DEA Agents Pose as Guerrillas to Net Arms Trafficker

Faouzi Jaber, a 61-year-old Ivorian citizen, pleaded guilty this week in a case involving smuggling arms and drugs to Colombia’s FARC group. But the undercover tactics by U.S. agents raise questions about future drug-war strategies in Colombia.

A man from the Ivory Coast has pleaded guilty in a New York federal court to offering support to undercover DEA agents posing as members of Colombia‘s FARC guerrilla group.

The case involving Faouzi Jaber, a 61-year-old Ivorian citizen known by the alias “Excellence,” raises questions about the handling of similar operations in the future in light of the FARC‘s ongoing demobilization.

Faouzi Jaber. Photo courtesy InSight Crime

Jaber pleaded guilty on July 25 to conspiring to traffic arms and drugs in support of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) insurgency, which the United States considers a terrorist organization.

According to a press release from the U.S. prosecutor’s office, Jaber met multiple times with confidential sources working for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) who were posing as members of the FARC.

In those meetings, Jaber introduced the confidential sources to drug and arms traffickers, and promised to help the guerrilla group obtain weapons, smuggle drugs in Africa and launder money.

Jaber was arrested in April 2014 by local authorities in the Czech Republic acting on a US request for his capture and extradition.

Jaber is not the first international arms trafficker brought down by DEA operatives pretending to be members of the FARC.

Perhaps the most infamous example is the 2008 arrest in Thailand of Viktor Bout, the so-called “Merchant of Death” who was later convicted in the United States of conspiring to sell arms to DEA sources posing as FARC fighters.

More recently, a Romanian-born man named Flaviu Georgescu was convicted in the United States of participating in a weapons trafficking conspiracy following a similar set-up.

Although the tactic of posing as the FARC has helped the DEA capture a number of suspected international criminals, the agency will almost certainly have to find a new group to impersonate in these types of stings. The FARC, one of the world’s oldest and most famous guerrilla groups, signed a peace deal with the Colombian government last year and recently handed over its weapons to the United Nations.

However, the fact that the FARC is now effectively defunct as a guerrilla organization does not mean that the DEA will stop using confidential sources posing as criminals to execute sting operations.

In fact, this tactic—which has been criticized as a form of entrapment— has become a staple of the DEA’s pursuit of so-called “narco-terrorism” cases in Latin America and abroad.

Mike LaSusa is editor of InSight Crime. The Crime Report is pleased to publish this story in collaboration with InSight Crime. For the complete version, including related links, please click here. Readers’ comments are welcomed.


Can a Civilian Persuade L.A. Cops to Stop Shooting?

A Los Angeles entertainment lawyer has turned the city’s police commission into a force for addressing police abuse. His first goal: reducing the officer-involved shootings that have become the civil rights issue of the 21st century for young African Americans through “de-escalation” strategies.

It’s 11 a..m. on a Tuesday last March, and Matthew Johnson, the president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, is seated front and center with the four other part-time civilian commissioners in a large theater-style meeting room at the LAPD’s headquarters downtown.

On today’s agenda is approval of a potentially historic new policy intended to decrease the high number of LAPD shootings.

But as has been the case for years now, the angry, overwhelmingly black, overflow crowd is hurling obscenity-laden invective at the commission—and particularly at Johnson, who is also African American. One person tells him to “shut the fuck up!;” another keeps calling him “house Negro.”

Johnson knew that he had a difficult road ahead when Mayor Eric Garcetti asked him to join the commission in 2015. But after seeing protests over police shootings and abuse explode across the nation in 2014, he felt compelled to take the post, which is unpaid and part-time: Police abuse had become the civil rights issue of the 21st century for young African Americans. Johnson wanted to change that dynamic, and the commission was the best way to go about doing that.

“Even before I accepted this position,” he says, “I started doing a lot of research on police reform. And I found that Los Angeles was unique in the way civilian oversight is structured and that a civilian can actually come in and make a real difference.

“There’s no other civilian commission—certainly in any medium or large city—that has the resources and the power we do to make change.”

That wasn’t always the case.

A holdover from the good government Progressive era of Teddy Roosevelt, the five-member Los Angeles Police Commission is tasked with setting LAPD policy and monitoring its implementation. But between 1950 and the 1992 riots, the commission rarely had the stomach to challenge the department, despite appalling numbers of unarmed civilians being killed by officers too quick to pull the trigger or to apply choke holds using their batons.

In fact, the commission allowed former police chief Daryl Gates, whose egregious leadership was essentially responsible for the beating of Rodney King and the riots that followed, to write his own civil service evaluations—all of them positive.

Gates was nonetheless forced to retire after the riots, and the commissioners effectively fired the next two chiefs, who in their collective ten years on the job failed to make the lasting changes the city was so desperate for. A new period of genuine reform followed with police chief William Bratton and his successor, current chief Charlie Beck.

Since the nationwide protests in 2014 over police shootings and abuse, the commission has been seeking yet more fundamental change. In 2015, under then president Steve Soboroff, it mandated the use of body cameras for officers and dash cams in patrol cars—important steps in assuring officer accountability, especially with shootings.

Since becoming president in 2015, Johnson has been pursuing changes to the use-of-force policy in an effort to reduce shootings.

A 49-year-old father of four, he is a managing partner at the entertainment law firm of Ziffren Brittenham. While he doesn’t talk much about the strains that come with his work on the commission, he’s clearly paid a personal price for taking it on. Black Lives Matter protestors have picketed his Sherman Oaks residence and barged into his Sherman Oaks office, and he got a restraining order against an activist who showed up at his home after he had commented on one of Johnson’s sons during a tirade at a commission meeting (a remark Johnson declines to discuss today).

The March commission meeting took place shortly after, and the policy change it yielded marks the crowning achievement of Johnson’s two-year stint as president, which comes to an end in a month or so.

“Upon my appointment I knew I had a limited window as commission president to work through my agenda,” he says. “I believe that the ticking clock actually helped me stay focused.”

Working-Class Childhood

It was a long haul to get to this point. Johnson grew up working class in the segregated New Jersey town of Highland Park. His father was a firefighter; his mother, a schoolteacher. She pushed him toward success and fought hard to ensure that her son got into those AP classes that helped him earn acceptance at Rutgers University.

As a kid, Johnson learned that simply walking or riding his bike could mean being stopped and questioned by the police, but it wasn’t until he was in college that he experienced the peril that comes with being a young black man in America.

He was driving home on a cold winter night, doing the speed limit as cars whizzed by him on the New Jersey Turnpike, when state troopers pulled him over without cause and handcuffed him on the side of the road.

Refusing his pleas to let him put on a jacket, the police insisted he was ferrying drugs and searched his car.

All Johnson kept thinking was, “Please, Lord, don’t let them plant drugs on me.”

He’s carried that memory with him to this day, though he’s quick to note that he met many good cops through his father.

While attending law school at New York University, he fell in with a group that remains tight to this day. “All of us were incredibly poor graduate students—young men of color from humble beginnings who recognized our commonality,” says Dean Garfield, now the president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council.

“We saw values in each other we wanted to emulate, and in the process became a support system for each other’s success.”

Johnson moved to L.A. two weeks after the ’92 riots, knowing nobody but sure he wanted to be an entertainment lawyer. Twenty-five years later, he’s counted Oprah Winfrey, Serena Williams, Forest Whitaker, and Sacha Baron Cohen among his clients.

Making partner at any high-powered law firm can mean putting in hundred-hour weeks, but Johnson didn’t want to give up the community work he’d begun in law school. For the past 20 years he’s volunteered with Boys and Girls clubs, serving as their board president and as a national trustee.

His wife, the documentary filmmaker and activist Yasmine Johnson, runs the Alliance of Moms, a nonprofit focused on serving pregnant and parenting teens in L.A.’s overwhelmed foster care system.

Johnson respected the difficulty of being a cop but had ideas about how policing could be done differently. After taking over as president, he spelled them out by writing a public assessment-slash-manifesto about the department and where he intended to focus.

A primary goal: reducing those officer-involved shootings.

So Johnson turned to best-practices literature. “He reads everything,” says Soboroff. “He’s a lawyer. He’s not looking at the yellow highlights in a report. And he knows what he doesn’t know. That’s really valuable.”

Johnson and the commission settled on a de-escalation policy advocated by the Obama administration’s Justice Department.

“What de-escalation acknowledges is something that has been apparent in policing forever: What you do at the beginning of a situation often controls its outcome,” Charlie Beck recently told me.

“We see situations where officers have no choice but to use deadly force. But had they been more skilled a few minutes earlier—in their tactics and communication skills—it might have never gotten to the point where deadly force had to be used.”

