US Troops May Now Be Coping with Fast and Furious Fallout

Reported US Military Ramp-up on the Border Follows Years of ATF-Sanctioned Gun Running

U.S. troops deployed to the US/Mexican border last week may well be there, in part, to deal with the blowback from ATF's botched Fast and Furious gambit.

Veteran border reporter Diana Washington Valdez of The El Paso Times reported late last week that “active-duty soldiers” from Fort Bliss, just north of El Paso, Texas, have been deployed to support the US Border Patrol in the Arizona and New Mexico border region.

Tosh Plumlee, a longtime CIA operative, who has been actively monitoring the New Mexico border region for years, also confirms that at least a half dozen “government vans” packed with US soldiers were spotted in recent days on a highway leading into Columbus, N.M., which is just across the border (some 3 miles) from Palomas, Mexico — a hotbed of narco- and weapons- trafficking activity in recent years.

Plumlee says the deployment is likely part of an ongoing joint Mexican and US military task-force operation that has been active since at least 2009. Narco News reported on some of the activities of that joint op in mid-2010, including the fact that small teams of US special operations soldiers were active on the Mexican side of the border, imbedded with the Mexican military.

However, neither Plumlee, nor The El Paso Times report, shed any definitive light on the precise nature of the recent US troop deployment along the border, specifically in the Columbus area. Plumlee has told Narco News previously, though, that there have been numerous reports of suspected weapons stashes concealed in the desolate moon-like landscape surrounding Columbus and Palomas — near landmarks such as Guzman Lookout Mountain and Coyote Hill to the east of Columbus.

In fact, several days ago, on the evening of Feb. 16, Plumlee says he was traveling along the border near Columbus when he came across the echoes of a firefight playing out just across the border. It’s not clear, Plumlee adds, who was engaged in that shootout, but it is certain, he says, that there were live rounds ripping through the air. He tape-recorded his experience that evening, providing the play-by-play of the action — a recording that can be found at this link.

[It’s a low-quality tape with a lot of static and background noise so you have to listen carefully to pick up Plumlee’s voice and the gunshot echoes.]

“All Along the Watchtower”

The covert law enforcement operation known as Fast and Furious allowed thousands of weapons to flow across the borders of Arizona and New Mexico and into the hands of the powerful Mexican Sinaloa narco-trafficking organization, which has been engaged in a bloody turf war with the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (VCF) Juarez drug organization for control of a long-running, lucrative drug-and-arms smuggling route that cuts a dangerous path through the same badlands that border the Mexican town of Palomas and its USA sister city, Columbus.

The ATF (the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives)-sanctioned Fast and Furious operation, and its predecessors under the Bush administration (one dubbed Wide Receiver, launched in 2006), whether by design or not, in essence it seems, armed one enemy (the Sinaloa Cartel) to fight another enemy (the VCF), and in the process, a lot of innocent people as well as drug-war combatants have been caught up in the blowback — many killed due to smuggling-route battles being waged to assure assess to a lucrative black market that spreads across both sides of an invisible line we like to call a border.

It seems the US military has now been drawn into that fray, if the reports by The El Paso Times and Plumlee are right. Those troops might be engaged in searching out and destroying hidden weapons stashes, or providing an extra layer of security in an increasingly borderless drug war, or possibly conducting joint operations with the Mexican military in a type of squeeze play to shut off the Columbus/Palomas contraband route and other similar connections. The truth is, though, likely no one outside the chain of command of that military operation really knows, or will ever know, the real nature of the mission.

But one thing seems clear: The thousands of assault rifles and pistols pumped into the Southwest border region as a result of ATF’s botched gun-walking strategy are likely playing some role in prompting the arrival of the US cavalry — in this case, it seems, special operations soldiers.

The US Side

ATF’s Fast and Furious gun-running operation catapulted into the national spotlight in early 2011, with the focus on the Arizona border, where the operation allegedly played out — with the weapons, under ATF watch, finding their way in bulk, an ongoing Congressional investigation has found, to the Sinaloa “Cartel,” which is led by the likes of Joaquin Guzman Lorea (known as El Chapo) and Ismael Zambada Garcia.

However, an ATF agent, who asked not to be identified, recently told Narco News that the “gun-walking” tactics (allowing weapons to be purchased and smuggled into Mexico unimpeded by law enforcement) that were employed in Fast and Furious also extended to the New Mexico border as part of a “cut-out” operation. The New Mexico operation also allowed hundreds of US weapons (possibly far more) to be smuggled across the US border — with the supposed goal of identifying the “higher-ups” in the Mexican narco-trafficking organizations that were purchasing the illicit weapons.

