Federal agents on the Southwestern border missed several chances to arrest a suspected arms smuggler providing weapons to Mexican drug cartels, a Department of Justice investigation has concluded.
The report, released Thursday by the Justice Department’s inspector general, finds “a pattern of serious failures and inadequate consideration of the public safety” that allowed suspected smuggler Jean Baptiste Kingery to cross the border with thousands of grenade parts and other weapons purchased in the U.S. and bound for the Mexican cartels.
The report also criticizes the Justice Department to failing to cooperate with other law enforcement agencies and resisting the filing of criminal charges.
The inspector general said that attempts by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents to follow Kingery’s movements were similar to tactics the agency used in its botched Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation.
Agents secretly marked the grenade parts that Kingery was preparing to buy so they could be traced. But agents eventually lost track of the weapons, as was the case with thousands of illegal firearms that were allowed to be sold to smugglers in Arizona in the Fast and Furious scandal.
“The Kingery investigation suffered from flaws that we also observed in Operation Fast and Furious,” Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz said. “Kingery should have been arrested and charged with violating the Arms Export Control Act.”
Both cases suffered from inadequate resources, poor supervision and insufficient oversight from ATF headquarters and federal prosecutors, Horowitz said. He said agents and prosecutors “failed to insist” on arresting Kingery “when there was sufficient evidence to do so.”
It ultimately fell to Mexican authorities to capture Kingery in August 2011. He is being prosecuted for violating that country’s organized crime laws. Earlier that year, several of his grenade components were recovered after a gunfight between Mexican soldiers and a drug cartel in Colima, Mexico.
Deputy Atty. Gen. James M. Cole said in a letter to Horowitz that the Justice department “shares many” of the inspector genera's concerns that the Kingery investigation “appears to have suffered from the same flawed approach” as Fast and Furious. The department, Cole said, is “taking decisive, extensive action to address these flaws.” He added that they are working on improving cooperation between various border-area agencies.
ATF agents first sought to arrest Kingery after he reportedly made false statements about the 2008 purchase of seven AK-47 assault rifles. But federal prosecutors declined to prosecute because the guns were never recovered and could have been bought by someone else.
A year later, agents again wanted to arrest Kingery after finding drugs and four assault rifles at his mother’s home in Yuma, Ariz. Kingery was hiding under a pile of clothes. Again, he was not charged because prosecutors did not believe they could prove the weapons and drugs were his.
Agents continued to track his movements and set up a potential sting by marking grenade components before he purchased them. In June 2010, he was stopped by Border Patrol agents in Arizona. Found hidden in his spare tire were 114 grenade hulls, 114 grenade fuses and more than 2,500 rounds of ammunition.
But ATF and Border Patrol agents argued over whether he should be arrested and charged, and which agency should handle the case. At times, the argument became “heated,” the inspector general said. One witness thought it sounded “like two gangs” going at it, the report finds.
Finally ATF agents thought they could turn Kingery into an informant. Prosecutors partially based their decision to not file charges on the hope that Kingery would become a cooperating witness. Agreeing to work with them the next day, Kingery was released. He absconded, and ATF agents lost track of him. He did not turn up again until his arrest the following year in Mexico.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who chaired the House investigation into Fast and Furious, on Thursday said the Kingery debacle “allowed a dangerous individual to remain free and continue his criminal activities, placing public safety at risk on both sides of the border.”