This is especially true when dealing with the mentally ill homeless or distraught people who can be talked down by officers who’ve taken precautions to take themselves out of immediate danger.

Johnson also needed to learn the lay of the land and build support from a long list of players: the mayor’s office, the chief of police, disparate community-advocacy groups, the LAPD command staff, and the LAPD’s politically powerful rank-and-file union, the Los Angeles Police Protective League.

In the months before the vote, the league had been publicly blasting Johnson, warning that he was going to have blood on his hands if the policy passed. To get their sign-off, “Matt had to spend a lot of time doing things where there was no glory,” says fellow police commissioner Shane Goldsmith.

“He was very disciplined at getting input and analysis—from the people around him, from stakeholders directly impacted, from the inspector general, from all different sources—and in finding where there was room for compromise while still creating a viable new policy. It was really an extraordinary accomplishment.”

Technically Johnson and the commission didn’t need the league’s approval, but long-lasting cultural change—particularly on an issue that can affect officers’ lives and careers—almost demanded it; there are too many ways cops can ignore, sabotage, and/or get around such a controversial policy shift. The league’s imprimatur would mean acceptance by cops on the street—grudgingly, perhaps, but acceptance all the same.

“There’s the political ability to get something done and the practical reality on the ground,” Johnson says. In this case, “if officers feel like they are under attack, they’ll stop policing. That’s not accomplishing the goals.

“I want them to embrace the policy so they can still do their jobs effectively in a way that is safer for the community. So buy-in from the union was big. At the end of the day, this was not an intellectual exercise.”

The payoff, says Beck, is that “now officers will be required to do everything they can to de-escalate a tense situation.”

One group that Johnson couldn’t keep on board was the ACLU, which withheld its support essentially over one word: de-escalation tactics must be used only when “possible.”

(Johnson contends the ACLU didn’t understand the way the policy works.)

So far the policy seems to be taking hold. The commission and Beck have established exercises in which officers act out specific scenarios as part of their de-escalation training, and the department is in the process of equipping every patrol car with less lethal options, such as beanbag shotguns.

Joe Domanick

Meanwhile, Johnson tells me, the commission is conducting a review aimed at expanding the release of videotaped use-of-force incidents to the public. And those body-cameras will be fully deployed by the first quarter of next year.

That isn’t soon enough for activists, who still crowd the police commission meetings, but Johnson isn’t one to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. He’s got three years left on the commission, he says, “and I plan on staying actively engaged in seeing my initiatives through.”

Joe Domanick is West Coast editor of The Crime Report. The original version of the story appeared in Los Angeles Magazine. He welcomes comments from readers.


Abandoned Justice

After a murder conviction is overturned, how eager are prosecutors to reexamine the evidence and find the real killer? A journalist who investigated 263 vacated cases around the nation since 2006 says it happens rarely.

Ninety-two year-old Emma Crapser spent the last night of her life playing Bingo at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, about a half a mile from her Poughkeepsie, N.Y. apartment. Upon her return home, she was murdered, apparently in the course of an intended robbery.

Six years later, in December 1983, a 24-year-old black man named Dewey Bozella was convicted of her murder and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. In May  1990, a judge found that prosecutors had improperly excluded black people from Bozella’s jury and ordered a new trial.

Bozella was convicted again. Then, in 2009, another judge vacated that conviction. This time, the district attorney declined to file new charges and Dewey Bozella found himself, after 26 years behind bars, a free man.

The court’s decision to overturn the conviction was based on its determination that the prosecution had failed to disclose exculpatory information to Bozella’s trial lawyer. This included information that undermined the credibility of key witnesses—like statements that contradicted their court testimony and deals in their own criminal cases—and pointed to the likely involvement of others in the crime.

Among the other suspects were two brothers who ended up going to prison on 25- year-to-life sentences for the robbery and brutal beating of two disabled elderly sisters, Madeline and Catherine King, and the murder of a third, Mary, in their family home about a half a mile from where Crapser had lived, eight months after Crapser was killed.

One of these men also had been implicated in the violent assault in the same neighborhood of yet another elderly woman, Estelle Dobler, carried out two months after Crapser’s murder and for which no one was ever prosecuted.

In its response opposing Bozella’s bid to overturn his conviction, the Dutchess County district attorney’s office downplayed the similarities among these three crimes; (but) in his 2009 decision to vacate the conviction, the judge called them “striking.”

As it turned out, one of the brothers convicted in the King case was released on parole months before Bozella was freed.

In 2015, Dutchess County settled a civil suit with Bozella for $7.5 million. To finance the payout, the county was forced to issue bonds.

[The same year,] 38 years after her murder, the Poughkeepsie Journal asked “Who Killed Emma Crapser?”

The newspaper offered no definitive answer, but the question itself points to a broader issue that tends to be underexplored in the context of wrongful convictions: what typically happens with respect to the underlying crime—and, by implication, [what happens to] the cause of justice and of public safety—when the person found legally responsible for committing it is later determined not to be?

How many murder cases might there be like Emma Crapser’s?

I set out to answer this question, using the National Registry of Exonerations, news reports and court filings, first to identify all of the murder convictions vacated nationwide since 2006 that, like Bozella’s, did not hinge on DNA evidence.  I excluded any case in which the vacated conviction involved a finding that a murder had not been committed (as has happened, for example, in several arson cases charged as murders but later determined to be accidents).

I looked exclusively for murder cases because murder typically has no statute of limitations, and therefore can be prosecuted at any time, even decades after the crime occurred, if new evidence or a new suspect is identified. Finally, I limited my search to the past 11 years on the assumption that it might be easier to get information about relatively recent vacated convictions than those overturned several decades ago.

My research turned up a total of 263 vacated murder convictions that fit this criteria (according to the National Registry, there have been a total of 2,034 known exonerations in the United States since 1989.).

This number does not represent 263 murders, but wrongfully convicted defendants.  In some cases, multiple people were wrongfully convicted for the same murder, while in others one person was wrongfully convicted for murdering more than one person.

Of the 263 people whose convictions were vacated, 161 were black; 65 white, 33 Hispanic and four Native American.

A vacatur is not equivalent to a determination of actual innocence; convictions must be overturned not only when there is a finding of factual innocence, but also when a defendant’s constitutional rights have been violated, regardless of guilt or innocence. In fact, very few wrongfully convicted people are ever able definitively to “prove” their innocence, though in the course of the appeals process many end up presenting evidence that calls their guilt into question.

Here’s what I discovered:

Forty-eight of those who were wrongfully convicted were re-tried after their convictions were vacated, and all were acquitted. Following these acquittals it appears that no new suspects were charged, except in one case where an additional suspect had been arrested outside the county a year before the vacatur, was extradited to the US, and pleaded guilty to the crime a month after the wrongfully convicted defendant was acquitted four years later.

Of the remaining 215 wrongful convictions, prosecutors charged a new suspect in murders related to just 16, or 7%, of them.

Notably, in 11 of these 16 cases it appears in fact that it was the existence of an alternative suspect—typically identified by defense investigators and further investigated by prosecutors—that led to the vacatur and dismissal of charges.

In an additional case, a new suspect pleaded guilty to the crime a year after the exoneration.

As to why no new charges were filed in the murder cases connected to 93% of these wrongful convictions, the answer often depends on who is offering the explanation. Prosecutors, cops and defense attorneys often tend to see things very differently.

That said, I was able to ascertain that the true perpetrators—determined either by credible confessions and/or objective evidence—of murders connected to an additional 24 of these wrongful convictions are either dead or in prison, serving a long sentence for a different crime, sometimes in another state.

While neither outcome represents justice for the victims in the wrongful conviction cases, those murderers are nonetheless “off the streets.”

I also discovered that with respect to murders for which an additional eight people were wrongfully convicted, the true perpetrators appear to be beyond the reach of law enforcement because of immunity or plea deals given to them by prosecutors (these cases tended to involve violence perpetrated by gangs).

In addition, I identified seven cases (and four of the cases in which a defendant was retried and acquitted), in which the person who was wrongfully convicted was convicted along with at least one or more others who, it seems fairly clear, were actually responsible.

While there is reason to believe that in some of these cases not everyone involved was apprehended, someone has been held accountable for these killings.

Then there are the 10 cases in which the underlying crimes were committed so long ago, and the original prosecutions so flawed, that law enforcement seems reasonably to have abandoned any hope of being able to conduct a productive reinvestigation.

This is in contrast to an additional 24 cases I was told by prosecutors were either the subject of an “ongoing investigation” or “open,” though what that means (does open mean active? Are the ongoing investigations targeting new suspects or the original defendant?) remains unclear, as all refused to elaborate. About an additional 48 cases, prosecutors elected to say nothing.