“All of New Mexico is covered by the ATF Phoenix Field Division [which hatched Fast and Furious},” the ATF agent says. “The Columbus [New Mexico] case wasn't anything new or different. It began as a part of Fast and Furious, was then cut-out, given a different case number, and run by one of New Mexico [ATF] groups employing the same [gun-walking] tactics.”

The facts of a gun-smuggling bust that played out in Columbus, NM, in early 2011 — which resulted in the indictment of some 14 people, including the mayor and police chief of Columbus — seem to lend credence to the ATF agent’s claims.

As far back as 2009, the Associated Press published a story about Columbus with the following headline: “Drug smugglers allegedly move into N.M. town: Police say Mexican traffickers’ money revving up local economy.”

Ironically, one of the individuals quoted in that AP story saying he planned to get tough on crime was Columbus Police Chief Angelo Vega, who pled guilty last year, along with 11 other Columbus-area residents (a group that also includes the mayor and a village trustee) to firearms-trafficking charges. The members of the ring were indicted in March 2011 in the wake of an investigation, led by the ATF, that began in January 2010  — about three months after Fast and Furious was launched out of the Phoenix ATF field division.

Plumlee, too, as far back as 2009, was making public his concerns about the illegal activity in Columbus. In a May of that year, Plumlee, who flew numerous missions as a CIA contract pilot during the Iran-Contra era, as evidenced in Congressional testimony and letters, told Narco News that Columbus had become a haven for narco- and arms-traffickers.

Plumlee contends (and Narco News reported at the time) that Border Patrol agents stationed in the area also knew this and made their concerns known to ATF — specifically related to two houses in Columbus suspected of being used by narco-traffickers as weapons stash sites. Still, it was not until January of 2010, nearly a year later, however, that ATF officially initiated its investigation into the arms-trafficking activity in Columbus.

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….

The ATF press release also makes clear that only about 40 of those 200 or more weapons were recovered by the agency. 

More from the ATF press release, issued at the time of the indictment of the Columbus weapons-trafficking ring:

The indictment alleges that twelve firearms previously purchased by the defendants later were found in Mexico and were traced back to these defendants. 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.

Despite ATF’s claim that no guns were “knowingly permitted to cross the border,” there are, to date, according to court pleadings, a total of at least 15 firearms (three more than reported in the ATF press release) that have been recovered in Mexico and are linked to the Columbus gun-smuggling “conspiracy.” And even more disturbing, court records show, is the fact that six of those 15 weapons were discovered at murder scenes in Mexico involving a total of five victims in Palomas and three victims in Juarez — the murder capital of the drug war. That's eight homicides in Mexico involving only six of the smuggled weapons, with some 150 or more of those weapons seemingly still unaccounted for as part of the Columbus investigation.

And at least one of those murders, court pleadings show, was supposedly carried out with a weapon (an AK-47 pistol) purchased by one of the Columbus ring in July 2010 — some six months after ATF initiated its investigation. The weapon was later smuggled into Mexico where it was recovered at a murder scene in Palomas in February of 2011 — a month prior to the indictment of the Columbus ring and some 13 months after ATF opened the investigation (an indication, it seems, that guns were allowed to cross the border as part of the operation, just as in Fast and Furious.)

Plumlee also contends that members of the US military task force operating along the Mexican border (and stationed at Fort Bliss) sent a letter in the fall of 2010 to the Department of Justice and the US Department of State inquiring whether there was some type of covert law-enforcement operation underway due to the large volume of US weapons that were moving across the border into Mexico, seemingly unimpeded. Plumlee says the task force received no response to that letter.

It seems members of Congress now investigating the Fast and Furious debacle had some reason to believe the US military had knowledge of the operation as well. In September of last year, a letter co-signed by US Sen. Charles Grassley and U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa and addressed to the commander of Joint Task Force North at Fort Bliss, stated the following:

For more than six months, we have been investigating a case conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) called Operation Fast and Furious. According to several agents, ATF leadership encouraged gun dealers to engage in sales of multiple semi-automatic firearms to individuals suspected of illegally purchasing the guns for Mexican drug cartels.

We understand that Joint Task Force North (JTF North) is a Department of Defense (DOD) organization tasked to support federal law enforcement agencies in the identification and interdiction of suspected threats along the approaches to the continental United States. Furthermore, we understand that JTF North may have been aware of Operation Fast and Furious … or similar operations involving other agencies in which weapons may have been transferred south of the border.

