Tuesday, May 8, 2012



Note: Be sure to read to the end.

Report: El Paso a 'hub' for weapons smuggling
By Diana Washington Valdez \ El Paso Times
Posted: 05/08/2012 12:00:00 AM MDT

El Paso has become an important firearms-smuggling center for the
Sinaloa drug cartel, which is engaged in an ongoing battle against
its rivals in Juárez and Mexico, according to a new U.S.
congressional report on Operation Fast and Furious.
The May 3 report issued by the U.S. Committee on Oversight and
Government Reform is the latest update on the congressional
investigation into the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and
Explosives' controversial gun-walking operation, which began in 2009.
"Three months into Operation Fast and Furious, El Paso had emerged as
a central hub for the transport of weapons being smuggled by Manuel
Celis-Acosta's syndicate," the report said.
"Since the beginning of Fast and Furious, ATF intelligence analysts
had noticed an eastern shift in weapons crossing the border -- from
Tijuana and Arizona to El Paso and Juárez."
Fast and Furious also may have enabled Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán's
Sinaloa cartel to carve out its new smuggling routes through Juárez
and El Paso.
Although local law enforcement in El Paso was asked to assist with
the operation, the U.S. Department of Justice has not provided
details about the local efforts, including whether they were linked
to the Fast and Furious weapons that were used in the 2010 kidnapping-
murder of lawyer Mario González Rodríguez, brother of former
Chihuahua state Attorney General Patricia González Rodríguez.
Lawmakers who are investigating the operation have complained that
DOJ officials won't part with documents they requested under a
congressional subpoena. DOJ officials countered that releasing
certain documents could jeopardize pending investigations.
According to the just-released congressional report, the ATF's
Phoenix Field Division launched the operation in 2009 to investigate
a suspected Phoenix-based arms-trafficking organization. ATF
officials sought to focus on the organization's leader, Manuel Celis-
Acosta, who was using several straw-purchasers, including a man named
Jaime Avila, to obtain weapons.

The report said the ATF partnered with the U.S. Attorney's Office for
the District of Arizona and applied to DOJ headquarters in
Washington, D.C., for funding through the Organized Crime Enforcement
Task Force.
"As senior (DOJ) officials in Washington felt the operation had great
promise, it won approval and additional funding," the report said.
"Operation Fast and Furious reorganized as a Strike Force including
agents from ATF, FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, component of the Department of
Homeland Security."

One of the failures of Fast and Furious is that Celis-Acosta, the
operation's target, was already known to one or more U.S. federal
agencies when he was caught in May 2010. Then, after promising to
assist U.S. law enforcement, he got away by crossing the border into
During the operation, "ATF agents were directed to monitor actual
transactions between federal firearms licensees (gun stores) and
straw purchasers like Avila.
"After the purchases, ATF sometimes conducted surveillance of these
weapons with assistance from local police departments. Such
surveillance included following the vehicles of straw purchasers."
Agents observed when straw purchasers took the weapons they bought to
stash houses or turned them over to third parties.

The congressional report also said that "Ciudad Juárez is considered
ground zero in the drug war. Control of the trafficking routes in
Juárez affords easy access to the United States."
The report said the Guzmán cartel, also called the Sinaloa cartel,
moved into Juárez in 2008 "in an attempt to wrest control of the
lucrative routes from the Juárez cartel," and that many of the Fast
and Furious weapons ended up in Guzmán's organization.
Jose Antonio "Jaguar" Torres Marrufo, Guzmán's enforcer in Juárez,
led an attack in 2010 on a drug rehabilitation center where he
suspected rivals were hiding out. His alleged hitmen lined up 18
people at the center and riddled them with bullets.
Marrufo's people are credited with brutal acts meant to intimidate
their enemies. "As an ominous threat to members of the rival Juárez
cartel, El Jaguar's men once skinned a rival cartel member's face and
stitched it onto a soccer ball," the report said.

"ATF leadership knew that Fast and Furious weapons were headed to the
Sinaloa cartel ... As one ATF agent in Mexico who understood what was
occurring observed, 'Chapo is arming for war.' "
"By spring of 2010, six months after Fast and Furious began and
intense weapons purchases by the Sinaloa cartel, El Jaguar's men had
won the battle with the Juárez cartel and took control of trafficking
routes through Ciudad Juárez."

Officials arrested Torres Marrufo earlier this year in Mexico.
Experts on both sides of the border disagree on which cartel has the
upper hand in Juárez, Guzmán's group or the one led by Vicente
"Viceroy" Carrillo Fuentes.
The war fought with automatic pistols, assault rifles and grenades
has left nearly 10,000 people dead, while authorities attribute most
of the slayings to drug violence.

The idea behind Operation Fast and Furious was to follow the weapons
purchased in the U.S. to identify and capture the person or people at
the top of the arms-smuggling organization.
Congressional investigators said the operation was flawed because the
ATF lost track of weapons once they crossed the border.
At least 2,000 Fast and Furious weapons were allowed to "walk" into
Mexico, and dozens of them have been found at crime scenes in Mexico
and the United States.
Whistle-blowers within the ATF exposed the operation, which officials
shut down after Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was found murdered in
the Arizona desert.
Officials said Avila was the straw purchaser of a Fast and Furious-
connected weapon that was found near Terry's body.

El Paso gun expert Ramon Holguin said that he knows many gun owners
on the border and that all of them are responsible people who would
never willingly provide weapons to the drug cartels.
"Mexico should make it easier for its citizens to buy weapons through
legal channels," Holguin said.
"At least this way they can defend themselves against the bad guys.
In the U.S., we have the Second Amendment that guarantees us the
right to own weapons, and we should be vigilant that because of
issues like Fast and Furious that right is not taken away."

Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at dvaldez@elpasotimes.com;

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