New documents recently gathered by the Fronteras Desk give some new insight into what’s now become a nearly two year-long hunt for the killers of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
The document -- an FBI search warrant asking for a judge’s permission to track the cellphone of one of the fugitives -- shows that at least one of the killers was hiding, not in Mexico, but in the United States until at least Spring 2012, more than a year after the agent’s murder. The warrant paints a portrait of a group of men who easily managed to simultaneously live their lives both in the Phoenix area and Sinaloa, Mexico without too much hindrance by federal agents. In fact, one of the fugitives, an agent surmises, didn’t even know the U.S. had already identified him.
On December 12, 2010, Border Patrol agents encountered the group of six suspects in the desert outside Nogales, Ariz. roughly the area where Terry would die two days later (this location is not in the warrant but does appear in Rito Osorio-Arellanes’ criminal complaint). Only one, Rito Osorio-Arellanes, was arrested. The other five managed to avoid arrest. It appears they were not overly concerned. They turned up two nights later, once again looking for drug smugglers to rob.
According to the warrant, Manuel Osorio-Arellanes and Rito Osorio-Arellanes have been cooperating with federal investigators. They told the FBI the following:
In 2010, Heraclio Osorio-Arellanes and Jesus Favela-Astorga approached the others with a plan. They had already been ripping off drug smugglers on the U.S. side of the border. The pair would hand the drugs off to other individuals and then hide their firearms in the desert.
So in December 2010, Rito, Manuel, Ivan and Lionel agreed to work with the pair. The six traveled up from Sinaloa to the border with the intention of ripping off drug loads.
DEC. 12, 2010, FIRST ENCOUNTER
The night Rito was arrested, the other five escaped. They collected their weapons, including four AK-47 rifles, an AR-15 rifle and a handgun, and continued working the area, hunting drug smugglers.
DEC. 14, 2010, HOMICIDE
Four agents of the Border Patrol’s tactical unit, BORTAC, including Brian Terry, were working the Mesquite Seep area, outside of Nogales. They had been hunting for ripoff crews in the area, presumably the same crew, only since Dec. 12. Two more agents were posted on higher ground. The two observing spotted the ripoff crew coming toward the BORTAC agents from the west. The two teams of agents were in radio contact.
At 11:08 p.m., the observers radioed the four agents. Someone had tripped the ground sensor and was approaching the four agents from the east. One agent used his night-vision to watch five men walking toward them in a single-file line, about two yards apart. Some were clearly armed with rifles and all carried backpacks.
As the five men closed in on the agents, two agents called out “Police” and ordered the group to the ground in Spanish. The ripoff crew turned toward them, pointing their guns at the BORTAC team. The warrant says some of the suspects ran. Two agents fired “less-than-lethal” beanbag rounds, and the ripoff crew opened fire, killing Agent Terry. The agents returned fire, this time with real guns, wounding Manuel Osorio-Arellanes. He later told investigators he “told the others not to shoot because ‘it’s immigration’ and he was then shot.”
It was later determined that two of the weapons used by the ripoff crew came from Operation Fast and Furious, the botched gunwalking operation.
Afterward, federal investigators found that Favela-Astorga and Ivan Soto-Barraza have felony convictions for drug trafficking offenses in Phoenix. They must have been working together for a long time. On Jan. 28, 2008, both men were sentenced to three and four years in prison, respectively. Their DNA from those convictions matched possessions found at the murder scene.
A woman whom the Fronteras Desk is not naming, because she has not been accused in the crime, is married to Manuel Osorio-Arellanes. On Dec. 20, she told investigators that Favela-Astorga had called her on Dec. 18.
He admitted to being with the group and told her about the shooting. He also said Manuel had froze when the shooting started and they only realized later when they had regrouped that he was no longer with them.
The FBI also took a cellphone from Manuel. On it, they found three contacts; the FBI believed the three contacts are phone numbers to three of the fugitives.
It would be more than a year before fresh information was revealed.
MEXICO JOINS THE HUNT
In late 2011, Rito Osorio-Arellanes told the FBI the fugitives could be in the area around La Vinateria, Sinaloa. Vinateria is a tiny town in the Sierra Madre mountains of Sinaloa.
The Americans contacted Mexican federal law enforcement, who put out warrants for the arrests of Favela-Astorga and Heraclio Osorio-Arellanes.
Federal police with the Secretaría de Seguridad Publica sent undercover agents into Vinateria. It lies close to Badiraguato, Sinaloa, the birthplace of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loéra, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.
On Feb. 12, 2012, they told the FBI they had met with Favela-Astorga’s sister.
The sister told Mexican police she was talking with Favela-Astorga via cellphone. She also told them that Favela-Astorga and Heraclio Osorio-Arellanes were in Arizona but planned to return to Mexico by Easter.
At that point, the FBI agent writes, “Those two facts substantiate my belief that Jesus Favela-Astorga may now be operating under the belief that he has not been identified as one of the individuals involved in the December 14, 2010 shooting incident and that he is therefore comfortable returning to the United States.”
The FBI tried to track Favela-Astorga in real time. The warrant asks to track the GPS coordinates of the cellphone instead of the calls it issues.
The cellphone tracking may not have worked.
The warrant was signed in March 2012. In July 2012, U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy finally revealed the names of the remaining fugitives. She also said law enforcement had come close to arresting the fugitives in twice earlier in 2012.
Just this past September, Mexico finally captured one of the suspects, Lionel Portillo-Meza, also known as Jesus Leonel Sanchez Meza.
THE HUNT FOR THE KILLERS:
Date to Begin Tracking: March 1, 2012
Type of Phone: Sprint/NEXTEL
Owner of Phone: Jesus Favela-Astorga
December 14, 2010: Date Brian Terry was murdered.
December 12, 2010: Agents encounter all six men. One is arrested.
Manuel Osorio-Arellanes (arrested night of murder)
Jesus Rosario Favela-Astorga (fugitive)
Ivan Soto-Barraza (fugitive)
Heraclio Osorio-Arellanes (fugitive)
Lionel Portillo-Meza, aka Jesus Leonel Sanchez Meza (arrested Sept. 2012)
Rito Osorio-Arellanes (in custody prior to murder, not charged with murder)