US Agencies Botched Gun Running Investigations With Deadly Consequences: Watchdog

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A new report from a US government watchdog has found that multiple agencies were at fault in a series of 2010 investigations of Texas arms traffickers, whose contraband was subsequently used in the 2011 murder of US immigration agent Jaime Zapata.

The Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) published “A Review of Investigations of the Osorio and Barba Firearms Trafficking Rings” earlier this month. In the report, the authors seek to analyze whether any missteps by US agencies contributed to the trafficking of arms used in the attack on Zapata and his partner Victor Avila — who was wounded, but survived — in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí on February 15, 2011.

A Mexican military raid weeks after the attack turned up six weapons used by the Zetas, the feared crime group determined to be responsible for the incident.

Two of these firearms were traced to a pair of Texas criminal organizations, which purchased them legally in the United States and then smuggled them into Mexico. One weapon, purchased in October 2010, was trafficked by the Osorio Brothers organization, while the other, first acquired in August 2010, was tied back to the Manuel Gomez Barba organization.

While these guns were not part of Operation Fast and Furious, in which Arizona-based agents of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) failed to seize weapons following illegal transactions in 2009 and 2010, they were part of a broader debate about the suitability of the US approach to weapons trafficking.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Arms Trafficking

Both the Osorio and Barba networks had been under some degree of scrutiny by US agencies. The ATF had been aware of brothers Ranferi and Otilio Osorio’s involvement in trafficking arms to Mexican criminal groups since early 2010, receiving evidence indicating as much from three different sources.

First, an investigation into an Oklahoma narcotics detective revealed that the official supplied a group linked to the Osorios with a .50 caliber rifle, in addition to several other weapons. The detective and several associates were later arrested, and dozens of weapons were eventually seized. But despite evidence that suggested the Osorios were key figures in this organization, they were not contacted by the ATF until after Zapata’s murder.

Second, an investigation in Roswell, New Mexico, into suspicious purchases of AK-47s provided evidence that the targets of the investigation, the Gonzalez brothers, were working with the Osorios to supply weapons to the Zetas.

And third, multiple internal sales and trace reports indicated that the Osorios were increasingly active in making suspicious straw purchases.

Similarly, Manuel Gomez Barba had long been on the radar of another US federal law enforcement agency: the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

In a conversation with a DEA source, Barba bragged of buying 20 AK-47s for the Zetas in May 2010. The following month he was arrested on drug charges.

In July 2010, after striking agreement to provide confidential information to the DEA, the US Attorney’s Office handling the case withdrew a motion for Barba’s detention, allowing him to leave custody on a $50,000 bond. Instead of working with DEA agents, Barba disappeared and continued trafficking firearms to Mexico, including one of the guns used in Zapata’s killing.

The OIG found that the agencies in question made mistakes that allowed Barba and the Osorios to continue trafficking weapons into 2011, which in turn led to those weapons winding up in the hands of the Zetas. The agency’s report concluded that ATF repeatedly failed to act on probable cause and arrest the Osorios, and deferred to a DEA investigation in a misguided deference to bureaucratic prerogatives. For its part, the DEA failed to sufficiently share information about Gomez Barba’s purchase of at least 10 AK-47s, while the US Attorney’s Office should not have let him out on bond in July 2010, the report states.

InSight Crime Analysis

The OIG report provides a detailed look at the way arms traffickers feed Mexican criminal groups’ appetite for weaponry. In Mexico, officials and media outlets often refer to “ant traffic”: the practice of straw buyers purchasing small numbers of weapons legally, and smuggling operations slipping relatively small shipments across the border. Rather than buying in bulk, officials say criminal groups use this ant traffic method to meet their needs.

That is precisely what we see in the OIG report. The buyers for the Osorio and Gomez Barba networks — from the Oklahoma detective to the Osorio brothers themselves — bought a small number of weapons at a time, from a diverse set of sources spread out across many hundreds of miles. When the weapons were consolidated for shipment, there were perhaps two dozen together at a time, not hundreds or thousands.

For a number of reasons, this approach reduces the chance of major disruptions in illicit weapons flows. Law enforcement agencies, for instance, are less likely to pick up on an organization’s pattern of illegal purchases. This is essentially what happened with the ATF’s encounters with the Osorio brothers in 2010. Collectively, the agency had compiled several discreet pieces of evidence suggesting the organization was managing a large-scale arms trafficking network. But separately, the information seemed to represent an unrelated series of small-time illegal purchases. And no one put the pieces together until after the gun used in the Zapata murder was recovered in Mexico.

Similarly, because the shipments are small, legal seizures can only upset a small part of the overall traffic. And because the smugglers’ operations are similarly limited in size, even taking down an entire arms trafficking operation will have virtually no impact on the general availability of illicit arms in Mexico. In this sense, the arms industry is not unlike the drug trade, though arguably even more resistant to government countermeasures.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the US-Mexico Border

While the OIG report focuses on narrow missteps by investigating agencies, it also provides ample evidence of shortcomings in US gun laws that feed the illegal market for weapons in Mexico. Most obviously, the report shows the ease with which traffickers can legally acquire powerful assault weapons, including mounted .50 caliber rifles, AR-15s, and AK-47s.

Furthermore, even when a straw buyer is under surveillance and is making highly suspicious purchases, the bar for arrest and seizure is high. ATF agents following the Gonzalez brothers as they purchased eight AK-47s correctly assumed that these were destined for Mexican criminal groups, but the purchases themselves were legal.

It also remains unclear if the agencies’ mandate was leading them to pursue a coherent overriding strategy. As noted above, the ATF appears to have slowed its investigation of the Osorio gun trafficking network to comply with DEA requests stemming from the latter agency’s own drug-related investigation. The OIG also notes that “the ATF agents were more concerned with trying to identify firearms traffickers and not individual purchasers,” an approach that affected whom they arrested and when.

Such decisions are debatable, but it is not clear that they stem from a sober, calculated analysis. This is not a new critique; opponents of the Fast and Furious operation mentioned above have long focused on the lack of foresight behind the program. And although dismantling Fast and Furious may have been easy enough, finding effective strategies for targeting illicit arms flows, both in Mexico and in the United States, remains an elusive goal.

Read the full OIG report below:

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