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
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
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.
The funeral of a Roma man killed while in Czech police custody was held over the weekend. Stanislav Tomáš died after a Czech police officer kneeled on his neck, in scenes reminiscent of the murder of George Floyd by a US police officer in Minneapolis. Tomáš passed away 19 June, while being rushed to the hospital. The police have denied wrongdoing.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) confirmed on Sunday that Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) has been appointed to serve on the US House-approved select committee probing the January 6 attack on the US Capitol building. This move comes days after Pelosi rejected two out of five GOP recommendations from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
“Some Republicans have been saying … that the GOP should play ball on this committee. You could get the three,” a reporter asked in reference to Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL), Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) and Troy Nehls (R-TX).
All three lawmakers received Pelosi’s approval for appointment, but they were ultimately held back by McCarthy, who demanded the House Speaker also appoint Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jim Banks (R-IN). Pelosi has asserted that Jordan and Banks would endanger the probe’s “integrity.”
McCarthy brushed the reporter’s suggestion aside, arguing that Cheney and Kinzinger are the only House Republicans who would “play ball” in an effort for the commission to have a bipartisan quorum.
“Who is that, Adam [Kinzinger] and Liz [Cheney]?” he floated. “Arent they kinda, like, Pelosi Republicans?”
“We’ve got very serious business here. We have important work to do,” she asserted to reporters on Monday.
Both Cheney and Kinzinger are slated to meet up with their Democratic colleagues for their first select committee meeting on Tuesday. The group’s first witness is also expected to make an appearance.
Presently, Democrats on the 13-member group include Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the select committee, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Adam Schiff (D-CA), Pete Aguilar (D-CA), Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Elaine Luria (D-VA). Kinzinger and Cheney are the sole GOP lawmakers assigned to the committee.
McCarthy has maintained that Pelosi is pursuing a “sham process” by rejecting Jordan and Banks from the select committee.
U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) announces the withdrawal of his nominees to serve on the special committee probing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, as two of the Republican nominees, Reps’ Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jim Banks (R-IN), standby during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 21, 2021
“Speaker Pelosi’s rejection of the Republican nominees to serve on the committee and self-appointment of members who share her preconceived narrative will not yield a serious investigation,” McCarthy wrote on Sunday, shortly after Pelosi announced Kinzinger’s appointment. “The Speaker has structured this select committee to satisfy her political objectives. She had months to work with Republicans on a reasonable and fair approach to get answers on the events and security failures surrounding January 6.”
Republicans have also argued that the investigation should focus on why the US Capitol was not properly secured on January 6, despite reports claiming law enforcement had information leading up to the attack.
“The U.S. Capitol and the men and women who protect it suffered a massive leadership failure. We must make sure that never happens again,” the House Minority Leader noted on Sunday, claiming the GOP will carry out its own probe on the deadly riot.
On the wide, flat plain of the Sinjar district of northern Iraq, Naif Khalaf Qassim lets his dog, an eight-year-old Belgian shepherd, range across the dry earth on a 30-metre leash until Branco stops and sits, tail wagging, looking towards his handler with enthusiasm.
Branco has detected something underground and, when the mine-clearing team is brought in to investigate, they find an improvised explosive device (IED), known locally as a VS500.
It is about 30cm (1ft) wide, with a plastic casing and a central pressure pad. The VS500 is not the name Islamic State give the device; no one knows that. All that is certain is that it is one of thousands produced when the terror group held sway over this part of Iraq and commandeered plastics factories in their Mosul base, forcing the workers to make souped-up versions of the Italian-made VS50 landmine.
A VS50 could fit on the palm of your hand, and contains about 100g of explosives. The deminers call this type of mine the VS500 because it is 10 times the size and packed with up to 15kg (33lb) of explosives. The pressure pad is sensitive enough for a child to activate, even through 30cm of packed earth. The explosion can take out an armoured vehicle.
Branco is trained to sniff ahead in a controlled manner and stop if he gets a scent – so he doesn’t tread on the mine. Belgian and German shepherds are used because they are most adept at distinguishing scents.