I did learn that 17 people whose convictions were vacated are viewed as actually innocent by the district attorney currently leading the office that originally prosecuted the case (in some instances, a predecessor did not share that view), but it appears that law enforcement lacks any meaningful leads regarding the true culprit. In these cases, both time passed and limited resources appear to be major obstacles to developing such leads.

That leaves 61 cases about which prosecutors or their spokespeople offered statements attributing the lack of new charges in a case to the “erosion” or “insufficiency” of evidence to re-prosecute the original defendant, thus implying that there is no other possible suspect.

In some of these cases, prosecutors stated outright that they believe the wrongfully convicted person to be guilty. I discovered, however, that in just over a third of these cases—like in numerous other cases that prosecutors declined to comment on—there seems to be credible evidence pointing to a different suspect altogether.

Freeing Marty Tankleff

Take the case of Marty Tankleff, who was convicted in 1990 of murdering his parents in their Long Island, N.Y. home and spent 17 years behind bars before his conviction was vacated by an appellate court.

According to Lonnie Soury, a media expert who worked closely with Tankleff’s appellate team, including private investigator Jay Salpeter, “in the effort to free [Marty], we conducted a major reinvestigation of the case that produced significant new evidence that three men committed the murder at the behest of Mr. Tankleff’s father’s business partner.”

Soury says that “the new evidence was turned over to [Suffolk County District Attorney] Thomas Spota,” who “did nothing with [it] other than continue to oppose Tankleff’s bid to overturn his conviction.”

After the Court vacated the conviction, Spota requested that it formally dismiss the charges against Tankleff,  saying that his office could not “reasonably assert that a new prosecution would be successful.” He also said he would ask then-Governor Eliot Spitzer to appoint a special prosecutor to reinvestigate the case.

Asked by e-mail whether Spota’s office had ever looked into these other suspects, a spokesman failed to answer the question, noting instead that then AG-Andrew Cuomo “conducted an investigation” after the DA “requested the Governor appoint a special prosecutor to resolve any residual doubts with respect to the potential prosecution of other individuals the defense claims participated in these murders.”

For reference, the spokesman attached to the e-mail an excerpt from the judge’s decision to dismiss the indictment following Cuomo’s review. That excerpt, however, did not mention that Cuomo—who Soury says [was] given the information developed by Tankleff’s appellate team—had investigated any other suspects and stated only that the “Attorney General’s office… determined that there should not be a reprosecution of defendant.”

For his part, Soury cannot say for certain why the DA failed to take action with regard to these other suspects, three of whom, he says, continue to live “freely and with impunity” in Suffolk County, but adds that “some evidence exists that the leader of the group was a confidential informant to the DA’s office” and that others may have had political connections that protected them from prosecution.

Indeed, in late 2015 federal investigators began looking into allegations of corruption involving the Suffolk County Police Department and Spota’s office. This came on the heels of a 2013 federal probe that led the Suffolk County police chief to plead guilty to federal civil rights and obstruction of justice charges.

But even absent the spectre of outright corruption, experts argue, there is generally little incentive for a prosecutor to reopen a case after a conviction has been overturned.

“To charge a different suspect in the crime is as clear an admission of initial wrongdoing as it’s possible to make,” says veteran defense and civil rights attorney Ron Kuby, who has represented numerous wrongfully convicted people.

“And prosecutors will [admit wrongdoing] only when they are absolutely forced to do so, by a court. And even then, they may acknowledge that there was misconduct, or that the evidence was insufficient or tainted, but rarely do they say, ‘we had the wrong guy and let the actual killer free X number of years.’ It makes them look really bad.”

Getting a prosecutor to go beyond an admission that mistakes may have been made to even consider a defendant’s actual innocence, let alone investigate other suspects, also can be an uphill battle, says Kuby, because prosecutors—like their counterparts on the defense side—tend to become deeply invested in their narrative of the crime.

And, he believes, many also become invested in a view of themselves as being “unfairly tarnished” by “shady defense attorneys” and “soft courts,” which makes it easier to justify inaction.

“It is easier to insist that you’re right and the defense lawyers and the judges were wrong because you don’t have to do any work… [and] can indulge in both self-pity and laziness. It’s a lot easier than going out and finding the actual killer.”

But even in instances where a prosecutor may be inclined to revisit a case, without unimpeachable evidence implicating the new suspect, mounting a successful new prosecution presents challenges.

According to Benjamin Schneider, a former Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn, a vacated conviction “may doom a subsequent prosecution for the same offense, because the second defendant will offer the prosecution’s old, discredited evidence—and the fact of someone else’s conviction—to raise doubt about his own guilt.”

The prosecutor “will want to counter that,” Schneider says, by “arguing that reasonable doubt has not been raised by the old evidence, because the old evidence was tainted and the first defendant was set free after years in prison. But the jury will learn that this prosecutor’s office put an innocent person in prison, for this very crime, by using tainted evidence”—not exactly a ringing endorsement of the prosecutor’s credibility on the case.

All of this goes a long way toward explaining why, even when there is much to indicate the original defendant’s innocence and someone else’s guilt, new charges are brought so infrequently in the wake of a vacated conviction.

Where that leaves the loved ones of the victim, not to mention the public at large—which has an obvious stake in seeing the right people held accountable for violent crimes—is another question.

In the case of Emma Crapser’s murder, because the crime itself happened so long ago and Crapser was an elderly, childless woman, it has proved difficult to find anyone who might be an advocate for her today.

Indeed, the nephew who discovered the King sisters after their brutal assault by the same people who may well have been involved in Crapser’s murder months before, died in 1995, at the age of 74.

Of course, there is no guarantee Crapser’s relatives even would believe that Bozella was innocent or, if so, push to get the case reopened.

As Kuby notes, often “these families have at least grown accustomed to thinking the guilty person has been punished,” particularly when the DA’s office “continues to insist that they got the right person.”

It is not unusual, he says, for “the victim’s family and the DA’s office to engage in this synergy of denial that satisfies both their interests.”

But what about the interests of the communities where these crimes occurred?

By definition, those interests are supposed to be represented by the district attorney, the very same entity that, for whatever reasons, botched the case the first time around, quite possibly leaving the community more, rather than less, vulnerable to violence.

In such cases it is typically the DA’s more narrow interests—whether in avoiding revelations of incompetence or wrongdoing; prosecuting only cases they think they can win, or merely curbing the expansion of an already heavy workload—that win out.

And in the absence of a truly neutral body tasked with re-investigating these crimes, we may never learn who killed Emma Crapser, let alone be able to hold the right person accountable for her death—-or those of the many other murder victims whose cases, regardless of their legal status, remain in a kind of limbo in the real world, beyond the courthouse doors.

This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story  published July 2 in the Daily Beast. Please click here for the complete version.  The reporting was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Additional support was provided by Hin Hon (Jamie) Wong through the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, as well as a John Jay/Quattrone Fellowship in Criminal Justice Reporting. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Shining a ‘Flashlight’ on Gun Crime

Treating minor gun crimes as future homicides has helped to cut down on violence in Houston, and a key tool for investigators is the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, now much improved from the original program first introduced by the feds in 1999.

Emmett Jolley pulled up to the intersection near his northeast Houston home one spring night 14 months ago when the gunfire began. A hail of bullets riddled his gray Nissan, striking him and a passenger sitting next to him.

The gunman fled moments later, leaving police to pick through the crime scene and bag the shell casings he’d left behind.

Miraculously, Jolley and his friend survived, victims of one of the thousands of gun crimes that plague Houston every year, and one that might easily have gone unsolved in years past.

This time, however, investigators had a weapon of their own—the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN), a revamped ballistics testing program run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The bureau has pumped millions of dollars into the program to help local law enforcement make faster and better use of the federal database, creating joint investigative task forces with police in cities most prone to gun violence.

It gives police the clues they need in just days, not months.

Gun violence leaves a deadly toll in its wake across Houston annually.

More than 400 people died in the Bayou City from guns in 2016, including 259 homicides and 160 suicides. Gunmen committed 5,457 aggravated assaults with a firearm.

And Houston law enforcement leads the state—by far—in the recovery of firearms. Police seized more than 5,400 guns in Houston in 2015, twice as many as in Dallas and San Antonio, according to the most recent federal data.

In years past, slow ballistics testing left dangerous criminals on the streets for weeks or months while investigators waited for evidence.

Since the same firearms often are used repeatedly—even by different people—tracking the gun can identify an active shooter before another crime is committed. In Memphis, for example, NIBIN linked 30 percent of cases to guns that had been used more than once.

“Those are shooters, the worst of the worst,” Peralta said. “NIBIN is our flashlight—it’s not going to be able to see the whole room, but it will give us the ability to focus in on specific things.”

