Federal Agency’s “Good Story” Spin Conceals Ugly Underbelly of the Drug War
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or the ATF, is in the hot seat now because of its alleged investigative practices that have allowed thousands of illegally purchased firearms to be smuggled into Mexico by warring narco-trafficking organizations.
As part of an operation dubbed Fast and Furious, an ATF whistleblower contends at least 1,800 firearms illegally purchased in the U.S. were allowed to “walk” across the border in an effort to target the kingpins behind Mexico’s gun-running enterprises. The whistleblower, ATF agent John Dodson out of the agency’s Phoenix field office, has gone public via the mainstream media denouncing the practice, out of concern that it is seriously flawed and leading to needless bloodshed.
In fact, two of the guns linked to the Fast and Furious operation allegedly were found at the murder scene of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, who was shot to death in Arizona by Mexican border marauders in Arizona late last year.
Here is what ATF agent Dodson told the Spanish-language TV station Univision in a recent interview:
Once we watch the transfer and those guns head in an opposite direction [into Mexico], there is no way to find them, to recover them, to identify them until they turn up in a crime, either in Mexico or somewhere in the United States. Once they turn up in a crime and the authorities, whichever authority it [may] be, initiates a trace on them, then we find out where that gun was trafficked to.
But there is another problem with the strategy that has more to do with the nature of the drug war than it does with the guns themselves.
The billions of dollars in revenue thrown off by the illegal drug trade has corrupted law enforcement and public officials across both sides of the border, making it possible for criminal organizations to use the color of law, at times, to advance their enterprises. In addition, law enforcement and political leadership in both the U.S. and Mexico — which depend on votes, agency budgets and/or career advancement pegged to success stories — often play the role of PR puppets, content to manufacture scapegoats as a means of concealing the utter failure of prohibition as an official policy mandate.
In the wake of the revelations about the Fast and Furious operation brought forward late last month by ATF agent Dodson via CBS News and other mainstream media outlets, U.S. officials have promised to launch an investigation (translated, a search for scapegoats) while at the same time, according to a CBS report, ATF issued an internal memo that calls on its people to help the agency advance PR success stories.
From that memo:
Given the negative coverage by CBS Evening News last week … the bureau should look for every opportunity to push coverage of good stories. Fortunately, the CBS story has not sparked any follow up coverage by mainstream media and seems to have fizzled.
And so, in recent weeks, we have seen some “good stories’ come out of ATF’s PR machine, including an announcement in early March that one of the guns used in the murder of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in Mexico last month has been traced back to a buyer in the U.S. — in part due to ATF sleuthing.
In addition, last week, ATF, along with ICE, announced that 11 people in the small border town of Columbus, N.M., including the mayor and police chief, had been indicted on gun-trafficking charges.
From the ATF’s PR announcement on the indictment in Columbus:
The indictment alleges that, between January 2010 and March 2011, the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to purchase firearms for illegal export to Mexico. During this 14-month period, the defendants allegedly purchased about 200 firearms from “Chaparral Guns,” a store owned and operated by defendant Ian Garland.
But in the case of both of these “good stories,” the facts not included in the PR spin raise some serious questions as to what is really going on behind the curtains of the drug war.
ICE agent’s murder
On Feb. 15, two U.S. ICE agents, Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila, were attacked by a group of armed men, presumed to be part of a paramilitary narco-trafficking group known as the Zetas, while traveling in a government vehicle on Mexican Highway 57 near Santa Maria del Rio, in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi — located about midway between Monterrey to the north and Mexico City to the south. Zapata died in the attack; Avila survived his wounds and is now back in the U.S.
On March 1, the FBI’s Dallas field office announced the following “good story” related to the ATF:
One of the three firearms used in the Feb. 15, 2011, deadly assault of ICE Special Agent Jaime Zapata that was seized by Mexican officials has been traced by ATF to Otilio Osorio [emphasis added]. Otilio Osorio allegedly purchased that firearm on Oct. 10, 2010, in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, prior to law enforcement’s awareness of the purchase. Ballistic testing conducted by Mexican authorities on this firearm indicated it was one of the three firearms used during the deadly assault on Special Agent Zapata’s vehicle.
Narco News contacted the FBI to get some more insight into this breakthrough in the Zapata murder case. However, Mark White, spokesman for the FBI’s Dallas division, said: “We are the lead agency on the homicide in Mexico, because FBI’s jurisdiction includes assaults and homicides involving federal agents, but ATF has the lead on the gun case.”
The major question Narco News had about the gun used in Zapata’s murder being traced back to a purchaser in the U.S. revolved around the chain of custody of the evidence. The FBI’s press release on the matter, as well as other Narco News sources, makes it clear that it was Mexican authorities who were in control of the crime scene, as well as the discovery of the gun and the ballistic testing used to link that weapon to the crime scene.
ATF’s role appears to have involved the tracing of the gun’s ownership history, but that alone does not prove it was the gun used in the murder of agent Zapata. As a result, it appears the whole case for that gun being used in the murder is premised on Mexico’s forensic work and chain of custody procedures for the evidence.
