‘It’s like the underwear gnomes,” my ATF colleague Lee Casa told me one time as we recounted the latest bizarre goings-on in Phoenix.
“What?” I asked.
“You ever watch ‘South Park’? There’s this episode where all the boys get their underwear stolen by these underwear gnomes. They track them down to get it back and one of them asks why they are stealing everyone’s underwear. The gnomes break out this PowerPoint and reveal their master plan: Phase One: Collect underpants . . . Phase Two: ? . . . Phase Three: Profit.”
“We’re doing the same thing,” he explained. “We know Phase One is ‘Walk guns’ and Phase Three is ‘Take down a big cartel!’ ”
Both of us were laughing now; a more fitting and appropriate allegory could never be found. Casa concluded, “Just nobody can figure out what the f–k Phase Two is!”
What was happening did at times almost seem like a spoof. Letting guns “walk” was a tactic that I had never before seen or even contemplated. It simply wasn’t done.
I couldn’t understand how anyone could argue that allowing guns that ought to have been in law-enforcement custody to go to known or suspected criminals — people who shouldn’t have been near a gun, people who almost certainly would be passing them on to Mexico’s most brutal drug cartels — wasn’t madness.
JUST WATCHINGAs the weeks went on, it was the same routine. Hope MacAllister, the case agent for the operation she dubbed “Fast and Furious,” would get a call from a gun dealer advising that one of our low-level knuckleheads was in the store, or on their way there, and purchasing high quantities of the same make and model weapons all at one time.
We’d rush out to the respective gun shop, set up in the parking lot, and watch, taking pictures or video as they exited the store, arms full of boxes containing weapons. Sometimes there would be so many, they would have to wheel them out on a store cart. Then we watched as they loaded them into their vehicles and then casually drove away. One of the suspects purchased as much as 40 AK-variant rifles in the same day.
As had become our routine, we would follow the straw purchasers to a stash house or other location. On occasion, they would meet up with another vehicle and pass box after box from one car to the other. I struggled to reconcile us knowing what was in each one of those boxes, where the guns were headed to, and what they were going to be used for, with how could we just watch them drive away.
There were several times we actually saw money change hands. We were ordered to always stay on the known straw purchaser, the one we already knew everything about, rather than follow the new player who left with the guns.
We recorded everything we witnessed, wrote reports about it each time and kept every document. Other than that, we just allowed it all to happen month after month.
In all, we watched thousands of weapons leave, all bound for the carnage-riddled fron‑tera, the Mexican border.
TAKING HOLIDAYS OFFOne rung above this group of straws, and still very much a pawn by cartel standards, was Manuel Celis-Acosta. Short and stocky, in his mid-30s with dark hair atop his full face, Acosta was a first-level manager and organizer. Acosta was running his own straw-purchasing ring. He appeared to be a subcontractor for various drug-trafficking organizations and drug cartels.
We had Acosta identified from the beginning. We knew who he was and what rung of the ladder he occupied.
We even had his network mapped out. One of the frequent purchasers on his behalf was Jacob Chambers (before being dubbed “Fast and Furious,” after the movie of the same name, our investigation was titled after him). In that beginning phase, Hope had done a routine query of several federal law-enforcement and phone-number databases to see if any of our targets had pinged any other agency’s radar. They had.
On Dec. 15, 2009, DEA agents working on a similar case met with Hope. Dubbed a “deconfliction” meeting, it became clear that ATF and DEA were working some of the same people.
Since the case didn’t involve drugs, the DEA agents were eager to punt whatever information they had about firearms trafficking to ATF.
Shortly thereafter, DEA called again and dropped a fresh new nugget of intel. Acosta was planning a transfer of 32 semiautomatic AK-variant rifles to his cartel contacts in El Paso who would then take them the rest of the way into Mexico. The break of all breaks — it doesn’t get any better than that.
If the purpose of the case is to stop firearms trafficking, then you interdict this load and shut the group down. If the purpose was to get evidence on Acosta, DEA had just provided all that was needed to catch him in the act. If the purpose was to do a wire, DEA was already up on one and intercepting Acosta’s calls on the other end. If the purpose was to take down a cartel, DEA had just given us the chance to jump one rung of the ladder higher than Acosta before we ever even got up and running.
However, four days later, on Dec. 19, 2009, when DEA called with more information about the pending weapons transfer, Hope outrageously told them that we were too short on bodies because of Christmas to staff a surveillance team and so we wouldn’t be covering it.
DEA later learned through their case that the delivery had in fact taken place, just as their sources said it would, in El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 22. Thirty-two more guns to the cartels.
CIRCLE OF IDIOCYLater, in March 2010, DEA again contacted ATF with yet more intelligence. Agents from another one of their divisions had fully identified the suspect to whom they believed Acosta had delivered the weapons in El Paso.
