Even before hundreds of guns went across the border as part of Operation Fast and Furious, an interagency communication gap had left the investigation doomed, recently released information suggests.
Unknown to the ATF agents leading the probe, the top possible targets of their investigation were working as FBI informants and were essentially "unindictable," according to congressional investigators and documents connected to the case.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives launched the investigation planning to go beyond arresting "straw buyers" and take down a whole cross-border gun-running ring. But it could never have reached its top targets, two brothers named Miramontes from the El Paso area, because they were protected "national security assets," says a Feb. 1 memo by U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
The revelation speaks to a broader issue especially pertinent in the border region, some current and former federal agents say: The area is rife with agencies working organized-crime investigations, and sometimes their interests conflict.
"Information sharing among agencies - it's ridiculous," said Brandon Judd, head of the Tucson-Sector local of the Border Patrol agents union. "People guard their intel like it's gold."
In this case, guarding information may have had fatal consequences for a Southern Arizona Border Patrol agent. Brian Terry was killed on Dec. 14, 2010, west of Rio Rico in a gunfight with bandits, at least two of whom were armed with weapons bought by a low-level target of Operation Fast and Furious in January 2010.
During the investigation, ATF agents allowed straw buyers in the Phoenix area to buy and transfer up to about 2,000 weapons intended for Mexican criminal groups.
Terry's family spoke out in a statement issued Wednesday:
"Could have been avoided"
"One can only imagine that if the FBI, DEA and U.S. attorney personnel had only shared their information with ATF agents that the Miramontes brothers were FBI informants, then the entire Fast and Furious debacle could have been avoided," the statement says.
Operation Fast and Furious began in October 2009, as agents in the ATF's Phoenix office started tracking people they suspected of being straw purchasers - that is, people who used their own clean backgrounds to buy weapons for criminal groups.
But in December that year, Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Phoenix realized they and the ATF were targeting the same person, Manuel Celis-Acosta, in separate investigations.
ATF agents viewed Celis-Acosta as the ringleader of a growing group of straw buyers monitored in Operation Fast an Furious, a man who would make requests for firearms and provide the money to buy them. DEA agents said he had also come up in a drug-trafficking case they were working on in Phoenix using a wiretap.
ATF and DEA agents met in Phoenix on Dec. 15 that year to discuss their investigations and emerged with an agreement to cooperate in the wiretap probe. What ATF didn't learn is that the men Celis-Acosta answered to were the Miramontes brothers from the El Paso area, says a memo by Issa and Grassley, who are leading a congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious.
In a March 14, 2012, letter to Issa and Grassley, the attorney for David Voth, the ATF supervisor who oversaw the operation, alleges that DEA deliberately withheld that connection at the Dec. 15, 2009, meeting.
DEA did "inform the FBI of that link, but neither the DEA nor the FBI informed the ATF of that link," wrote attorney Joshua Levy.
Neither FBI nor DEA spokespeople responded to requests for comment.
As it was, ATF agents didn't learn the identity of Celis-Acosta's superiors, the Miramontes brothers, until they indicted Celis-Acosta and brought him in for questioning in January 2011. The news dismayed agents.
James Needles, then the assistant special agent in charge of ATF's Phoenix office, described the discovery that their targets were FBI informants as "a major disappointment," says the memo by Issa and Grassley.
Celis-Acosta is fighting the charges against him as well as the disclosures made by the congressional investigation, said his attorney, Adrian Fontes.
"Congressman Issa and Senator Grassley would rather score political points than uphold the principles of the Constitution," Fontes said.
In the border region, such overlapping investigations are common, as an alphabet soup of agencies - ICE, FBI, CBP, DEA, ATF, etc. - investigate drug traffickers, people smugglers, gun runners and money launderers, say present and retired federal agents.
"As you're working toward a higher level, it's inevitable that you're going to run across another agency's interests or investigations," said Tony Coulson, who headed the Tucson DEA office until his retirement in 2010. "That's a good thing. It means we're on the right track."
Generally, when agencies find they are investigating the same people, or investigating another agency's informants, they are able to meet and come up with a satisfactory way forward, he said.
"It almost always works out," Coulson said, though he noted that, "Sometimes folks aren't happy."
Another retired border agent, Terry Nelson, says the Fast and Furious debacle underscores a deeper problem. Nelson, who retired in 2005 after long stints in the Customs Service and Border Patrol, said these sorts of conflicts are inherent parts of the way the United States fights drugs.
The agencies know they can't actually "win" the drug war, so they often fight for "attaboys" and "gold stars," even if it means acing out another agency, said Nelson, who now acts as a spokesman for a group called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
"The whole thing is absurd," Nelson said.
On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border
CHronology of a doomed investigation
October 2009: ATF launches Operation Fast and Furious, an investigation of people buying guns in the Phoenix area for criminal groups in Mexico.
December 2009: DEA and ATF agents meet to discuss a shared target of different investigations, Manuel Celis-Acosta, but don't share that his superiors were working as FBI informants.
January 2010: Investigative target Jaime Avila buys three AK-47 style rifles from Lone Wolf Trading Co. in Glendale.
December 2010: U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry is shot and killed west of Rio Rico by a group of bandits, and two of the rifles bought by Avila are found at the scene.
January 2011: Operation Fast and Furious ends with the indictment of 20 people and numerous arrests. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley begins investigating an ATF whistle-blower's claim that agents allowed hundreds of weapons loose during the investigation.
February 2011: Celis-Acosta is arrested, and ATF agents are disappointed to learn that the people they suspect are his "cartel contacts" are working as protected FBI informants.
Contact reporter Tim Steller at 807-8427 or email@example.com