The JTF North commander at Fort Bliss responded on Oct. 11, 2011:

We conducted and completed a diligent search of all documents in this command's possession, custody, and control which could contain responsive documents. We found no documents related to the planning or execution of Operation Fast and Furious.

Plumlee explains the lack of documentation by pointing out that the US special-ops task force operating in Mexico and the border region at the time may well have been assigned to Fort Bliss for tactical reasons, but that its headquarters command was likely elsewhere, plus it was very likely a covert operation, “so the commander at (Fort Bliss) would not have details of the letter” sent by the task force members.

If that’s the case, it’s not the only incidence of covert play obscuring the truth of the drug war.

The Mexican Side

Narco News is in contact with a source who is now in hiding somewhere in the United States with a target on his head because he has run afoul of the VCF narco-trafficking organization. This source was a worker who helped to load and deliver marijuana payloads in Chihuahua, Mexico — the state that is home to Juarez.

The source was active in the business until 2004, a period during which he says the VCF and Sinaloa organizations cooperated with each other, in exchange for a cut of the action, in moving drugs along established “trade” routes. He claims the organizations fell into a major blood feud shortly after that period, which was further inflamed by Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s declaration of war on the “cartels” in late 2006.

“Felipe Calderon, he messed up everything,” the source says. “He started the war to the cartels and that’s what he got. And he is always saying everything is working; he’s not doing shit. It’s worse and worse.”

In the early 2000s, this source claims he worked for a cell of the VCF (the Juarez drug organization) that ran drugs from a ranch in the outback of Chihuahua and into Juarez and Palomas — the sister city of Columbus, NM.

At the time, the source’s immediate boss, he claims, was an individual then in his early 20s named Jose Antonio Torres Marrufo — who in turn allegedly worked for a VCF capo named Pedro Sanchez Arras, whose home base was Villa Ahumada, Chihuahua (a small Mexican town some 120 kilometers south of Juarez). Marrufo is under indictment in the US on firearms and narco-trafficking charges.

Mexican soldiers apprehended Sanchez on May 13, 2008. Four days later, a group of armed men invaded Villa Ahumada and slaughtered half a dozen people and disappeared another 10, according to news reports.

The source claims that his contacts told him that Marrufo, who sometime around 2003 or 2004 switched allegiances and went to work full-time for the Sinaloa organization, was a key figure behind the slaughter in Villa Ahumada that day.

From the source:

Some people from Villa Ahumada saw him (Marrufo) there that day, and he knew all the people that was working for (the VCF) and that is why Marrufo went there, because he knows where everyone [working for the VCF] lives and knows all the families from everywhere there. That is why they [the Sinaloa organization] sent him, to take care of the people in Villa Ahumada, the people that was working for Vicente [the VCF], and he [Marrufo] was working for El Chapo [the Sinaloa organization], so he went there and did some killings that day.

Earlier this month, Mexican federal police arrested Marrufo, who was described by the Mexican government as a significant player in the Sinaloa drug organization.

Last year, in April, Mexican police raided a Juarez home allegedly owned by Marrufo (who was not there at the time) and discovered a cache of high-powered weapons, 40 of which were traced back to gun sales made through ATF’s Fast and Furious operation, according to news reports at the time.

So it appears, assuming news reports and Narco News’ source are accurate, ATF’s Fast and Furious operation was helping the Sinaloa organization get the upper hand in its battle with the VCF for drug routes in the Juarez/Palomas/Columbus region.

The source provided some more insight into the nature of that particular drug route — one of many, to be sure, that is in play along Mexico’s 2,000-mile border with the USA.

The information provided by the source dates back to 2003/2004, though the route is still active no doubt, judging from the ongoing turmoil in Juarez, Columbus and Palomas. It was a VCF operation at the time — though it appears the Sinaloa organization has gone a long way in recent years, seemingly aided by Fast and Furious and similar Bush-era gun-walking operations, such as Wide Receiver, in wresting control of the Juarez/Palomas/Columbus route from the VCF.

From the source:

Marrufo was in charge of … Villa Ahumada [for the VCF]; well, it was actually Pedro Sanchez and Marrufo was the second one.… Villa Ahumada, that’s where all the drugs stops [in that area] and from there it crosses to Juarez , you know. So they transport it by night by the desert. They call it la brechas [the gaps], where they pass all the drugs.

… From Villa Ahumada to that ranch, it’s like 20 kilometers or 25, something like that. It’s way inside the border, the ranch. The people that are bringing loads of drugs there, they come in these big trailers from Zacatecas and Sinaloa and from all over Mexico. … They call us and at night, … so we went to the ranch … when Marrufo say they going to keep some stuff there and [he said] that whatever I see, you know, say nothing, because if you open your mouth, you get killed. Whatever you see, just keep it on you; don’t go out telling nobody, because you will get killed.