The database allows firearms experts to match high-resolution photos of marks left on bullet casings after being fired. The guns’ firing pins leave a mark unique to each gun, allowing investigators to connect casings fired at different shootings.

Turning NIBIN into the crime-fighting tool agents envisioned, however, didn’t go as ATF leaders initially hoped.

Twenty years ago, ATF equipped hundreds of law enforcement agencies and crime labs with ballistic imaging machines and began compiling photos of casings collected at crime scenes or test-fired from guns seized in investigations.

Whipsawing budgets, disinterest and poor implementation at the local level, however, hampered NIBIN’s impact on helping stop gun crime.

The problems left some gun cases unsolved, giving repeat shooters more time to wreak havoc. Bodies piled up.

“The right answer, late, doesn’t help the investigators any more than the wrong information on time—they need that information quickly,” said Ramit Plushnick-Masti, with the Houston Forensic Science Center, an independent lab that tests casings for the Houston Police Department.

 Speeding up the clock

After an external study four years ago found slow turnaround times were hobbling NIBIN’s effectiveness, ATF pumped millions of dollars into the program, forming task forces across the country with local police agencies.

The agency began urging investigators to collect all shells found at a scene – even if no one was hurt – so they could be entered into the database, increasing the chances of finding future matches.

“The ability to get hits is not linear,” said William King, a Sam Houston State University criminology professor who has studied the NIBIN system.

“The more you put in, the more you produce. The lesson is, everything needs to go in.”

ATF also began encouraging local law enforcement departments and crime labs to test casings more quickly. Treating minor gun crimes as future homicides helps cut down on violence, said Ron Nichols, NIBIN’s former national technology coordinator.

“If we can get timely intelligence to investigators with respect to these different shootings and what is occurring in the streets, there’s potential to get an active shooter off the street before a homicide actually occurs,” he said.

Since its inception, the NIBIN database has produced approximately 75,000 “hits” linking two or more crimes together.

“You only get NIBIN hits off repeat gun use,” King said. “You get them off the street… That’s huge value-added.”

Darrell Stein, the Houston Forensic Science Center Firearms Section manager, demonstrates the a federal database known as the National Integrated Ballistics Identification Network used to track guns.

Lisa Meiman, a special agent in the Denver Field Office, said the agency focuses on links rather than arrest totals, because arrests misrepresent the impact of the system.

“Catching one suspect using NIBIN means solving multiple shootings,” she said.

The Denver office was one of the first where ATF launched a gun crime task force. Houston’s came two years later, in 2015.

In concert with the intelligence center, the Houston Police Department and the city’s crime lab have taken other steps to speed up gun crime investigations.

“We’re looking for a particular gun,” said Art Peralta, Assistant Special Agent in Charge at ATF’s Houston Field Division. “When we find that gun, we’re usually going to find the person responsible for pulling that trigger.”

Using NIBIN, investigators gained a valuable clue in Jolley’s shooting: a ballistics match with a bullet casing from an attempted robbery just three days earlier.

The evidence helped pin the case on 17-year-old Timothy “Dough-Boy Ru” Grimes, an acquaintance who apparently thought Jolley had insulted his girlfriend.

Grimes’ guilty plea earlier this month marked the first conviction in Houston using the retooled NIBIN database, part of a new effort by ATF to help local police get trigger-happy criminals off the street.

In the 18 months since the ATF launched the retooled program, NIBIN has generated dozens of leads that led to 19 arrests. Investigators linked one weapon in another case to six different shootings, and connected another gun to a known drug dealer they say killed a horse.

“We’re going to solve crime sooner, bring criminals to justice sooner, and more often,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo. “When we do those things, we’re going to ultimately prevent future crimes and save lives.”

Two months ago, Acevedo ordered his department to prioritize bullet cartridge testing.

Previously, officers had to wait a week for technicians to test cartridges for latent fingerprints or DNA, but such tests are rarely successful, said Darrell Stein, the Houston Forensic Science Center’s firearms section manager.

The faster turnaround from NIBIN has helped provide better intelligence for investigators, officials said.

“If you get NIBIN hits, and you don’t go and have good people to go out and aggressively pursue what that hit provides in terms of leads, then you might as well not have it at all,” Acevedo said.

“We wanted to speed up the clock.”

Investigators are now getting leads from shootings that took place just 48 hours earlier.

Other local and state departments also are expanding their efforts to beef up their use of the database.

Montgomery County, which currently sends cartridges to Houston’s lab once a week, hopes to acquire a ballistics imaging machine soon. ATF plans to put an imaging machine and deploy two of the bureau’s investigators from Houston to work with San Antonio Police Department.

 Headed to Prison

Grimes walked into a Harris County courtroom earlier this month, a year after his outburst of gun violence in northeast Houston.

His arrest offers a blueprint for how authorities might tackle gun crimes in the future.

After investigators sent the abandoned shell casings off for testing, the Houston Forensic Science Center photographed the cartridges and ran them through the NIBIN database. They learned the shooter had used just one gun – but two types of ammunition – in the attempted robbery and the aggravated assault.

By the time officers identified Grimes and searched his home, the firearm was gone. He said he tossed it into a sewer. They did, however, find a pair of sweatpants like ones they’d seen in surveillance video taken from the attempted robbery.

He eventually confessed, authorities said, telling investigators he had supplied the gun in the attempted robbery and acted as the lookout.

He finally agreed to plead guilty to one count of aggravated assault and another of aggravated robbery.

Jolley could not be reached for comment. Grimes’ attorney, Michael Trent, declined to comment.

But two weeks ago, Grimes trudged to the front of the 183rd Harris County District Court to admit to his crimes, knowing he faced 12 years in prison at his sentencing next month.

State District Judge Vanessa Velasquez peered down at the glum teen.

“Are you pleading guilty because you are?” Velasquez asked him.

His answer was almost lost in the shuffle of the courtroom.


St. John Barned-Smith, a staff writer for the Houston Chronicle, is a 2016-2017 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. The above story was published this week as part of his fellowship project. The full story, along with video material, is available here. Chronicle reporter Matt Dempsey also contributed. Readers’ comments are welcome.


An Imprisoned Dad Reflects: ‘All My Children are Survivors’

A poignant essay by a father in San Quentin prison begins The Crime Report’s second installment of prison letters, rap verses and essays in honor of Father’s Day (this Sunday). The material was provided by The Beat Within, a San Francisco-based prison writing workshop.

On or about January 14, 2017, I wrote to the Salvation Army seeking their assistance to help me find my youngest daughter whom I haven’t seen in over 34 years. To my surprise the Salvation Army responded with my daughter’s information that I requested. Upon receiving my daughter’s telephone number and address, I was happy, but at the same time I had a little fear due to the unknown in which how my daughter would respond to my telephone call—after being absent from their lives for many-many years.

However, I had to find out how my daughter felt about hearing from her father.

When I called for the first time, and told my daughter who I was, we both cried real tears of joy and she kept repeating, “Daddy I love you” over, over and over.

My response was “I’ve always loved you and I would always love you.”

Then her response was “how is your health!”

I said, “Since my incarceration I’ve had over six different heart attacks and one pace maker and my greatest fear, I wouldn’t get the chances to hear, see or speak to any of my children again in this life.”

Then I ask her what do you do for a living?

She said, “Daddy I’m a model.”

Next I asked about my other children and what they are doing. She said her brother Ivan is a doctor, her oldest sister is a cosmetologist and they all lived nearby one-another, including their lovely mother.

My daughter offered to send me some money, or packages, and anything that I might need or want. But as I told her, I am not worried about none of that stuff, my only concern was not to lose contact with my children again, ever.

After being absent out of my children’s lives for over three decades, I realized that all of my children are survivors, just like their mother and father.

I’m extremely proud of the family I started and what all of them have become in life and with the positive choices they have made too.

I can only thank GOD at this time for everything He has done. I thank GOD that my daughter was willing to make herself available and give, while opening up the lines of communication with her father and not having any bitterness, anger, resentment, or hatred toward her father. But instead, my daughters choose to love me unconditionally despite my shortcomings.

-TJC Carpenter, San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, CA

‘I’ve Always Wanted a Father’

 Something I’ve always wanted was a father. I’ve never had a father before, ever. I’ve had an uncle that’s a role model, but it’s not the same. I’ve always wanted to be able to say the words or hear the words “I love you dad/son.” But I’ve never experienced that type of relationship with him.

Honestly, he’s been out of my life for almost 18 years now, it’s like I don’t know if I even want him in my life anymore because he decided to walk outside that door and close it, and  I don’t know if I’m able to open it back up.

– Alex, Portland Oregon

‘The Monster Within’

The monster in my life is more than just one monster. From my father never being around when I was young, my mother disowning me, drugs, alcohol, and gang related activities, all the way to me not knowing who I am anymore.