Then DEA dropped a bomb: Through their own deconfliction protocols, they had learned that those two suspects, both above Acosta in hierarchy, were already subjects of a joint DEA-FBI investigation being worked out of another division that had begun back on Dec. 9, 2009.
This was major news, or at least should have been. If those higher than Acosta were already being investigated by other federal agents, then, like it or not, our case had a ceiling imposed. There was no reason to keep following Acosta because we couldn’t get to his bosses; they were already wrapped up by the other investigation, which had priority since it involved a higher level of criminal element.
Later we learned that these folks Acosta was reporting to weren’t just targets of the joint DEA-FBI investigation; they had been cultivated as informants and were in fact assets of the FBI. More shocking, they had been using FBI money to ultimately purchase a significant portion of the firearms.
Take the government out of this equation and nothing gets done. No guns get purchased, because there is no FBI money to pay for them; no guns get sold, because ATF is not coercing the gun dealers to sell them; and no guns get trafficked, because ATF is not using the guise of a “big case” to allow it all to happen.
And yet the Justice Department was happy to let the farce continue, telling my ATF bosses they were doing a great job.
You can’t make this s–t up!
LOSING TRACKI had suggested that we use GPS trackers so that we could better track the weapons and ensure their interdiction before making it south of the border. When my bosses agreed, I felt a sense of relief. Finally we were going to start doing something.
We hid a GPS device into an AK-variant rifle. One of the straws took the bait and purchased the rifle harboring the GPS along with a group of others. As so many times before, we had enough to arrest him on the spot, but we let him drive out of the parking lot with a trunk full of guns. This time, at least, we could track the guns.
We were told to keep a loose surveillance; no need to risk heating them up — to let the GPS tracker do its job.
“Seventeen South,” Hope said over the radio as she relayed the information she was getting over the phone. “Still southbound— Passing Camelback Road.”
Unknown to Casa and I, there was a delay in the information we were getting; the GPS was being monitored by a technician who was then relaying the information to an analyst, who then relayed it over the phone to Hope in the Strike Force office, who then relayed it over the radio to us. Although it was ridiculous that so many links need to be in the chain in the first place (we should have had the capability to monitor the GPS directly), it wasn’t overly problematic, until . . .
Hope’s voice came out over the radio, “Does anyone have eyes on the vehicle?”
Shaking my head, I thought, You told us to stay back so we couldn’t be seen; if it can’t see us — we probably can’t see it.
Someone answered, “Negative.”
After a brief pause, the radio crackled again as Hope’s voice broke the static: “We’ve lost the tracker. It may have went down or gone somewhere where the signal can’t get out.”
Looking around as I drove the last known route it was headed, I saw warehouses, storage facilities, acres of tractor trailers parked alongside each other as if someone had sat out a giant set of dominoes, and nearly an entire city block covered with shipping containers and Conex boxes stacked 30 feet high, three or four deep.
My head on a swivel looking around for the vehicle, I pressed hard on the mic key and asked, “Last known location?”
“Fifty-First near Buckeye,” she answered. “Eleven minutes ago.”
Eleven minutes ago! Do you have any idea what can happen in eleven minutes? How far a vehicle can travel in eleven minutes? Needless to say — it was gone.
The maiden voyage of our tracker had lasted less than an hour. Back at the office, the only concern expressed was for the loss of the GPS equipment and their having to account for that.
The guns getting away . . . well, that was business as usual.
TRAGEDY OF ‘FURIOUS’One of the regular straw buyers was a man named Jaime Avila. Many times I remember following him in frustration after buys beginning in December 2009. We tracked his many purchases. We listed him in our database. We knew, in real time, whenever he purchased a weapon or when one he had purchased was recovered at a violent crime somewhere along the border.
The only things we hadn’t ever done: interdict him, arrest him, interview him or anything else that might hinder his firearms trafficking.
On Dec. 14, 2010, Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry came across a group of suspected illegal immigrants near Mexico.
He was shot and killed by an AK-47 variant rifle.
It was a gun Avila had bought in January 2010. A gun we let go.
Some politicians and the media like to think the Fast and Furious scandal is over, that we know what happened and it’s no big deal. But three years later, the White House still refuses to release all documents on the operation. Officials refuse to say who knew about the gun walking. The Mexican government say 211 people have been killed by guns from Fast and Furious, including police officers. The body count will only increase.
And Attorney General Eric Holder, despite being held in contempt by Congress, still has a job.
We gave thousands of guns to Mexican drug cartels. Americans died. Where is the outrage?
Copyright (c) 2013 by John Dodson from the forthcoming book “The Unarmed Truth” by John Dodson. To be published by Threshold Editions, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., this Tuesday. Printed by permission.