By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
When Uriel Patino walked into a Glendale, Ariz., gun store last August and placed an order for 20 handguns, federal gun agents already knew the 25-year-old man as the most prolific figure in a trafficking ring that was supplying hundreds of guns to Mexico’s brutal Sinoloa drug cartel, according to federal court documents and congressional investigators.
In the prior 10 months, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced 673 area gun purchases to the Phoenix resident, congressional investigators found.
Now, Patino was back for more. And the ATF, eager for the young suspect to lead them to a bigger fish in the rich trafficking ring, was more than happy to oblige, despite concerns raised by the local gun store.
Alarmed by the size of Patino’s August request, the dealer, who was cooperating with federal investigators, asked the ATF whether a special order for the weapons should be placed because there were only four in stock.”Our guidance is that we would like you to go through with Mr. Patino’s request and order the additional firearms,” ATF Supervisor David Voth wrote the dealer in an Aug. 25 e-mail.
Even though agents knew then that guns allegedly purchased by Patino had been showing up at crime scenes in Mexico and the USA, Patino was allowed to walk away that day.
Before he was arrested in January, congressional investigators estimate that he purchased at least 720 firearms, 157 of which fell into the hands of Mexican drug cartel enforcers or other criminals on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.
Patino’s alleged activities account for more than a third of an estimated 2,000 weapons purchased as part of the ATF’s controversial gun-trafficking investigation, known as Operation Fast and Furious.
And while top ATF and Justice Department officials now struggle to explain to a congressional committee how the failed investigation had gone so wrong, federal court records of Patino’s alleged buying sprees provide an unusual view into an operation that several ATF whistle-blowers said shredded the agency’s investigative rules and may have cost the life of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
The Phoenix-based operation was shut down last December when two weapons purchased by another suspect in the inquiry were recovered at the scene of a shootout near the Arizona-Mexico border where U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed.
The gun involved in Terry’s killing has not yet been identified.”
ATF agents allowed weapons to be provided to individuals whom they knew would traffic them to members of Mexican drug-trafficking organizations,” ATF Supervisory Special Agent Peter Forcelli recently told members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
For months during the operation, which began in 2009, ATF Agent John Dodson told the House panel that he and fellow agents were regularly ordered to abandon surveillance of suspicious gun purchases, “knowing all the while that just days after these purchases, the guns that we saw these individuals buy would begin turning up at crime scenes in the United States and Mexico.
“Much of that surveillance, according to the agents and House committee investigative reports, was centered on Uriel Patino.Indeed, Patino was so active that within days after the ATF investigation was opened that agents created a special file to record his purchases, said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House panel, is leading the congressional inquiry into the ATF’s activities.
“In the first 24 days (in 2009) that the ATF was on to him, Patino bought 34 guns from dealers cooperating with the ATF,” Grassley recently told the House committee.
Charged with 22 weapons-related counts, including dealing firearms without a license, false statements and money laundering, Patino is free pending trial.
His attorney, Eugene Marquez, did not respond to requests for comment.
Federal court documents describe Patino as the busiest operative in a smuggling ring that involved 19 other purchasers, known as “straw-buyers.” P
rized for clean criminal records that make them eligible to purchase weapons in the USA, the buyers are typically paid fees to purchase weapons on behalf of the traffickers.
In one 12-day stretch in March 2010, prosecutors allege, Patino purchased 72 AK-47 assault weapons.
Adding to the suspicious nature of the purchases, prosecutors noted that all of them were done at one gun dealer: the Lone Wolf Trading Company in Glendale, Ariz.
A Lone Wolf representative declined to comment.
Within days of Patino’s purchases, according to House committee records, the guns were showing up at crime scenes and in weapons caches seized in the U.S. and Mexico.
So far, 99 guns allegedly purchased by Patino have been recovered in the U.S., and 58 have been seized in Mexico, according to committee records.
As one of the agents assigned to the ATF’s operation and who later helped expose its risky nature to the public, Dodson also was among the agents who detailed Patino’s frequent visits to Arizona gun stores.
“ATF is supposed to be the sheepdog that protects against the wolves that prey on our southern border,” Dodson told the committee in recent testimony, “but rather than meet the wolf head-on, we sharpened its teeth and added number to its claws. All the while, we sat idly by watching, tracking and noting as it became a more efficient killer.”
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