Smugglers from Arizona being monitored through the U.S. government’s Operation Fast and Furious helped supply firearms to a gun-trafficking ring led by officials in Columbus, N.M., according to court documents. Court documents also provide additional details on the extent of the Columbus conspirators’ involvement with Mexican drug traffickers and La Linea enforcers of the Carrillo Fuentes drug cartel.
According to one of the court documents, Border Patrol agents looking for a stolen vehicle stopped Blas Gutierrez, a former Columbus Village trustee, and Miguel Carrillo, a gun straw purchaser, in Columbus on Jan. 14, 2010. The two men, who were later convicted in the federal case against 11 Columbus conspirators, were not arrested that day.
The Border Patrol agents who stopped Gutierrez and Carrillo reported that they had found eight firearms inside the 2004 Nissan, including three Romarm Cugir pistols, two Ruger P345 pistols and three Fabrique National de Herstal pistols.
An investigation later determined that the three Fabrique Nationale de Herstal pistols had been purchased Jan. 9, 2010 in Arizona by Jaime Avila, one of the arms-trafficking conspiracy ringleaders who was being monitored by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as part of Operation Fast and Furious. Avila was one of the main suspects in the ATF’s centerpiece case for Fast and Furious.
The court document stated that the three Romarm Cugir pistols found on Gutierrez and Carrillo that day “were bought (on) an unlisted date by another straw purchaser identified as Uriel Patino, also of Phoenix.” Patino was another ATF target in Operation Fast and Furious. Patino was a co-defendant with Jaime Avila.
Operation Fast and Furious was launched by the ATF on Oct. 31, 2009. The ATF considered Manuel Fabian Celis-Acosta to be the mastermind behind arms-trafficking centered in Phoenix. The Drug Enforcement Administration was also investigating Celis-Acosta, who was suspected of drug-trafficking.
Two Fast and Furious-linked weapons were found near the body of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, who was fatally shot Dec. 15, 2010 in the Arizona desert while pursuing armed suspects. The agent’s death prompted the ATF to shut down the operation and led to a Congressional investigation into the controversial gun-walking operation.
ATF officials said the operation was intended to uncover the top leaders of arms-trafficking groups. Under the operation, gun shops were allowed to sell firearms to straw purchasers and the ATF was to keep track of the weapons. Instead, firearms soon began turning up at homicide scenes in Mexico and later near Terry’s body.
The documents that reveal additional details about the gun-walking operation and gun-trafficking in El Paso, JuÃ¡rez and Southern New Mexico come from the federal case against the Columbus conspirators, including Ian Garland, owner of the former Chaparral Guns in Chaparral, N.M., and filings in the federal lawsuits involving the deaths of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry and ICE Special Agent Jaime Zapata and the wounding of ICE Special Agent Victor Avila Jr. of El Paso.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were ambushed while traveling on a highway in Mexico in 2011.
Before Terry’s death, hundreds of Mexican citizens had already been killed in Mexico by firearms linked to Fast and Furious.
Garland, who sold weapons to the Columbus conspirators, was recently released from prison after serving a sentence for his role in the conspiracy. Garland alleges that he was unjustly pressured to accept a plea agreement in July 2011.
“I was singled out for punishment even though all my sales to these people were reported as required by law, and the buyers were legally able to buy the firearms,” Garland said. “The ex-police chief, Angelo Vega, the ex-mayor, Eddie Espinoza, and Blas Gutierrez, the village trustee, and everyone else who bought from me, need to be interviewed. They all asked, on the record, ‘Why is Ian here, he had no conspiracy with us? We only used his store, as well as others, to buy from.’ The connection between Arizona’s Fast and Furious is clear, crystal clear, and this is in my pre-sentencing report.”
Garland said he is working to clear his name and has a website devoted to this and other information about Fast and Furious at www.fastandfuriousejusticenow.org.
“I am Australian born, a U.S. citizen, and damn proud of it,” Garland said. “I am fighting because the government’s lawyers held back information that could have exonerated me. Plus, I got sentenced under the wrong guidelines, which gave me a harsher penalty than even the charges warranted.”
Garland said he plans to share information related to the Fast and Furious ties to El Paso and JuÃ¡rez with the Mexican government.
The Columbus conspiracy reportedly involved the purchase of 200 high-powered firearms from Garland and other sources between January 2010 and March 2011. However, previously disclosed court documents, such as the multiple-defendant indictment against 11 conspirators, failed to divulge the ties between the Columbus organization and the Phoenix-based straw purchasers who were part of Operation Fast and Furious.
In Terry’s wrongful death lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege that Jaime Avila was among the suspects that by December 2009 the ATF had identified as a straw purchaser for a firearms trafficking conspiracy led by Celis-Acosta.
The lawsuit also mentions that Avila had purchased two weapons from a gun dealer in Arizona on Jan. 9, 2010, which “were recovered on Jan. 14, 2010, by U.S. Border Patrol officers in Columbus, New Mexico during a search of a suspicious vehicle attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.”
