GUN CONTROL

The Mexican general who trafficked military weapons and got away with it

An internal investigation in 2012 revealed that José Luis Ramón Velasco Guillén had sold at least 86 weapons to private buyers, but the case against him was eventually shelved

A Mexican soldier stands guard in La Morita, Sonora.
A Mexican soldier stands guard in La Morita, Sonora.Luis Gutierrez / Getty Images

Mexican Army Brigadier-General José Luis Ramón Velasco Guillén, who served as the director general of the Federal Registry of Firearms and Explosives Control during Felipe Calderón’s six-year presidential term (2006-12), trafficked weapons that had been donated to the Secretariat of National Defense (Sedena), according to an internal investigation.

In 2012, the Inspection and Comptroller General’s Office of the Army and Air Force, which supervises and audits all administrative and operative aspects of armed forces personnel, opened a probe that revealed the official had illicitly obtained at least 86 weapons handed to Sedena by two collectors. These arms were kept in the general’s office instead of being stored at the department in charge of buying and selling weapons and ammunition. Later, Velasco Guillén sold them to other members of Sedena and to a private collector who was subsequently linked by the authorities to organized crime. Despite the Comptroller finding evidence of disorganization, negligence and a lack of discipline during the general’s mandate, he was given only a reprimand. A military tribunal initiated a criminal case on charges of fraud, but in August 2014 it was shelved.

Various anomalies that occurred during Velasco’s administration were belatedly detected by Sedena. In a report compiled by an army inspection and audit commission, which falls under the remit of the Comptroller, it was determined that the officers in charge of the different sections of the Federal Registry had facilitated documentation to permit holders without going through the proper process, in favor of certain people and businesses. In the manufacturing and marketing section, for example, permits were issued for the purchase of weapons, cartridges and accessories without the applicants meeting the necessary requirements. “Some of the applicants claimed to belong to a hunting clubs and presented documents backing this. However, when the reports were checked with the clubs in question it was found they were not members and so it is assumed the permits were issued in exchange for gifts or on orders from a superior,” the report states. The military investigators mention a business that despite being involved in a number of irregularities in its activities had never been fined or had its permits suspended or revoked. “It is presumed that those in charge of verifying their monthly reports did not report the irregularities [the company] committed due to having some agreement with the legal representative or indeed through negligence.”

In the Comptroller’s audit it was found that Velasco’s office failed to carry out pertinent checks on those who had been issued permits as private arms collectors. In some cases, these permits were still valid even thought the renewal fees remained unpaid. “There are permit holders with individual licenses that have not been renewed, suspended or canceled,” the report states. In the case of the hunting clubs, various permits that were suspended or revoked still appeared as being valid in the archives of the Federal Registry. It was also found that some private security firms, who offer bodyguard and protection services for specialist transportation companies, did not hold valid firearms permits. Nonetheless, these companies have not been investigated or required to regularize their situation.

The general’s associates

National Guard officers and members of the National Army during an operation in Guanajuato.
National Guard officers and members of the National Army during an operation in Guanajuato. Monica Gonzalez

In 2012 the Comptroller carried out an audit of the documentation for the issue of a permit for a collection identified as Number 45. During this inspection it was found that General Velasco had given “incorrect” orders to a subordinate to pick up weapons from a private collection that had been donated to Sedena. Following several interviews with Federal Registry personnel, it was determined there had been a series of omissions and acts of negligence orchestrated by the general.

Captain César Abel Batres Ortiz, who served as a section chief at the registry, told military investigators that on July 15, 2011, the executor of a deceased collector arrived at the general’s offices to donate 60 weapons. Velasco ordered Ortiz to arrange a visit to the donor’s house. The following day, the captain arrived at the collector’s residence where he verified and took possession of the donated arms. These were then transported in an official vehicle to the general’s office, instead of being taken for storage at Sedena.

In August 2011, the general asked Ortiz if he knew any private arms collectors. The captain introduced him to Víctor Manuel Ríos López, who had been recommended by Gabriel Ábrego García, a former member of Federal Registry personnel who had helped him with paperwork down the years. Later that month the general hosted Ríos López at his office, where he showed the collector the arms that Ortiz had picked up. “The aforementioned general then said that he wanted 150,000 pesos for the weapons, to which the collector replied he would come back for them,” Ortiz told the investigation. A few days after his meeting with the general, Ríos López returned for the weapons and Ortiz helped load them into his car. Velasco then asked the captain to go with Ríos López and collect the money for the sale of the arms. When he arrived, he was handed an envelope with the 150,000 pesos. “The general told him to take a “ten” of this money, without him knowing what was being referred to, but he didn’t take any amount and gave the envelope to the general,” a court report issued after Ortiz filed an injunction reads.

