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Narcosphere: Texas Case Raises Troubling Questions About ATF GunwalkingBill Conroy Special to Salem-News.com
Rio Grande Valley Businessman Was The Target of Multiple Arms-Trafficking Investigations Yet He Continued To Acquire Guns Through Straw Buyers.
(LAS CRUCES, NM Narcosphere) - A series of criminal investigations initiated some four years ago by ATF agents, all focused on a weapons-trafficking ring in South Texas, appear to shred the long-running talking point that the Obama Administration alone is responsible for unleashing an irresponsible operation that allowed thousands of illegally purchased guns to be trafficked into Mexico via a tactic known as “gunwalking.”
That Obama Administration operation, dubbed Fast and Furious, was launched in the fall of 2009 and terminated in early 2011 in the wake of a Republican-led Congressional probe into the program.
The ATF investigations in the South Texas case were initiated at least by August 2008, more than a year prior to Fast and Furious and while President George W. Bush was still in office. It was under the Obama Administration, in late December 2011, that the investigations were finally closed with a jury conviction of the primary suspect.
The South Texas case, then, straddles two administrations and, by any reasonable assessment, also appears to have allowed numerous illegally purchased guns to “walk” (to pass through the weapons-trafficking chain, from one illegal buyer to the next, during the course of a long-running ATF investigation).
The South Texas arms-trafficking case casts a whole new light on the gunwalking controversy, revealing it to be a tactic employed by ATF and sanctioned by US prosecutors across multiple administrations and states — a tactic that is more emblematic of a drug war-induced systemic rot in this nation’s judicial system than of a political ploy to erode gun rights.
Celerino Castillo pulled into a Whataburger fast-food restaurant parking lot near the border city of Pharr, Texas, on Feb. 16, 2008, and turned over to Manuel Tijerina Herrera several guns purchased earlier that day in Central Texas.
Tijerina Herrera (known by the nickname Meme) was driving a Chevy four-door truck with paper license plates that day. The transaction was witnessed by two federal agents (one from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and the other with ATF) who were assigned to clandestinely set up surveillance on Castillo and who had followed him from the Austin area to Pharr on Feb. 16, 2008, observing his activities and gun purchases.
Two of the weapons delivered to Tijerina Herrera were bought at a gun show in Austin, Texas, by an individual named Jay Lemire, who had signed on as an ATF informant. Lemire, according to an ATF criminal complaint and surveillance report obtained by Narco News, had purchased the weapons from a gun-show salesman who worked for a registered federal firearms dealer. That salesman, however, ATF records show, was a convicted felon and, under federal law, should not even have been permitted to handle a firearm.
The feds deemed the transaction an illegal “straw purchase,” because Lemire indicated on the firearms-purchase paperwork that he was acquiring the guns for himself — when, in fact, the ATF complaint argues, he planned to turn them over to Castillo.
Because Lemire was working as an informant, however, his act of lawbreaking had been cleared by ATF and the whole operation was designed to sting Castillo, a former DEA agent with no prior criminal record — and also a well-known whistleblower who, some three decades ago, had helped to expose CIA arms-for-drugs transshipments that were part of the US effort to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua during the Iran-Contra era.
Castillo, according to his federal court pleadings, had no reason to suspect the weapons transactions — either the one with Lemire, or later, with Tijerina Herrera — were illegal, because neither individual, at the time, was a convicted felon or otherwise prohibited from owning or selling firearms. Still, Castillo’s gun-trading activities that day would become part of the ATF complaint that led to his arrest several weeks later, on March 6, 2008, and his eventual conviction on gun charges.
Castillo’s case, marked by allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and charges that his lawyer (now disbarred) was incompetent, has been the subject of several Narco News stories. [Those stories can be found at this link.]
However, what has not been reported previously is the fact that, “Meme” Tijerina Herrera, the person Castillo delivered the guns to in February 2008 at a Whataburger near Pharr, Texas, has had numerous run-ins with the law over the years. In addition, Tijerina Herrera was the subject of several ATF investigations, court records show, that were in motion for years — and ultimately led to his conviction on serious gun charges late last year.