As you can tell already my monster is my life. I’m not scared of it nor do I run from it. I simply just keep living life.

I am a young father with a son, Demitri, who is one year and five months old, and another child on the way. And yet even having responsibilities such as work, college, rent, and children, I still can’t seem to escape my monster. It has got to a point where I live with my monster instead of hiding or trying to defeat it.

Illustration by Kashif Mardani via Flickr

My own father physically, mentally, emotionally abusing my siblings and me when he came around; my mother disowning me for gang banging. Everything in my life puts me toward the penitentiary. My brother is in jail for seven years. While one of my brother’s lay six feet deep because of me not ever meeting him and when I do, I met him while I was intoxicated with a 40 caliber in my hand. Now he’s dead and through all this I wake up every morning with that on my mind. But it’s my life and my monster. It’s how my life is and that’s all that matters. You don’t always have to defeat your monster, you could just live with it.

-Young Dad, Portland Oregon


‘No One Ever Told Me Your Name”

 Dear Father Red

I apologize for calling you by your street name, but for some unknown reason no one ever told me what your real name was. Mom named me after her first husband Alec Bellard Senior. I became Bellard Junior. I eventually changed my name to Mom’s maiden name Briggs.

I was eight years old when you were murdered. Even though I didn’t remember what you looked like at that time, when I got the news I cried. The relatives who raised me and nourished me were puzzled by my reaction but you were my dad and I guess that’s all my heart needed to know.

Many years later my big brother, Melvin, showed me a picture of you and guess what, dad, I look like your twin.

Dad, I was told you weren’t a good person but that’s okay, because I forgave you and God has forgiven you as well and I never held you responsible when Mom took her own life. I want you to know that since we look so much alike, I’ve tried to represent you in the best possible light. Take care, Dad, and I hope to see you someday.

Lastly, I have a daughter, your granddaughter, Tabora. She has our eyes and our smile and she has a son, your great grandson, Kimani, and low and behold he’s the spitting image of us.

-Alex Briggs, San Quentin State Prison

 Happy Father’s Day Mom!

You always had my back since I was back in the womb.  Daddy was a deadbeat, so it always was me and you.  I’m forever grateful that you didn’t abort me because a woman raising a man is the hardest things to do.

You know you’re my favorite lady.  I know I’m your favorite dude.  Your love never changes, even thou we got different views.  I want you to quit drugs.  You want to me to quit cutting school.  None of us got what we want.  So guess we both lose.

I didn’t get much for my Christmases as a lil child, but you still went out of your way to find a way to make me smile.  Wish I could feel your warm embrace. Lord knows it’s been a while.  Your son hard headed. Momma, it took a min but I get it now.  All the sweet stuff and street stuff that you taught me. A gentleman and a gangsta, how could you ever fault me?  Hope you don’t fault me.  I hope you don’t fault yourself.

Love is a cold dealer.  We played the hand we dealt.

I thank you for never giving up, never giving me away.  I thank you ‘cause the lesson you taught me made me who I am today.  You tell me to go down on my knees, so I pray.  I love you is what I truly want to say.  By the time you read this.

Lee Butta, San Francisco County Jail, San Bruno, CA

 “You’re My Best Friend Forever”


Because you love me

Because you’re my best friend forever

Because I’ll always love you

Because I’m a pain

Because I’m in a bad spot

Because you’re always there

Because you’re mine

Because we’re alive

Because I’m not perfect

Because I’m a diamond in the rough

Because I feel alone but not

Because you were the first one I saw

Because you stayed with me the whole time after I was born

Because you care

Daddy I love you forever and always

Even when death parts us

-Child, Billings Shelter Care, Billings Montana

 “He Has Always Been There For Me”

 Because he has always been there for me

Because he’s smart

Because he’s talented

Because he’s my dad

Because I love him

Because he’s funny

Because he’s smart

-Loyal, Billings Shelter Care, Billings Montana

 ‘I’m Sorry I Was So Angry”

 I will start when my mother committed suicide. I was but 8 years old and my dad walks into my room and tells me and that my brothers are coming to live with us. At first I was happy because my brothers will be coming up to live with me. I didn’t think my mom was dead.

A few days after we were able to see her and say goodbye. That is when my problems started. I was so angry at my dad for leaving her. I felt like I didn’t have a soul anymore, I just didn’t care anymore. I felt destroyed.

Every night I relive what I saw and what I’ve done and can never get a break from it. People think I use this as an excuse but this is some real stuff.

I look around and all I see is negativity. I’ve seen a man shot right in front of me. Hell is how I would describe my life.

My future is, I see myself as a Navy man with a family.

At 14 years old I have been doing drugs. I have been in and out of juvie and placements.

Dad, I am sorry I was just on drugs and so angry at the time. I have been a thief most of my life.

-Kaleb, San Bernardino

 ‘It’s All About Perspective’

 My mom came to visit me this week. She told me I need to be grateful for the things I have instead of stealing and hurting people. She told me a little story after, I’ll try to explain. There was this boy who lived in the worst house on the block. All of the other houses were three stories tall. The boy’s house had only two stories. The boy would complain to his father and ask why they were the poorest family on the block. One day the dad said, “Come with me, son, I’m going to take you to where I grew up.”

The father drives across town with the boy and takes him to where he grew up. As the boy is looking out the window of the car, he sees rundown houses with some windows boarded up and all the houses are one story. The father tells the boy, “Son, it’s all about perspective.” The son looks the father in the eyes and says, “I’m sorry, Dad.”

-Lil Bane, Santa Clara

 “The Last Time I Said, ‘I Love You’”

The last time I said “I love you” to someone was to my dad on the phone of juvenile hall’s ten minute call.  I was catching up with my dad over things that happened two weeks ago, because when I called him twice in different days he didn’t answer.  I guess he was working.  He told me he missed me and I felt sad because he really sounded hurt.  I have court tomorrow.  Hopefully, I get out.

-Yareli, San Mateo

 His Footsteps

I think it does affect children when their parents are incarcerated, because not having both of your parents can affect kids in a negative way. It can leave them wondering why their mom or dad isn’t there, and it may make them feel unloved and neglected.

For example, when I was younger, my dad was always in and out of jail. I guess it affected me a little more as I got older, and as you can see, I am just following his footsteps. It is not too late to change. I guess once you realize you need to change, it makes it a little easier.

-Affected Child, San Mateo

 These essays and letters have been slightly edited and condensed for space. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Dear Dad: ‘Why Weren’t You There?’

To mark Father’s Day on Sunday, The Beat Within, a San Francisco-based prison writing workshop, asked inmates of juvenile detention facilities to “write the letter you always wanted (or maybe never wanted) to write” to their Dads. Here’s a first sampling of the letters they produced.

To mark Father’s Day on Sunday, The Beat Within, a San Francisco-based prison writing workshop asked inmates of juvenile detention centers to “write the letter you always wanted (or maybe never wanted) to write” to their Dads. Here’s a first sampling of the letters they produced.

Dear Dad

Throughout the last year I’ve been back and forth between being free and being locked up. I know you weren’t there when I was a child, but you made an effort to be there in my later years. You proved to me that you’re a good man and changed, now it’s my turn to prove to you that I’m not another juvenile statistic and I can change.

I regret a lot of things in my past, I’ve made a lot of mistakes that affected other people not just myself, and I wish every day that to take them back. I was so caught up in the hustle life that I’d do anything to come up on money and the drugs, they owned me. I thought that this was the life to live and if you weren’t in the game then you were a nobody; little did I know I was just running from the truth about myself.

Being here, locked up in these cells sounds bad, but it might just be the best place for me. It’s giving me time to think about what I want in life and time to get closer to myself. I’ve got 10-plus years to spend in these cells for a crime that ruined my life but I’ve learned to not regret these things. There are things I can’t change, things that I should move on from. It’s only up from here Pops, the hustle game never leaves you but I’m hustling for a better life this time. ‘Till I hear from you again, love you.

-Mason, Portland Oregon


Dear Dad

Why weren’t you there? Ever! That’s all I want to know, what was the reason that you did not want to take care of YOUR OWN child, the human being you created.

I’m definitely not happy with your decision because as a real father, you should be able to take care of your child! You missed out on the most important parts of my life, you missed out on my birth, my elementary, middle & high school days, man you really are a disappointment.

To me, to my sister, and my mother you don’t even deserve to be called my father. You don’t deserve that title…Ever! I wonder if you ever even think about picking up that phone and decide to even say “Hello”…anyways, you lost my respect.

