showed that weapons bought by straw purchasers who were under surveillance were finding their way to Mexico, in addition to the two guns found at the scene of Terry's shooting.

Avila and 33 others were indicted in January on charges of acting as straw purchasers of weapons, along with related drug and money laundering charges. As a result of detailed spadework, ATF and Justice Department officials say, those cases now include strong evidence against suspected recipients of the contraband weapons.

No one, however, has been charged with shooting Terry. ATF officials said there was no evidence showing the two Fast and Furious guns found at the scene were used to kill the agent.

On Thursday, the Justice Department declined again in a letter to Grassley to release internal communications about the sale of the weapons to Avila and a 30-page memo the ATF's special agent in charge, William D. Newell, reportedly wrote to ATF headquarters after Terry's death.

Welch said any such documents, if they exist, cannot be released while they are part of an ongoing investigation.

Terry's mother, Josephine, said she had received no answer as to how the two guns from Arizona came to be at the same place her son died.

"They don't tell us nothing. They say they don't want to mess up their investigation. I'm disappointed. I'm really disappointed," she said. "As devoted as my son was to the government, I think they just want him to go away. They just want to forget that this even happened."



Mexico's drug war disappearances leave families in anguish

Thousands of people have vanished without a trace – some caught up in violence, others for no reason anyone can fathom. Relatives remain in agonized limbo.

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

March 7, 2011,0,3152675.story

They had scraped together money for a vacation in the port city of Veracruz. Four couples, owners of small fruit and taco shops, from the quiet state of Guanajuato.

After checking in to their hotel and spending the day by the pool with their children, the husbands wandered off, still in their shorts, to buy ice at a nearby 7-Eleven. Maybe they decided to pop into a bar, one the hotel guard recommended.

At first, the wives weren't too worried when the men didn't come back. Even the next morning, the women figured they had tied one on and slept it off somewhere. They took their children on a tour of the city. But by nightfall, the wives became nervous, and as cellphone calls went unanswered, they became terrified.

Where were their husbands?

That was nearly a year ago. The four men have not been seen since. Their families have received no ransom demand, no information, no clues whatsoever. Their bodies have not turned up.

"It was as if the earth swallowed them," one of the wives said in an interview.

In a chilling byproduct of the drug war raging in Mexico, thousands of people have disappeared. Not killed, as far as is known; not taken for ransom. Simply vanished, leaving families desperate and broken, and a society confused and frightened.

Some are low-level drug gangsters "lifted," to use the local vernacular, by rivals, then killed and dumped in secret mass graves. Some are last seen in the hands of the military or police, picked up for questioning, fates unknown. Thousands of others are immigrants who can't pay their smugglers.

And some, in the most unsettling instances, disappear for reasons no one can fathom.

Families tell themselves their loved ones were taken by traffickers and forced into slave labor in marijuana fields and methamphetamine labs. It may be true in some cases, but more often it is a form of self-deluding comfort.

The disappearances are a disturbing echo of a tactic employed by dictatorships in the so-called dirty wars that plagued parts of Latin America in the last half of the 20th century.

Whether practiced by governments or by criminals, it is a form of control and intimidation that in some ways has an even more profound effect on society because it is an "ambiguous loss," said psychologist Carlos Beristain, a Spaniard who has counseled families of the missing throughout the region.

Few cases are ever resolved, with authorities overwhelmed by record-high killings. Senseless brutality engulfs families in uncertainty, leaving them unable to mourn, unable to move on. It is a wound, as many put it, that does not stop bleeding.

A state of limbo

The couples who traveled to Veracruz were on a long-anticipated vacation last May, with 10 children among them, staying at the Howard Johnson hotel in the lively port city and popular tourist destination. The men were in their late 30s, early 40s. They were wearing shorts, sandals and the red wristbands that showed they were hotel guests when they ventured out that last night.

"We never imagined it would be dangerous," one of the wives said. She asked her name not be published out of reluctance to antagonize authorities who initially showed interest in the case but have since moved on to other crimes, including more than 300 other disappearances in Veracruz.