“I knew Branco would find the IED,” says Naif proudly. “I believe in him and his abilities; I know him and what he can do. He is more of a friend to me than a dog.”
Four years ago, Iraqi forces managed to take the last stronghold that Isis had left in the country, the city and surroundings of Tal Afar. The Iraqi flag was raised on the historic Ottoman citadel at the heart of the city, and the militia was pushed into Syria.
The war might have appeared over by late August 2017, but retreating Isis forces seeded the towns, villages and countryside in that area of Sinjar with IEDs, and the job of clearing them is still far from done.
But it is moving at a much faster pace, thanks to the introduction of the small sniffer dog team, including Branco, and his handler, Naif, 35.
Mine-detection dogs are not new – the British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has been working across northern Iraq for three decades. In the year from June 2020 to June 2021 the Iraqi dog team has found and destroyed 3,540 landmines and explosive remnants of war, including 670 improvised mines and 148 other improvised devices.
Now MAG has embarked on a specific programme to better detect the explosives used by Isis and other non-state groups.
Dogs are usually trained to sniff out explosives, mainly TNT, but the IED dogs take this a step further. Trained in Bosnia-Herzegovina, their noses are attuned to rubber, metal and batteries as well.
This is key where explosives are often improvised from domestic items such as pots and kettles, with detonators and batteries. Training dogs to focus on a wider range of scents allows for more opportunities to detect anomalies below the surface.
The new four-strong dog team (with two more on their way from Bosnia-Herzegovina) is currently working on 8sq km of land near Tal Afar that was used as a barrier minefield by retreating Isis fighters in 2017. While people armed with mine detectors painstakingly scour a known mined corridor, the dogs range across the areas either side, deemed low or medium risk, to seek out any randomly planted devices.
The programme for the “super-detector” dogs was curtailed until now by Covid and by difficulties negotiating with the administration in Sinjar – divided between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan regional government.
The dogs start work at 5am, so that they can finish before the sun is too high – last week temperatures there hit 49C (120F). The handlers are from the Yazidi community.
Vian Khaider Khalaf, 26, was a student before starting work with the dogs in 2017. She works to support her family in Sinuni, but like everyone on the team, her driving motivation is to clear the mines so that families can return to their farms.
“We always had dogs at home, as my family are farmers and shepherds,” says Khalaf. “I fled with my family in 2014 when Daesh [Isis] came. I still have family in an IDP [internally displaced people] camp in Kurdistan. My family are afraid for me, of course. But they are proud of me and see me working hard and bravely, and that makes me want to take on more challenges.”
Khalaf has worked with her dog, X-Lang, since she started with MAG. He was originally a mine-detector dog, but was selected for the IED upgrade training. She says: “The relationship between me and my dog is not really that of a human and an animal. He is my dear friend. If I could take him home with me at the weekend, or live on the base with him, I would.”
After their shifts out in the fields, handlers and dogs spend the rest of the day together, often around the pool on the base.
The team supervisor is Salam Rasho, a former noncommissioned officer with the Kurdistan military, the peshmerga. He is also a Yazidi and has seen the devastation of his community. “Our aim is to return the people to their land, to get people farming the land again,” he says.
It’s impossible to estimate how much unexploded ordnance there is in Iraq – one of the most mined countries in the world, according to some estimates. There is little information about where mines were laid over the past 40 years, from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, to Saddam Hussein’s assaults on his own people, the Gulf War, and finally Isis. It is thought that in federal Iraq alone there are some 3,000 sq km of mined land yet to be cleared, with 8.5 million people living in close proximity.
The real benefit of the dogs, says Salam, is that they can cover a huge area much quicker than humans – about 1,500 sq metres a day. The success of the Iraq deployment means that MAG is stepping up its IED dog training and even going to the next level – finessing the programme so that dogs can also be used to help clear booby-trapped homes.
Clearing Iraq of unexploded mines is a task that will take many more years, but at least now the land is being freed from the lingering grip of Isis at a faster pace than before thanks to Branco, X-Lang and the other dogs of war.