However, as Narco News has pointed out in prior reporting, the law enforcement agencies in the region where agent Zapata was murdered are heavily infiltrated by Zetas, the alleged killers, and questions have already been raised by Mexico’s alleged unilateral decision to conduct the autopsy on Zapata’s body against the wishes of U.S. officials — raising concerns as to the integrity of evidence produced by that autopsy.
At least one former DEA agent who has worked previously in Latin America had this to say about the Zapata case and evidence procedures in Mexico:
You’ve got two problems with getting accurate information.
Mexicans had total control of the crime scene and will only present “evidence” in the way it will do them the least PR damage. Coming up with a gun that traces back to an American is one such step.
American government “inside” sources: Same problem. No one high up in our chain of command is going to want to hurt Mexican PR.
… It took a week to find a “dirty” gun with a U.S. seller that fit the bill. Don’t be surprised if they also come up with a spent cartridge to give the U.S. that they “claim” was from the ICE [agent’s] murder, and it matches the dirty gun…
Narco News contacted ATF for a reaction to these possibilities and was told by an ATF spokesperson in Washington, D.C., Donna Sellers, that we “will not get an answer to the questions because ATF does not discuss active investigations.”
Camille Knight, Osorio’s attorney, says she can’t comment on the quality of the evidence in the case at this point because she has not seen the evidence.
“I do not know the details of the chain of custody of the gun and the ballistics testing, but it is definitely something we will be looking at closely in this case,” she says. “But at this point, I just don’t have any information on what ATF has done to link my client to that gun other than what is in the case file.”
However, a source familiar with the Osorio case, confirmed for Narco News that Mexican authorities did not discover the gun allegedly used to murder ICE agent Zapata at the scene of the crime, but rather found it elsewhere, about a week after the murder — and thereafter matched it to the crime scene via ballistics.
Given the pressure on Mexico to solve the crime (a U.S. agent murdered in its territory) and the PR assist it would provide the Mexican government if the murder weapon just happened to come from the U.S., it seems there is more than a little reason to question the validity of the Mexican ballistic tests — especially since Mexican authorities also allegedly controlled the initial autopsy that will produce the bullets needed to link the gun to agent Zapta’s death.
In addition, it is already clear that Mexican law enforcers have very little respect for the ATF’s gun-tracing system, known as eTrace, another indication that U.S. and Mexican authorities have differing attitudes toward the value of evidence chain-of-custody procedures.
From a November 2010 Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General report:
We examined why Mexican law enforcement authorities do not consistently submit guns [to the ATF] for tracing or delay their submissions. In interviews with us, Mexican law enforcement officials indicated a lack of interest in tracing. One Mexican official stated that U.S. officials talk of eTrace as if it is a “panacea” but that it does nothing for Mexican law enforcement. An official in the Mexico Attorney office told us he felt eTrace is “some kind of bad joke.”
So it appears ATF’s “good story” PR spin on the Zapata murder weapon is not so smooth once its rough underbelly is examined. The same holds true for the indictments handed down on the Columbus 11, among which are the town’s mayor and police chief.
The Columbus Indictment
Tosh Plumlee is a former CIA asset and contract pilot who flew numerous missions delivering arms to Latin America and returning drugs to the United States as part of the covert Iran/Contra operations in the 1980s, according to public records.
Plumlee helped to blow the whistle on the covert Iran/Contra arms-for-drugs shipments and has, in his mind, earned the lasting ire of some powerful forces engaged in America’s drug-war pretense. However, he also has earned respect among other players and still has deep contacts in the spook world, including within the Mexican intelligence world. Over the past several years, Plumlee has focused much of his attention on New Mexico’s border region.
Plumlee points to a small U.S. border community of some 2,000 people that has developed into a real hot spot in the drug war. Columbus, N.M., is located in southern Luna County, about 70 miles west of El Paso, Texas; some 32 miles south of Deming, N.M.; and just across the border from Palomas, Mexico.
According to Plumlee this high-desert border town has become a haven for narco-traffickers, specifically the Zetas.
Way back in May 2009, more than two years prior to the recent indictments involving Columbus’ town leaders, Narco News reported the following:
Plumlee says he spent some time in Columbus, on a hill overlooking the small town with a group of Border Patrol agents who had set up surveillance cameras from afar to keep an eye on two adjoining houses in the community.
Plumlee claims the homes were purchased by narco-traffickers, who paid cash. He adds that as he looked on with the Border Patrol, a group of men at the homes were unloading cargo from two trucks parked near the abodes.
Plumlee says the Border Patrol agents said the cargo was a shipment of weapons.
“How do you know,” Plumlee says he asked the Border Patrol agents.
“Because we have it on tape,” one of the Border Patrol agents responded, according to Plumlee.
Plumlee says the Border Patrol agents have reported the incident to ATF….
So it is clear that ATF was made aware of potential significant arms trafficking in Columbus as early as May of 2009, yet it did not, according to a recent ATF press release, launch the investigation that led to the recent indictments until January of 2010.
In addition, a recent Associate Press story claims the ATF investigation that led to the indictment of the Columbus town leaders and their co-conspirators was prompted by the U.S. Border Patrol.
