ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- A gun smuggling ring run by former town officials in Columbus, N.M., had a direct link to targets of the failed ``Fast and Furious'' gun-tracking operation run by federal officials in Arizona, records show.
Federal prosecutors have sought to distance the Columbus smuggling case from the Arizona investigation, which has been the subject of a two-year congressional investigation and a battle between Republicans and Attorney General Eric Holder.
But reports obtained by the Albuquerque Journal (http://bit.ly/SgbB9U ) show federal agents were aware in early 2010 that members of the Columbus ring had been stopped by authorities a few months earlier with weapons purchased by a suspect involved in the Fast and Furious case.
That connection apparently dried up, and Columbus town trustee Blas ``Woody'' Gutierrez began buying guns himself and paying others to buy guns for him from a New Mexico dealer, according to reports the Journal obtained from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and U.S. Border Patrol. Gutierrez has pleaded guilty to gun smuggling and other charges but hasn't been sentenced.
In the Fast and Furious case, ATF agents in Phoenix allowed high-powered weapons purchased by straw buyers to ``walk'' into Mexico and had a failed plan to track and seize them. Of the 2,000 weapons purchased in Arizona, 1,400 were never recovered. Two were found where Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in a southern Arizona shootout on Dec. 15, 2010.
In the New Mexico investigation, federal agents connected more than 200 gun purchases to the Columbus ring and recovered 40 weapons, according to the Journal report. Most of the AK-47-like firearms that were recovered were seized by law enforcement in January and February 2011 shortly before the Columbus indictment.
More than a year before the indictments, Gutierrez and another convicted member of the Columbus group, Miguel Carrillo, were stopped by Border Patrol agents driving around town, the documents show.
When agents searched their vehicle on Jan. 14, 2010, they found 10 semiautomatic weapons and noted the serial numbers. The agents at that time ran the serial numbers through one law enforcement computer database but came up empty. They also found no criminal arrest warrants for Gutierrez or Carrillo, so the weapons were returned to Gutierrez.
Three months later, federal ATF agents in New Mexico wrote a report showing that three of the guns were purchased on Jan. 9, 2010, by Jaime Avila Jr. from a Phoenix-area gun shop. Their report refers to the Fast and Furious investigation by number.
Avila was convicted as a member of the gun smuggling ring in Arizona targeted in the Fast and Furious investigation. Two guns he purchased on Jan. 14, 2010, were found at the scene of Agent Terry's death.
Three other weapons found in the Gutierrez car on Jan. 10 also back to Fast and Furious.
Avila has pleaded guilty in the Fast and Furious case and awaits sentencing.
In the Columbus case, Gutierrez has pleaded guilty to 37 counts of smuggling, illegally purchasing firearms and conspiracy. His plea agreement has been sealed, and he hasn't been sentenced.
Carrillo pleaded guilty to five counts of conspiracy, smuggling and making false statements to acquire firearms. He was sentenced to 46 months.
The connection to the Columbus gun smuggling surfaced only after Gutierrez, Columbus Mayor Eddie Espinosa, police Chief Angelo Vega and their confederates were indicted in March 2011. All pleaded guilty.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, sent a letter to Alan Bersin, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, asking about the traffic stop of Gutierrez. Bersin declined to provide Grassley with any information about the case, the Journal reported.
Gutierrez began buying guns himself and paying others to buy guns for him from a gun dealer in Chaparral, N.M, according to the documents. Except for the three guns identified as coming from Arizona in January 2010, authorities say all of the guns in the 82-count indictment against the Columbus ring were purchased in New Mexico.
The Columbus operation was supplying La Linea, the security arm of the Juarez Cartel, according to the documents. The Fast and Furious gun smuggling ring in Arizona was supplying weapons to the Sinaloa Cartel, which was fighting the Juarez Cartel for control of its drug smuggling pipeline, according to federal authorities.
Mexican law enforcement recovered 12 guns traced back to Columbus- including three weapons found at the scenes of five people killed in Palomas. One of the pistols recovered in February 2011 was in Gutierrez's car during the Jan. 14, 2010, traffic stop by Border Patrol agents.
Other weapons seized in Mexico were found during narcotics raids and the site of another homicide in Juarez.
A request for comment from U.S. Attorney's Office in New Mexico was forwarded to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Texas. Spokesman Daryl Fields said there would be no comment about the Columbus investigation at this time.
Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com