Their wives frantically searched for them in the days that followed, driving all over the city, reporting to every police station, the Red Cross, hospitals, the military and the local television station. They dialed their husbands' cellphones, but there were no answers. Weeks turned to months. Nothing.

The only clue came when one of the men's ATM cards was used two days after the disappearance. And someone told them the bar that the men might have gone to, New Fantasy, was a den of danger, full of "narcos."

Reyna Estrada's husband vanished with 11 others two years ago when they were on a trip to the northern border state of Coahuila to sell paint.

She says the families have been left in a state of limbo.

"You aren't a widow. You aren't a wife. My husband simply is not here," she said. "You cannot mourn."

Estrada's husband, Jaime Ramirez, traveled with the 11 other men from their homes in the state of Mexico, a couple of hours outside Mexico City, to a small Coahuila town called Piedras Negras. Vendors of house paint and other construction supplies, they were on a sales trip, traveling in two vans. Ramirez was 48; the eldest was 50 and the youngest 16, helping out his uncle.

They were last seen late one night at a gasoline station, not far from a military checkpoint. Coahuila has been quietly seething with drug violence for some time, especially as the paramilitary drug gang known as the Zetas takes over part of the state.

Relatives have repeatedly traveled to the area in an attempt to find out more, but to no avail. No witnesses have come forward, and one human rights activist warned they risked being killed if they pried too far.

"How can 12 people go missing, get rounded up, whatever happened, and no one notices?" Estrada said. "At least when your loved one dies, you know where they are, what happened, you can eventually get used to it. We do not know what monster we are fighting."

Little help from police

Authorities frequently try to stigmatize the victim, said Blanca Martinez, a human rights activist who has helped organize families of more than 100 missing people in Coahuila. They suggest the victim ran off with a girlfriend, went to work illegally in the United States or hooked up with the lucrative drug business.

Some Mexicans may have "disappeared" as matters of mistaken identity. A group of 10 hunters from the Guanajuato city of Leon went on a seasonal hunting trip Dec. 4 in Zacatecas, in search of rabbits, deer and wild boar. They had a few rifles and a red SUV and one wore camouflage. According to the testimony of one member of the hunting party who managed to escape, the group was intercepted by local police who handed them over to about 15 masked gunmen dressed in black.

With the exception of the man who escaped, the hunters remain missing.

Two months earlier, 20 young men from Michoacan went on what their families described as a vacation to Acapulco. They were seized by gunmen and remained missing for weeks. Their bodies were eventually discovered in a mass grave, and their purported killers confessed that the men had been mistaken for a rival gang from Michoacan.

Several drug-gang gunmen captured by authorities have recounted how they disposed of bodies en masse in remote, hidden graves. And in one particularly grisly case, a henchman for the Sinaloa cartel in Tijuana said he dissolved about 300 bodies using acid. Police searching his property found traces of human remains last month.

More than 11,000 migrants, primarily from Central America, went missing last year crossing Mexico on their way to the United States, according to the Mexican National Human Rights Commission. Most were captured by drug gangs demanding payoffs. Many remain missing. In the single largest massacre in Mexico's four-year conflict, 73 immigrants who refused to work for their captors were slain last summer.

In early 2009, Pablo Esparza was dragged from his mother's home in the Durango city of Cuencame. A few weeks later, his brother and sister were seized by gunmen armed with cattle prods. Then the police commander investigating the disappearances vanished. They were among about 60 people who went missing in 2009 just in Cuencame, a town of fewer than 10,000 people along a Zeta infiltration route.

Another Esparza brother, Jose de Jesus, is a U.S. citizen from Texas. He has pressed both U.S. and Mexican governments to investigate the case. But, nearly two years later, there is no trace of his absent family. One theory is they may have fallen prey to drug traffickers avenging actions by other, distant relatives.

"I live for the day they will reappear," Jose de Jesus Esparza said in a telephone interview from San Francisco, where he works for an airline. The uncertainty has taken its toll: What remains of his family is falling apart. Their mother has attempted suicide, the children fall ill, family members have sunk into deep depression, and Jose de Jesus is going bankrupt in his attempts to find his missing relatives.

"A lot of time has passed, but I haven't stopped looking a single day," he said. Hope, he says, is the last thing that dies.