Four months after the transaction, in December 2011, Ríos López called Ortiz again to tell him that several pieces from his collection had been stolen. According to the legal documents seen by EL PAÍS, the captain suggested Ríos López report the theft to the Public Prosecutors’ Office to protect himself from any illegal use the arms may be involved in, as they were registered in his name. While he was making his statement to the judicial authorities, Ríos López mentioned that he had purchased part of his collection from a general. This piqued the suspicion of the police, who ordered a search of his house. This uncovered various weapons, some of which were not registered with the Federal authorities. The investigation was expanded and soon reached the upper echelons of the Federal Registry of Firearms. In May 2012, details of the case started to be made public. The Mexican daily Reforma reported that the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) had arrested Ríos López on charges of carrying unlicensed arms and that the general and Captain Ortiz were also under investigation.

The case took an unexpected turn last month when the Federal Police announced the arrest of Ábrego García, who had been operating as an arms trafficker for La Resistencia, a gang of enforcers working for a criminal consortium including La Familia Michoacana, the Milenio Cartel and the Gulf Cartel, according to a statement. Prosecutors had been tapping Ábrego’s communications for several months and discovered a series of calls to Víctor Manuel Ríos López and one to Captain Batres Ortiz. As part of the investigation the PGR interviewed Ortiz, who told them about the arms the general had sold to Ríos López. The authorities tried to link Velasco to the sale of weapons to criminal organizations but were unable to do so, according to the documents consulted. A federal judge decided that the evidence presented by the PGR was insufficient to demonstrate a crime had been committed.

Sedena also launched its own inquiries. Military prosecutors opened an investigation into General Velasco and Captain Ortiz, but after two years it was shelved in 2014 by the public prosecutor due to a lack of “merit to prosecute,” according to a document provided to this newspaper by Sedena under transparency law. However, the investigation is still open in the administrative sphere. EL PAÍS contacted Sedena for an update on the status of the case against General Velasco Guillén but had not received a reply at time of publication.

Arms sales between military personnel

Military officers from Sedena on patrol in La Paz, Mexico.
Military officers from Sedena on patrol in La Paz, Mexico.Alfredo Martinez / Getty Images

The Ríos López case was not the only instance when General Velasco made improper use of the arms under his protection. On September 22, 2011, another collector asked that his permit be revoked and the weapons in his possession be placed on consignment for public sale. A colonel from the engineer corps was assigned to pick up the 66 guns at the collector’s home. A week later the Federal Registry under Velasco’s command sent 40 weapons to the Directorate of Military Industry to remain on consignment for sale through the authorized channels. What happened to the rest of the collector’s arms was unknown. A while later it was discovered they had been sold illegally with the general’s consent. During interviews carried out by the Comptroller’s investigators, a captain of engineers, a clerical lieutenant and a first sergeant said they had acquired weapons stored in the general’s quarters. “The engineer captain said that he acquired two firearms from the collection through the brigadier-general, paying the aforementioned general for the weapons,” the report states. Another clerk said that Velasco had shown him 30 weapons he had for sale. She told her brother, who in turn alerted a lieutenant who ended up buying four guns from the collection.

In the Comptroller’s ruling against Velasco, it was concluded that he had abused his position as the directorate under his command was not authorized to sell arms, munitions or explosives to private buyers. Sales of weapons arriving at the Federal Registry are only authorized through the Arms and Ammunition Marketing directorate, which reports only to the Directorate of Military Industry, beyond Velasco’s area of influence. “The general authorized the sale of firearms in question, overstepping his powers and responsibilities as a public servant of the Federal Registry of Firearms and Explosives Control, and as such the aforementioned public servant failed to comply with the principles of efficiency, lawfulness, honor and loyalty,” the Comptroller’s report summed up.

After studying the evidence and witness statements compiled by the investigation it was concluded that the general held clear administrative responsibility. “Existence of this conduct was accredited in the sense of carrying out acts that constitute abuse of his position and the use of the powers attributed to him for the performance of his duties for a different purpose,” the report stated. On September 3, 2014, the Comptroller issued a reprimand as it considered that Velasco’s actions did not constitute serious offenses. The general is now retired, with a monthly pension of 77,106 pesos ($3,725 or €3,140). His subordinate, Captain Ortiz, faced no punishment after the conclusion of the investigation.

English version by Rob Train.

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