Castillo has previously claimed that he dabbled in gun purchases and sales as a hobby and because it was “fun,” but insists that he was not aware, prior to his arrest, that any of the people he dealt with on that level, including Tijerina Herrera, had past legal problems. In fact, Tijerina Herrera was seemingly a successful businessman in the McAllen area and operated several establishments, including Klub Infinity, El Tiburon restaurant and the Palmas Sports Club.
Nor, it seems, was the ATF agent who spearheaded Tijerina Herrera’s arrest in April 2010 aware of his agency’s other investigations targeting Tijerina Herrera, court records indicate.
But on Feb. 16, 2008, it appears clear that in the haste to build a case against Castillo, the federal agents conducting the surveillance on him allowed the guns he delivered to Tijerina Herrera to “walk” — in other words, the weapons were allowed to leave the Whataburger-exchange site while the federal agents were conducting surveillance.
Court records also indicate that from mid-2008 (maybe earlier) — the point at which Tijerina Herrera first became the subject of an ATF investigation — until late April 30, 2010, when he was finally arrested by ATF agents, dozens of guns were purchased by “straw” buyers and delivered to Tijerina Herrera absent ATF intervention. Some of those weapons, based on questions asked by the judge and prosecutor at a detention hearing in Tijerina Herrera’s case, were suspected of winding up in the hands of narco-traffickers in Mexico, while others, according to a 2011 press release issued by the government, “were being trafficked and used or possessed for another felony offense.”
Fast and Furious
The ATF case against “Meme” Tijerina Herrera played out during the tail end of the Bush Administration, with his arrest coming during the mid-point of the Obama administration — and just prior to the firestorm ignited by Congressional Republicans over ATF’s Fast and Furious operation in Phoenix, Ariz.
Under Fast and Furious, ATF agents and federal prosecutors assigned to the operation stand accused of allowing some 2,000 weapons purchased by straw buyers to walk — with many of those guns finding their way to the Sinaloa narco-trafficking organization in Mexico, helping to expand the murder rate in that nation’s bloody drug war.
The supposed strategy behind the gun-walking tactic was to allow straw buyers to continue making illegal gun purchases through gun stores and other venues so the flow of arms could be traced back to major traffickers, thereby building evidence for making federal cases against those “kingpins.” A recent story published by Fortune also advances a counter-theory to explain the gun walking: Federal prosecutors in Arizona were reluctant to bring cases against the straw buyers due to a lack of evidence and criminal penalties, leaving ATF little choice but to let the straw buyers walk.
Regardless, the end result is that ATF kept working the cases, for months, even as more and more guns, at least 2,000 ultimately, were walked away by the straw buyers and later found their way through the black market into Mexico.
The whole operation came to a screeching halt after a couple of those Fast and Furious weapons were found at the crime scene of a murdered Border Patrol agent in Arizona in December 2010. That discovery set off a national firestorm in the gun-rights community and prompted US Sen. Charles Grassley and US. Rep. Darrell Issa, both Republicans, to launch a Congressional investigation into Fast and Furious — which most recently led to contempt of Congress charges being leveled against President Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, for his alleged failure to turn over post-Fast and Furious documents to congressional investigators.
Tijerina Herrera’s case takes on significance in that light because it seems to offer proof that ATF’s tactic of allowing guns to walk in investigations extends beyond Arizona and was in use across at least two presidential administrations. Much of the suspected gun-walking in Tijerina Herrera’s case pre-dates the Fast and Furious operation (launched in the fall of 2009) and also occurred after a similar Bush-era program in Arizona that employed gun walking, called Wide Receiver — which was shut down in 2007, a year after its start.
The surveillance report and criminal complaint in the Castillo case raise serious questions as to why the ATF and ICE agents who tailed Castillo on Feb. 16, 2008, chose not to seize the guns sooner — for example, right after the informant Lemire handed the guns off to Castillo in the parking lot of Cabela’s gun store in Buda, Texas. Instead, the agents followed Castillo for hundreds of miles, as he drove south toward the border, and then watched him hand off the guns to Tijerina Herrera, in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant. And then they let the guns go untouched, yet the ATF agent swearing out the complaint against Castillo used that transaction at the Whataburger as part of the evidence against Castillo.
This story continues, visit this link with The Narcosphere to continue reading.
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