From the AP story:
The investigation began after a Border Patrol agent found a large number of firearms in a vehicle, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales said. The priority during the yearlong probe was to keep firearms from reaching Mexico, he said.
So it seems a bit odd that Narco News published a story, for the world to read, in May 2009, indicating that Border Patrol agents had reported strong evidence of gun trafficking in Columbus to ATF and yet it was not until some eight months later, in January 2010, that ATF launched its investigation into arms trafficking in Columbus — which also was prompted, according to the AP story, by evidence gathered by the U.S. Border Patrol.
Whether the information made public by Plumlee was ever acted on by ATF is not clear.
But Plumlee tells Narco News that he is concerned that hundreds, if not thousands, of additional guns may have been smuggled into Mexico via the Columbus arms-trafficking operation in the eight months between the initial May 2009 report and ATF’s decision to open an investigation in January 2010. As it stands, ATF, in its press release, says only 40 of the 200 or so guns purchased by the Columbus 11 were seized in the U.S., which means up to 160 may well have found there way into criminal hands in Mexico.
The PR spin on that little fact, from ATF:
As part of the investigation, every effort was made to seize firearms from defendants to prevent them from entering into Mexico, and no weapons were knowingly permitted to cross the border.
Plumlee also is now bringing to the public’s attention potential evidence of an even darker picture of the extent of the corruption in the Columbus border region. He recently told Narco News that, based on information from a sensitive source in Mexico, he has uncovered what he suspects is the grave site of at least one, and possibly several, murder victims.
The alleged narcophosa [narco-grave] is located on the U.S. side of the border fence just south of Columbus, about two miles east of the Mexican town of Palomas.
He suspects coyotes dug up and scattered the remains but adds until the site is properly excavated, it’s impossible to tell if more remains might be at the location.
[The photo at the top of the story shows Plumlee, sitting on the border fence above the suspected narcofosa site; the photo to the right shows some of the clothes scattered at the scene. Other photos of the suspected grave site provide a view of some of the bone fragments as well as of a backpack, which has a GPS device on top of it to mark the location. Those photos can be found at these links: Photo 1; Photo 2; Photo 3.]
“It has not yet been confirmed yet by forensics if the bones are human, but I do know some were found inside pants,” Plumlee says.
He adds that, based on the information provided by the “sensitive source,” at least one of the victims (if indeed the source’s information is accurate) may be a child, about nine years old.
The bones, according to Plumlee, are now being examined by a New Mexico state forensic team. He says the remains, based on his sourcing, appear to be two to three years old.
If the bones do prove to be human, the fact that those remains were found on the U.S. side of the border (in an area overseen by allegedly corrupt U.S. officials and law enforcers) paints an even uglier picture of the landscape of the drug war — a picture in which borders, the color of law and human life itself are overshadowed by the allure of money.
But then this is really nothing new, as Narco News reported years ago, with its coverage of the Firestorm task force set up in 1990 to target U.S. law enforcement drug-war corruption along the Arizona border.
From a Narco News story published in April 2004:
Some clues as to what might have happened can be gleaned from an internal Customs memorandum, dated January 29, 1990. The memorandum was written by [Firestorm task force leader John William] Juhasz and directed to [U.S.] Customs’ Southwest Regional Director for Internal Affairs. [U.S. Customs has since become part of the Department of Homeland Security and made part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.]
“At the present time, it is an accepted fact among federal law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Attorney’s Office [Tucson] that law enforcement corruption in the border communities of Arizona has reached a crisis state,” the memorandum states. “It is the opinion of the SAC/IA (special agent in charge of Internal Affairs) Tucson that attacking only the Customs corruption is like putting a Band-Aid on cancer.
“The solution is the establishment of a multi-agency task force, to be co-located with Customs Internal Affairs, Tucson, Ariz., to deal directly and immediately with all aspects of law enforcement corruption on the Arizona border.”
The memorandum then goes on to identify some potential targets for the proposed task force.
“Current investigative information in this office indicates heavy involvement in the corruption of two Customs employees by an organization in Cochise County (Arizona) which is believed to include law enforcement and court officials,” the memorandum states. “There are strong indications of the same type of activity in Santa Cruz County, which, like Cochise County, is adjacent to the Mexican border.
“Other Federal agencies in Arizona implicate the same organizations as being part of the drug smuggling problem. The members of these organizations include….”
Listed among the credits in the memorandum are a number of high-ranking police and judicial officers in Douglas and Nogales, Ariz.— including the Justice of the Peace in Douglas. …
In the end, Firestorm got too close to the truth and was shut down abruptly in late 1990, according to members of the Arizona-based task force. About a month and a half later, the task-force founder, Juhasz, was removed from his post as the head of Internal Affairs for the U.S. Customs Service in Arizona and transferred out of state without explanation. He has since disappeared into the vapor of the drug-war’s sordid history.
And the “good story” PR of the drug war continues to be pushed forward by U.S. officials and a sycophantic mainstream media, who, for the most part, seem content to advance a shallow fairy-tale narrative replete with heroic good guys and evil bad guys, a drug-war narrative that is more about Web-page clicks than the tick of the human heart.
For news of future reruns, please stay tuned…..