ATF slow to investigate gun traffickers despite mounting evidence, report finds

A report released last week found miscommunication and a lack of urgency within the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed the guns used to murder a federal agent in 2011 across the Mexican border four months before the crime occurred.

The Office of Inspector General divulged the 118-page review of two weapons trafficking rings Wednesday, clarifying its position that it doesn’t know if earlier action from the ATF would have prevented the attack on Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents Victor Avila and Jaime Zapata six years earlier.

“We were particularly interested to know whether agents had failed to properly seize firearms destined for Mexico, since that was an issue we previously looked at with ATF’s operation Fast and Furious,” said Sean O’Neill, deputy assistant inspector general, in an interview Wednesday. “Unfortunately, we found problems with how the ATF followed up on the information it had before the Osorio purchase.”

Los Zetas gang members gunned down Avila and Zapata on a highway 200 miles north of Mexico City on Feb. 15, 2011, killing Zapata and wounding Avila. Investigators later traced one of the weapons used in the crime to Texas gun trafficker Otillo Osorio, who bought the firearm at a gun show in October 2010.

Osorio’s brother, Ranferi, and neighbor, Kelvin Morrison, were later implicated in the ring, according to the report.

“We don’t believe that it’s possible today to identify what investigative steps should have been taken at the time or precisely when arrests should have occurred,” O’Neill said. “The ATF should have been in consultation with the US attorney’s office in Dallas, obtaining advice from the prosecutors there, but our trying to specify what investigative steps should have been taken would just be too speculative, especially since we don’t know what advice a prosecutor would have given the ATF, had the ATF asked.”

Still, O’Neill said, the OIG’s investigation revealed some agents within the ATF field office in Dallas had enough evidence to question suspects in the Osorio ring as early as June 2010 — including luggage tags with Ranferi Osorio’s information found inside a duffel bag full of firearms with “obliterated” serial numbers at a seizure in Eagle Pass, Texas.

“Our review determined that ATF’s Dallas field division had collected enough information to justify questioning at least Ranferi Osorio prior to Otillo’s purchase of the firearm, but ATF agents did not interview Ranferi until months later, a delay that we found was too long,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill said the ATF also witnessed the Osorio brothers and Morrison transfer 40 firearms in November 2010, though no one was arrested at the time.

ATF agents opted against arresting the men during the transfer so as it to keep the existence of its investigation under wraps, according to the OIG review.

O’Neill said the agency “offered multiple explanations” for failing to act, “but we didn’t agree with them.”

Other excuses included an uncertainty from agents regarding Morrison’s multiple purchases — something any collector might do, therefore not warranting a full-blown investigation, according to the report.

After Zapata’s murder, ATF agents found firearms while searching the Osorio brothers’ residence, but didn’t seize them, despite the legal authority to do so, O’Neill said.

“Unfortunately, two of the firearms that were not seized ended up at a crime scene in Mexico,” he said.

Agents also failed to connect the dots between reports of suspicious multiple gun sales involving the Osorio brothers and Morrison in August, September and October 2010 and that all the firearms purchased — including the Draco 7.62-caliber pistol at the Dallas-Fort Worth gun show — “were the weapons of choice of Mexican drug cartels.”

In November 2011, the Osorio brothers and Morrison pleaded guilty to multiple charges, including making false statements to acquire firearms, conspiracy, and possession of firearms with obliterated serial numbers, according to the report. Ranferi and Ortillo Osorio received 120 months and 84 months in prison, respectively. A judge sentenced Morrison to 30 months.

Four gang members pleaded guilty to murder and other chargers in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for the shootings of Zapata and Avila and have yet to be sentenced, according to the report. Another three suspects were extradited to Washington, D.C. in 2015 and their cases remain pending.

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