-Alex, Portland Oregon

Dear Dad

I often wish you would just accept me for me, for who I am (instead of) trying to change me. You always said, or at least claimed, “I’m here to teach you, show you what’s needed” but you always belittled me. You always spoke above me and never listened. You heard me but failed to understand my words. When I asked for help you would come to my aid—but only helped when it helped you. You never came to help me just to help me.

When I took the extra step to try helping our so badly damaged relationship you heard me but you never fixed a thing. If I asked you for something, it felt like I asked God to forgive Satan. Asking you for something was never easy. I always had to ask someone else for what I needed. You always took my kindness for granted so I stopped showing it to everyone. I’m sorry; you claim I love you but I truly don’t. I respect you for taking me in—but love? No.

-Thomas, Portland Oregon

 Dear Dad,

The role my father has played in the past had me a little down, but the role he plays now has me excited. My dad does his hardest to get me out of the situation I’m in. He gives up every dime he has to spare to get me a lawyer. Getting a lawyer cost a lot. Even though he didn’t have a job he got loans from family members just for me.

He put himself into debt just to see a better future. Once I’ve started praying and you know he always pray he got himself a job. That shows how GOD played a role in both of our lives. He showed me how to be a man once I’ve entered this situation. Now I believe my dad is a real father figure in my life. In the past I did not have that, but now (and) in the future I know and believe he is.

-Tyrone, Rivarde Juvenile Detention Center, Harvey, LA

 Dear Daddy

I was just very depressed about the fact that you always say you love me and you’ll never leave me, but you left me sooner than ever and that’s crazy. My momma had to play the role of a father and a mother, but I forgive you for that ‘cause you taught me from your mistakes what kind of a father not to be.

-Brandon, Rivarde Juvenile Detention Center, Harvey, LA

Hey Dad

It’s your son.  I haven’t seen you in a long time. How are you doing? Me? I’m doing just fine.

Have you ever felt so alone in your own home? It’s crazy how time flies. You should see me and sister now; we’re so big and grown. I’m trying to do better for mom and start doing right, but my thoughts tend to get the best of me ‘cause you were never there to tuck us in at night.  I used to always whine and fuss, but I can’t really be mad because the meth took you away from us.

-Alec, Roswell New Mexico

 Dear Dad

You are my strength but also my weakness. You don’t understand how much you mean to me but also how much you destroyed me.

I wish you would have been there when things went down, but you weren’t and I forgive you, not just for that but also the things that you have done to me. I love you Dad and I know that it is awkward saying that but I truly do and I hope that you are sober. That shhh kills me on the inside that you are a drug addict even though you deny it. We all know Dad, and it;s time to heal from all the shhh that you have been through and it’s time for you to grow up. I don’t know what else to say but have a good life and I hope you become sober.

-A, Los Angeles

Dear Dad

First off, I have a lot of questions to ask. I also have a lot to tell you. Why did you act that way? You messed up as a father. How do you expect me to forgive you, when all you did was cause confusion in my life?

I know you are probably thinking that “damn, I really messed up.” But if you aren’t, you really should be thinking that because you did. I know everybody isn’t perfect, but you don’t even put in the effort to try. It’s like you don’t even care. For me, to be the oldest out of six kids and me being still young is sad on your half. Mom blames every negative thing I do on you. But you only get one dad, right.

-Arilana,  Los Angeles

 Dear Dad,

I wish I could say I miss you, but I don’t. I don’t miss any of those drunken nights when you would act a fool and take your anger out on me or Mom. I don’t miss the sleepless nights when I would stay up waiting for you to come home just so you would talk to me. Even if it was so simple as, “Go get me a beer.”

-Christian, Santa Clara

Dear Father

It’s your son, Drew. I’m writing you this letter because I need to get a lot of things off my chest.    You’ve taught me so much, like where I’m from, how to steal, how to hit a blunt and even roll a joint all at a very young age. Don’t get me wrong though, you’ve taught me some good things too, as in how to fight, do a push-up the right way, and walk like a man with my head up, shoulders back and chest out.

Dad, I understand that most of your life has been thrown away because of YA and prison, but that doesn’t mean to throw my life away. I remember when I was staying with you and I had school. I was going to go, but you would always tell me, “Why you gonna go to school? Chill, have a beer with me.” Yeah, that sounds cool, but that also shows that you don’t care about my life. Why? Why would you never care about what I would do? I can smoke with you, drink with you, chill with females with you, yeah that’s tight, but I would rather have a father that shows me the ropes the right way.

You’ve always told me, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” I go by that every day. I care for you and love you, so care for me and love me back. Be a man of your word for once.

Your son,

-Andrew, Santa Clara

 What is a Dad?

I have a biological father, but I would never think of him as a Dad. He says all the right things to my PO or to the police. Things that a Dad should say, like “I care for my son” or “I hope my son does well,” but I don’t ever get a call or even see him when I’m on the outs. Shhh…when I’m locked up, he doesn’t even have the nerve to answer a call. So, like I said, what is a Dad?

-M, Santa Clara

 Dear Dad

I love you. I wish you were here to see me right now. My life is going so downhill and if you were here I wouldn’t be in this bad position. You kept me on track, or at least I listened to you so I wouldn’t have been hard-headed and ended up where I am now.

I just wish you could call me right now and talk to me and tell me “you always got excuses Angelique.” I need to hear your voice, the sounds in my head aren’t enough. I need you physically Dad. Come to me in my dreams so I could know you are protecting me every day like you did when you were alive in this world.

-Angelique, San Francisco

Dear Dad,

Thank you for always being there for me through everything. Whether it was only smashing pumpkins or if it was stealing your car at night. Thank you for having the patience with me and never giving up.

Thank you for always coming to pick me up when I was in trouble. Whether it was yours or Mom’s week, three in the morning or far away. Thank you for staying quiet in the car ride home.

Thank you for always giving me talks and motivating me to get my life together. Thank you for coming to all my court dates and never letting me go to a group home.

Thank you for always giving me a warm house to come home too.

I remember the days I was riding the lawn mower on your lap to mow. From playing catch to coming to my softball games and the best one yet being respectful and patient.  I love you Dad and thank you for everything you have done.

-Alexis, Santa Clara

Dear Dad

What’s up? How you been? I know it’s tough doing a sixteen-year sentence, especially in federal prison. I miss you like crazy, even though I talk to you almost every day. I know you’re probably disappointed in me for being in here. But I’ll explain everything to you when I get out, and you call. You know I’ve been in here for only a week and it’s hard to get through this. I don’t know how you’ve done it for nine years, and still, you’ve got more time to knock down?

I’m proud of you for fighting and staying tough. You’re gonna be home real soon. When you’re home, I’ll make you proud, too. I promise.

You always told me to stick with basketball and school and when I told you I dropped 20 points against Monroe, you got all excited. Then when I told you I had a 3.0 GPA in school, you told me, “That’s good. Keep it up,” and you were all happy for me.

But I can’t wait for you to come home so we can just spend all week together somewhere far away from here. Just stay focused and keep maintaining and you’ll be home soon, Pops. I love you. Keep your head! One thing you always told me.

Sincerely, your son…

-Josh, Alameda

Letter to My “Dad”

You are worthless! I don’t like you for nothing. Didn’t even take care of me, left my mother and brothers by ourselves with no support and remorse. You’re a piece of shhh. I’m doing better than you ever will. So screw you and don’t even say that you know me.

Now I got my stepdad, actually he’s my real dad ‘cause he looks out for me no matter what my situation, as well as my mother.

-Ricardo, Santa Cruz

Dear Dad,

I’ll keep this short and simple. You were a great friend, and a terrible father.

You gave me dope, but no love.

Instead of goals and morals, you taught me criminal instincts. You deserted me more times than I can remember, and left me to serve a prison sentence. Even though I still suffer from our relationship, I forgive you. You are my father, and I will always love you, but I am a man now and will go a different route than the example you set for me. Still, though, I thank you for all that I learned from our experiences.

-Your son, James, The Odyssey House, New Orleans Louisiana

 Dear Dad            

It has been a long time coming. I finally had the guts to write it. Dad, I ain’t scared of you no more! From your mental abuse to the physical abuse, I ain’t scared.

Can you see I am still your baby girl? Even though you called me a mistake, because being born ruined your dreams. Dad, all I wanted was your love. To hear you say you love me and really mean it. Or to at least spend some time with you. That’s all I wanted when I was a child. But not all hopes and dreams come true. At least you have a second chance of being a father, and I’m proud of you for not drinking anymore. I can see you’re happy.

Even though I’m the black sheep of the family, I want to make you proud, the way I am of you. I vow to never disappoint you again.

-Nellida, The Odyssey House, New Orleans Louisiana

 Dear Dad

It’s been several years since we’ve seen each other. I remember you always called me your “mini-me” because I looked and acted just like you. I also remember you telling me to do as you said, not as you did. After the divorce, I didn’t see much of you, nor heard from you. Not even on most of my birthdays. My life has been a mess since that divorce.