On Jan. 16, 2010, the lawsuit alleges, Avila bought three more weapons from the Arizona gun shop, all were WASR-10 AK-47-type assault rifles; two of the rifles were found near Terry’s body nearly a year later.
“Had Avila been arrested and the weapons been seized at the time of the Jan. 16, 2010 purchase, Brian Terry would not have been murdered on Dec. 15, 2010,” the plaintiffs alleged.
In another document concerning Fast and Furious suspects, on Jan. 13, 2010, El Paso police reported finding 40 assault rifles at a stash house in the city. The weapons were tied to the ATF’s Fast and Furious operation, and were traced back to the same Phoenix gun shop that was cooperating with the ATF’s operation. Alberto Sandoval and Sean C. Steward were arrested in connection with the 40-gun cache in El Paso. According to one of the documents, the ATF had lost track of the 40 firearms.
The ATF did not respond to questions late Monday about whether Operation Fast and Furious was limited to the Arizona-Mexico border or if it was intended to cover the entire U.S. border with Mexico. Anecdotally, the scope of the operation appears to have covered more ground beyond Arizona. According to Congressional investigations, the ATF had not accounted for more than 1,000 firearms linked to its botched operation.
According to a court transcript from Steward’s case, “out of the 289 weapons that (Steward) purchased, 125 were recovered. 49 in Mexico and 78 in the U.S.”
“Those that were recovered in the U.S., many of those were recovered in bordertowns such as Douglas, El Paso and San Antonio,” the court transcript said. “By his own statements to agents, (Steward) admitted that he had been to JuÃ¡rez, Mexico, … and while he was there had heard that … children had been killed by (an) AK-47 rifle shooting.” In other words, Steward was made aware during arms-trafficking activities of the impact that smuggled weapons were having on the JuÃ¡rez community, where a war between two violent drug cartels was raging.
Celis-Acosta indicated, the court transcript said, that he had both Uriel Patino and Steward travel to El Paso to deliver firearms to drug cartel associates. Columbus conspirators
Court documents in the Garland case stated that Ignacio Villalobos, a fugitive in the Columbus drug-trafficking conspiracy, lived in Columbus and was a low-level member of La Linea, the enforcement arm of the Carrillo Fuentes drug cartel in JuÃ¡rez. The Carrillo Fuentes or JuÃ¡rez drug cartel was at war with the Sinaloa drug cartel led by Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman.
Villalobos worked for Gerardo Acosta-Terrazas, who was identified as a top-tier cartel leader of Palomas, Chihuahua, and who answered to a man identified only as “Cachorro” Vazquez,” son of “El Veinte” (20), the alleged main leader of La Linea before his arrest in Mexico, according to court documents.
The Garland court document also stated that Alberto Rivera, an associate of Villalobos, served as a drug recruiter and firearms smuggler for the drug-trafficking organization based in Columbus, which is across the border from Palomas.
Rivera and his son, Juan Alberto Rivera, would deposit large sums of money belonging to the drug organization, the document said. Villalobos and a cousin and her husband worked as “financial facilitators” for the drug organization by receiving large deposits of money from Billings, Montana; Fridley, Minnesota, Westminster, Colo.; Denver; and Albuquerque, into their Wells Fargo bank account. Then, they would deliver the deposits to Villalobos.
Other highlights in the Garland court document state that:
“¢ On Feb. 22, 2011, a handgun that officials said Rivera had purchased was seized from “a kidnapping crew” in JuÃ¡rez.
“¢ Another man, whom investigators identified as Manuel Ortega and was linked to the regional drug organization, allegedly facilitated narcotics smuggling in Columbus, Deming and Palomas.
“¢ Between January 2010 and March 2011, a high-ranking Mexican cartel member in a Mexican jail named Jesus Molinas, alias “Mantequilla,” ordered Blas Gutierrez to buy firearms in the United States and smuggle them into Mexico, prompting Gutierrez to buy numerous firearms and paying other straw purchasers to buy more weapons from Chaparral Guns.
“¢ The Columbus-based arms-traffickers rented a unit at the Colinas del Sol apartments in the 900 block of South Mesa Hills in West El Paso to store weapons that were to be smuggled into Mexico.
“¢ On March 24, 2011, Mexican federal police seized a handgun from five alleged hit men for La Linea that Eddie Espinoza (who also was convicted in the Columbus conspiracy) had purchased from Chaparral Guns.
“¢ While under surveillance, Blas Gutierrez, a Village of Columbus trustee, and another suspect were seen stopping at the Colinas del Sol apartment, and later delivered a backpack to an unknown person at a Mexican bus company in El Paso, whom investigators suspected smuggled weapons in the backpack across the border.
“¢ Investigators placed a GPS tracker on Blas Gutierrez’s vehicle in February 2011, and found that he had stopped at a house in Albuquerque, which law enforcement officers said was used by others to help move bulk cash from illicit activities.