So these big trailers went there; [the first one] had like 4 tons of marijuana. And another one came that same day, later, and it had like 7 more tons, and there were big pallets of drugs there that day. That’s when xxx and xxx sent like 22 or 23 [smaller] trucks to load all that drugs [from the tractor trailers] to take it to Juarez. We helped them load drugs [onto the smaller trucks]. … It was in middle of the night when they took all the drugs to Juarez. And they had [Mexican] State Police waiting for them in Juarez to keep them safe in the streets over there.

They have animals on top of the trucks [the semi-trailers] and drugs hiding in the bed of the trucks. This ranch was for animals, like a big farm, to transport animals to the US. This guy was in that business, and he had a lot of animals at the ranch for that. So the animals are in the trailers and we unload the animals and then with a torch open the bed of the trailer and [the marijuana payload is bundled together] with big, thick wires, and they connect a tractor to pull the wires and then the packages all come down. Every packet was like 25 kilos; they were big. That day there were three trucks. Sometimes it was twice a month [the deliveries].

Well they took [some of] the drugs … xxx had his people in Palomas [Mexico, across the border from Columbus, NM], so they were transporting there.

One day me and xxx went there [Palomas] following these guys from Juarez.

They had this house and they said the cops called them and said to move the drugs because someone saw they were moving drugs into that house [in Juarez]. So we went there to that house [in Juarez] and loaded some trucks and followed them to Palomas, and we went to this house [in Palomas] and went inside, and these guys started checking all the packages and started loading them, and that same night they went across the border with them.

… They take almost everything to Palomas that time I was there [at the ranch]. And it’s in cars and trucks…. They pass through there [Palomas] and they have this guy who works for them to bring the drugs to all the states where they are supposed to take them. [So basically, it’s another distribution operation on the US side.]

Given the apparent role played by US agencies, whether by design or not, in empowering the Sinaloa organization via gun-walking, it should be seen as no small coincidence that Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla, the son of top Sinaloa organization honcho Ismael Zambada, is now making remarkable claims about the existence of a quid pro quo pact between US law enforcement and the leadership of the Sinaloa syndicate.

Zambada Niebla is now sitting in prison in the Detroit area, awaiting trial in Chicago on narco-trafficking charges — a case in which US prosecutors are seeking to cloak evidence by invoking national security claims.

Zambada Niebla, who was extradited to the US from Mexico in February 2010,  raises the Fast and Furious debacle in his court pleadings, arguing, essentially, that the operation is proof of the US government’s cooperation deal with the Sinaloa “Cartel” leadership.

As a result of Operation Fast and Furious, Zambada Niebla's pleadings assert, about “three thousand people” in Mexico were killed, “including law enforcement officers in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, headquarters of the Sinaloa Cartel.” 

Among those receiving weapons through the botched ATF operation, the pleadings continue, were DEA and FBI informants working for drug organizations, including the leadership of those groups.

“The evidence seems to indicate that the Justice Department not only allowed criminals to smuggle weapons, but that tax payers’ dollars in the form of informant payments, may have financed those engaging in such activities,” the pleadings allege. “… It is clear that some of the weapons were deliberately allowed by the FBI and other government representatives to end up in the hands of the Sinaloa Cartel and that among the people killed by those weapons were law enforcement officers.

“… Mr. Zambada Niebla believes that the documentation that he requests [from the US government] will confirm that the weapons received by Sinaloa Cartel members and its leaders in Operation ‘Fast & Furious’ were provided under the agreement entered into between the United States government and [Sinaloa organization lawyer] Mr. Loya Castro on behalf of the Sinaloa Cartel….”

US prosecutors, of course, deny that any such pact exists between the Sinaloa “Cartel” and the US government.

But regardless, the available evidence seems to indicate that since 2006 (dating back to the Bush administration, and in tandem with Mexican President Calderon’s rise to power and declaration of war on the “cartels”), the gun-walking strategy employed by ATF, and ignored or tolerated by other US agencies and politicians across both parties until recently, appears to have gone a long way in tilting the always shifting balance of the drug war — for now.

However, it also seems clear that so long as our leaders insist on enforcing prohibition of a multi-billion dollar business that is fueled by US consumer demand, and doing so by means of a so-called drug war, the balance will always, ultimately, lean in favor of misery and death, because there will always be plenty of gold, “brechas” and bullets to keep the war in motion.

Stay tuned….

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