Slowly you went from smoking weed to drinking to doing pills to dropping out of school and doing harder and harder drugs with the old spoon and rig. It wasn’t until I wound up in jail that I decided to get back in touch with you. When I told you about how my life had went spiraling down and all the things I’ve done, you told me that I had been doing the same things you did. I was blindly following in your footsteps. I guess some of us are doomed to become our parents.

-Love,Your Son, The Odyssey House, New Orleans Louisiana

 Dear Dad

 It’s OK you walked out on me when I was younger. You left me and my mom and brother for my Auntie.

But I have no love for you and don’t care for you at all.

-Madalynn, Bernalillo County New Mexico

 Dear Dad

It’s been three years that I haven’t seen you. We had fun times together when I was young. Where are you? I miss you. I love it when we would play soccer together. My sisters miss you. Why did you leave me? I hope you come back. You could teach me a lot of things.

-Lil A, Marin

 Readers’ comments are welcome.



Puerto Rico Cocaine Seizure Points to Caribbean’s Revival as Drug Hub

The seizure earlier last month of more than a metric ton of cocaine in Puerto Rico is the latest indication of what may be the Caribbean’s revival as a major drug trans-shipment hub in the Western hemisphere.

The seizure earlier last month of more than a metric ton of cocaine in Puerto Rico is the latest indication of what may be the Caribbean’s revival as a major drug trans-shipment hub in the Western hemisphere.

The Coast Guard unloaded 1.1 metric tons of cocaine in Puerto Rico on June 2. The drugs, seized a week earlier off the island’s southern coast, are estimated to have a wholesale value of around $32 million.

According to a June 6 press release, three Dominican nationals were arrested as part of the operation. They will face US federal charges in a Puerto Rico court.

The incident is the latest in a series of large cocaine seizures in the Caribbean this year. In a single operation in February, the Coast Guard seized 4.2 metric tons of cocaine heading to Europe in international waters off the northern coast of Suriname — the largest bust in the Atlantic Ocean in nearly two decades.

Meanwhile, on June 4, the Jamaica Observer reported a small seizure of 75 kilograms of cocaine that were being shipped from Suriname and Guyana, indicating that the Caribbean is an important route for both large-scale and small-scale trafficking.

The latest seizures serve as a reminder of the Caribbean’s important role as a drug transshipment hub, but also of the variety of routes and operations established in the area.

Editor’s Note: The Caribbean was a major source of cocaine trafficking during the 1980s, but efforts by the Drug Enforcement Administration to crack down on the trade fueled the rise of Mexico and Central America as alternative trans-shipment points. A resurgence of traffic was noted as early as 2013, when the DEA reported some 14 percent of cocaine shipments headed for the U.S. were identified as coming from the Caribbean region, particularly Puerto Rico and neighboring Dominican Republic.

Today, Central America and Mexico continue to be the main corridor for South American drugs heading to the US market, accounting for an estimated 76 percent of cocaine smuggled north, according to the DEA’s 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment report.

However, almost all of the remainder travels to the United States through the Caribbean, the report states.

US authorities have in the past argued that evidence points to growing trafficking activities through the Caribbean. In fact, the DEA has said that the region saw a three-fold increase in drug smuggling between 2009 and 2014.

Indeed, the Caribbean’s transshipment role has grown increasingly visible in recent years.

The region remains one of the two main transit points for cocaine crossing the Atlantic to feed European consumption markets.

This flow has most likely been fueled by the boom in Colombia‘s cocaine production, while the deep crisis shaking neighboring Venezuela — from where many Caribbean shipments are launched — also facilitates trafficking activities.

This story is a slightly edited version of a report published this week by InSight Crime, and is reproduced by The Crime Report under agreement.  Readers’ comments are welcome.


Is the ATF’s System to Warn Gun Dealers of Break-Ins Working?

An investigation by The Trace reveals most dealers located near a recent burglary did not recall being contacted under ATF’s recently established automated “fflAlert” system. The ATF says it is still modifying the system to “increase its effectiveness.”

An investigation by The Trace reveals most dealers located near a recent burglary did not recall being contacted under ATF’s recently established automated “fflAlert” system. The ATF says it is modifying the system.

Using stolen cars, sledgehammers, and, occasionally, just their hands, thieves smashed their way into gun stores at an unprecedented rate last year. The spike in dealer break-ins and thefts prompted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the federal agency that regulates gun stores, to launch an automated system that calls federally licensed firearms dealers, or FFLs, to alert them when a store has been robbed in their county.

The agency says “fflAlert” provides the important service of warning gun stores that criminals are active in their area, and urging them to take precautions.

But many of those calls don’t appear to be getting through.

The Trace called 25 licensed dealers operating in one of five counties in Kansas, Florida, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Washington where a store was burglarized in April or May. At 21 of the stores, the manager or owner said they did not recall receiving an automated phone call from the agency alerting them to the nearby theft.

Many of the dealers said they had heard about the nearby break-ins from the local news and friends, not from fflAlert. A handful said they received in-person visits from law enforcement following nearby burglaries of gun stores, including from ATF agents. Seven dealers said they didn’t know that there had been a nearby gun store theft until contacted by The Trace.

On April 13, Signature Manufacturing was burglarized in Merriam, Kansas. Between $6,000 and $10,000 worth of guns were stolen. Reached by phone a week later, David Birk, the owner of Birk Outfitters in nearby Overland Park, said he “wasn’t aware” of the burglary.

“I’m surprised to hear about it,” he said. “I’ve always thought this was a fairly safe county.”

The ATF launched fflAlert after gun store burglaries soared to new heights in 2016. A total of 558 burglaries were reported at licensed firearms dealers, a 30 percent jump over 2015. In those thefts, more than 7,488 firearms were stolen, a 59 percent increase over 2015.

Stolen weapons, by definition, end up in criminal hands. Guns stolen from dealers have been recovered at crime scenes, including murders.

Dealers are required to notify the ATF after they have been burglarized. Once the agency receives the notification, the fflAlert system begins automatically dialing other gun retailers in the same county. The call is a pre-recorded message, alerting businesses to the nearby theft, and urging the establishment to “ensure the security of both your inventory and property.”

The call details the means of entry utilized in the recent theft.

The ATF says the calls are made between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., seven days a week. The program contacts traditional retail establishments and pawn shops, and uses the phone numbers provided by stores to the ATF during the licensing process.

The Trace reached out to dealers at the same phone numbers used by the ATF. If no one answered, we contacted the businesses through publically listed numbers.

ATF spokesperson Mary Markos said in an emailed statement that the fflAlert system is active in all 50 states. She declined to address specific instances where gun stores said they did not receive the automated phone calls.

“The system is designed to call each FFL once,” Markos said. “Unfortunately, we do not have a system in place to continuing calling until someone answers, but the system does leave the information on voicemail. As it is a new program, we will continue to modify and refine it to increase its effectiveness.”

Two of the four dealers who said they did receive an fflAlert call are located near Armageddon Supplies in Janesville, Wisconsin. The store was at the epicenter of a nationwide manhunt after an anti-government extremist broke into Janesville’s Armageddon Supplies on April 4, stole 18 weapons, and sent a threatening manifesto to the White House.

ATF spokesperson Mary Markos said fflAlert contacted 52 dealers in Rock County after the Armageddon break-in.

The owners of Rock County Arms in Janesville and Ambler’s Gun Room in Beloit both said they received the ATF’s robocall the morning after Armageddon Supplies was struck. Tom Ambler of Ambler’s Gun Room learned of the heist from fflAlert.

“It made me much more mindful and watchful of my comings and goings, and if anybody was watching the establishment,” he said.

Later, Ambler spoke about Jakubowski’s crime with local police and agents from the ATF’s Milwaukee field office.

The ATF has limited ability to improve the security of the nation’s 60,000 retail firearm dealers. The agency provides literature on best practices for repelling burglars and preventing loss of firearms, though it has no authority to actually require the adoption of any particular security measures.

Most state and city governments do not place additional anti-theft requirements on gun sellers. In fact, many states — including Wisconsin and Florida — have passed so-called preemption laws, which prevent local governments from instituting their own gun-related regulations, such as minimum anti-theft requirements.

Even in states where the National Rifle Association has less political clout, or that don’t bar localities from making their own gun laws, it’s rare that dealers will be required to fortify their stores against theft. Washington is one of 41 states that allow gun stores to operate without any minimum security measures.

As a result, some criminals there see gun stores as an easy target. Just before 3 a.m. on May 26, thieves broke into the I-5 Guns and Ammo store in the town of Lacey, Washington, making off with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of guns and other merchandise.

