Federal agents missed a chance to pursue men connected to the shooting death of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in 2011 and improperly released another man involved in trafficking one of the weapons linked to the shooting, according to an inspector general’s report released Wednesday.
The report from the Justice Department’s office of inspector general found that while agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives did not witness the unlawful transfer of firearms and fail to seize them, they missed a chance to seize guns from brothers Otilio and Ranferi Osorio after the fact.
The Osorios, as well as Robert Riendfliesh and a neighbor, Kelvin Morrison, ultimately were arrested in connection with a Feb. 15, 2011, shooting that killed ICE agent Jaime Zapata and seriously wounded ICE agent Victor Avila. Members of the Zetas drug trafficking gang opened fire on their vehicle about 200 miles north of Mexico City.
Traces of firearms recovered in subsequent arrests revealed that Otilio Osorio had bought a firearm at a Dallas-Fort Worth gun show in October 2010 and that Riendfliesh bought a gun at a Texas pawnshop in August 2010.
Authorities linked both weapons to the shooting and arrested the Osorios, Riendfliesh and Morrison after ATF finished tracing the guns on Feb. 25, 2011.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, was one of several lawmakers who asked the inspector general to probe the circumstances of the shooting. He said events documented in the report “look all too familiar and seem to be part of a pattern of recklessness that failed to recognize the consequences of allowing firearms to get in the hands of the cartels.”
Zapata’s parents and Mr. Avila have sued the federal government, ATF agents and ICE supervisors over the attack. In the pending lawsuit, they allege negligence by ICE supervisors who sent the men on a risky trip through a region that the U.S. Embassy in Mexico had warned people to avoid. They also blame ATF agents who supervised the Fast and Furious gun-running operation for developing “high-risk tactics [including allowing firearms dealers to sell to straw buyers] … that made these tragic consequences inevitable.”
Magdalena Villalobos, the lawyer representing Mr. Avila in the case, said Wednesday that she was reviewing the inspector general’s report for any new information that might support her client’s claims. Given the in-depth investigations already conducted by the legal team, she said, she wasn’t anticipating any bombshells but hoped the findings could provide momentum in the case.
“It’s a little bit stagnant, and I’m hoping this will help in some regard to get it moving,” Ms. Villalobos said.
According to the inspector general’s report, ATF’s Dallas field division collected enough information before Otilio Osorio’s October 2010 purchase to justify questioning Ranferi Osorio and Morrison or to take steps “within a reasonable time” about other gun purchases and possible trafficking.
While the report backs away from suggesting what investigative steps should have been taken or when arrests should have been made, it notes that inspector general investigators “believe that there clearly was probable cause to arrest both Osorio brothers and Morrison after ATF witnessed the Osorios complete a transfer of 40 firearms on November 9, 2010.”
The ATF’s first contact with the Osorios and Morrison did not happen until late February 2011, and the report states that an ATF supervisor “was not sufficiently proactive” in pursuing leads about Ranferi Osorio and Morrison.
“We did not agree with explanations that ATF offered for this delay,” the report said, including one that the ATF was waiting on guidance from the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The report also states that agents failed to seize firearms during a search of the Osorios’ house shortly after the Zapata and Avila shootings. Two of those guns later were recovered at a crime scene in Mexico.
In a statement issued Wednesday, the ATF acknowledged that it “lacked sufficiently robust oversight of policy and certain operations” at the time of the shooting.
“Since that time, ATF has implemented substantial enhancements to its policies and has markedly improved leadership, training, communication, accountability and operational oversight,” said spokeswoman Amanda Hils.
The Justice Department’s inspector general said it wasn’t recommending improvements in the report because recommendations stemming from the Fast and Furious scheme were sufficient.
Ms. Hils said ATF “recognizes that the report contains valuable lessons on the need for continual focus on effective internal and external communications to ensure investigative leads are promptly evaluated and pursued.”
She declined to comment on any bearing the report could have on the pending lawsuit.
The report also said there were “serious deficiencies” with the DEA’s and an assistant U.S. attorney’s handling of the case of Manuel Barba, who had been released from federal custody in Texas in July 2010 and directed the straw purchase and trafficking of the Riendfliesh gun to Mexico after his release.
It said Barba should not have been released from federal custody after pleading in a drug case because the lead DEA agent investigating him wrongly dismissed statements about trafficking AK-47s and failed to highlight them.
It also said, though, that inspectors did not find any actions agents failed to take in the investigations that led to the arrests of Barba and Riendfliesh that could have reasonably prevented the trafficking of that firearm.
In addition to those arrested in connection with firearms trafficking, authorities have arrested and charged seven men in connection with carrying out the 2011 attack. Four men have pleaded guilty, and a trial for the remaining men is scheduled for July.
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