A manager at Tumwater Pawn Brokers said he received a call from the ATF that very morning, urging the store to be vigilant since burglars were targeting local firearms dealers. But for the pawn shop, the message was a little late: it had been burglarized ten days earlier.

The Crime Report is pleased to publish this story in partnership with The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun issues. A full version of the story is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.


How L.A. County Faced Its Tragic Problem with Sex-Trafficked Kids

Los Angeles police and social workers believed the young girls picked up as prostitutes could best be helped through the juvenile court system. Then they realized little would change until they went after the traffickers who had made L.A. County one of the top child sex-trafficking hubs in the U.S.

Michelle Guymon thought sex trafficking was something that happened to young girls in other countries until a meeting called by a local judge changed her life.

Guymon was director of Camp Scudder, one of two girls’ camps in Los Angeles County’s probation system, which housed girls picked up by police for prostitution, when she listened to experts at a special subcommittee that her friend Judge Donna Groman of the local Juvenile Delinquency Court invited her to join on November 16, 2010.

“It was a day that had a profound impact on my life,” she recalled. “I learned that this exploitation wasn’t something happening [only] in a faraway country. In fact, it was happening right here, in our community, to the very young women I was charged to protect.”

She had no idea that the year before an FBI report had named Los Angeles one of the 13 most intense child sex trafficking hubs in the U.S.

After the meeting, Guymon talked to the now-retired chief of the probation department, Jerry Powers.

“We’ve got a system full of these kids,” Guymon told him. “If they’re victims, then they shouldn’t be in detention.They shouldn’t be locked up.”

Today, Guymon is director of the Child Trafficking Unit for the Los Angeles County Probation Department, and is part of a group that aims to make LA’s efforts to combat child sex trafficking a model for the nation.

Child sexual exploitation is a significant problem across the nation.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), one in six of the 18,500 children reported as having run away from home in 2016 were “likely sex trafficking victims.” The organization defines sex trafficking victims as young people under 17 years old — boys and girls — who are “exploited through commercial sex.” Of these, “86 percent were in the care of social services when they went missing,” NCMEC says.

In L.A. County Probation, the average age for trafficked kids is 15½, but the exploitation often starts earlier, Guymon said.

“We don’t see 12-year-olds in the probation system, but in one of my early cases, a girl in a group home said her exploitation started at the age of 11 when her adopted mother sold her to support her drug habit.”

Around the same time, Commissioner Catherine Pratt of the Juvenile Delinquency Court was making the same discovery in her courtroom, as she noticed an increase in prostitution cases. Pratt realized the minors being charged were victims of child sex trafficking.

In 2011, Pratt and Guymon both applied for three-year federal grants.

Pratt proposed to open a dedicated courtroom that would focus on providing alternatives to detention and assistance for commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC). Guymon and her team applied to create a human trafficking unit inside probation, the first in the county. She hoped the grant would help her unit secure advocacy services for victims. The idea was for the advocates to help keep kids out of detention altogether, or to help shorten their detention time and get them into services and support.

Their timing was good.

A year before, in 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice had published the National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, outlining ways to address the growing problem of child exploitation, including providing grants to state, local and tribal government agencies, along with nonprofit partners.

Both got their grants. Pratt developed and supervised the STAR (Succeeding Through Treatment and Resilience) Court, and Guymon developed the human trafficking unit.

All Hands on Deck

Today Guymon’s team includes nine probation staff members, plus a supervisor, with Guymon as the head. But Guymon began her team with just three people: herself and two other probation officers.

At first, she and her two staffers were stretched thin. Getting a huge county bureaucracy — like that of Los Angeles County — to shift gears enough to move on a problem isn’t easy, even if that problem is as urgent as child sex trafficking. After a presentation by Guymon and company at a meeting of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, the board became supportive. Yet the problem couldn’t be addressed by just one agency, a few nonprofit advocacy groups and a small alternative court.

Nearly four years later, on Nov. 16, 2015, the board passed another motion, noting that Los Angeles needed “a single, countywide body to manage, coordinate, and monitor the county’s many CSEC initiatives.”

Michelle Guymon. Photo by Kristy Plaza

No one agency could handle such a task, the board agreed. The result was the L.A. County CSEC Integrated Leadership Team, now known by the slightly awkward acronym of CSEC ILT. The Team was to be jointly led by probation, DCFS and the LA County Sheriff’s Department.

The ball was moved forward still farther when in September 2015 the U.S. Department of Justice provided a $1.5 million grant to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell to jointly create an LA Regional Human Trafficking Task Force that would work in partnership with other law enforcement agencies, and with CSEC ILT. The task force also partnered with the Los Angeles Police Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and 46 independent police departments in Los Angeles, uniting law enforcement to combat this issue collaboratively.

One of the most important puzzle pieces when designing the multi-agency effort was the court system. In that arena, L.A. County was one step ahead.

In 2011, while Guymon was launching her unit, Pratt had launched the STAR Court, a dedicated courtroom in Compton where Pratt now hears only CSEC cases two days each week. As an adjunct to the courtroom process, a special multidisciplinary team (MDT) meets on Wednesdays. The team—a public defender, a district attorney, an education advocate, a human trafficking advocate, a DCFS agent, a probation officer and Pratt—fosters relationships with the kids who come through the court. While most judges only see such juveniles twice per year in their courtroom, Pratt checks in with them every three to five weeks, when each kid has a scheduled court appearance to review their case and personal progress.

In between, the multidisciplinary team keeps in touch.

Probation is the leader of the team and Guymon is proud of its work.

“The level of [individual] engagement that we’ve created [with kids] is what makes a huge difference in the STAR court,” she said. “We have a dedicated probation officer who is the court liaison to Judge Pratt for all matters that go through her calendar on both of those days.”

Guymon admitted that the unit doesn’t have the personnel to supervise every case. But they try to find solutions in whatever way they can, she said. If, for example, they identify a young person who they believe is at risk of CSEC, but who is close to turning 18, when they will be out of reach of the juvenile system, they introduce the youth to a probation officer with resources in the community, so that officer can help the youth once he or she is technically an adult. In other cases where the young person is already positively connected to a probation officer in their community, that relationship is folded into the protocol.

“One of the things that we know about this population is, it’s very relational,” Guymon said. “We don’t want to move them to another probation officer who they don’t know. We triage it, so we take most of the kids that are 16½ and younger; that way we have some length of time to work with them.”

In the beginning, the MDT was a group of five. Now about 17 people participate in those Wednesday meetings. And since public health issues also impact CSEC victims, in the near future a public health nurse will join the team, navigating health services such as pregnancy, parenting, personal safety, and more.

Human Trafficking Task Force

Law enforcement was also a crucial piece of L.A. County’s newly created system. And, according to L.A. County Sheriff’s Captain Chris Marks, who is now the head of the LA Regional Human Trafficking Task Force, the key to getting cops to invest in the new CSEC program was training.

“When we rolled out the first-responder protocol last year to all the stations, the deputies were very receptive to this,” he said. “It’s not that law enforcement was opposed to it. They didn’t understand it. With the information and knowledge that came through [our] training, they realized what they were missing.”

The task force and leadership team work better together, Ladenheim said. “We don’t incarcerate CSEC victims, because victims don’t belong in jail. Our goal is to steer them out of probation, and into a victim-centered, trauma approach. Law enforcement [alone] isn’t the best to do that.”

One of the community organizations that partners the most actively with the law enforcement task force is CAST, Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.

From the moment they receive a referral or crisis call, CAST and the task force wrap services around the child through an emergency first-responder protocol, according to Becca Channell, CAST’s task force coordinator.

“We meet with the [victim to ensure] they get safe housing, clothing and any basic needs in that time of crisis,” Channell said. After that first step, CAST coordinates the longer-term services the young person needs, such as as health care, more permanent housing, employment training, education and more.

“They receive legal services from the very beginning,” she said. “When they were being exploited, survivors had to rely on their trafficker for income, housing and food. These services are essential to break that tie between the survivor and trafficker so they can move forward and build a life of their own.”

The coordinated effort with law enforcement is also critical, according to Channell. “It [gives] us an avenue to reach the victims.”

In the beginning, many in the sheriff’s department were operating under an old view of human trafficking, and had not yet understood that it was essential not to treat victims as criminals, Channell said. “We do this training with all the new people who come in from the [sheriff’s] academy to continue to shift those mindsets. It’s an ongoing process.”

In addition, she said, CAST does training with patrol officers who don’t work with human trafficking cases per se, “but are very likely to come across a human trafficking victim.”

This happens with regularity, according to Captain Marks. “A couple weeks ago,” he said, “the San Gabriel Police Department was doing an operation that led them to a motel unrelated to sex trafficking. They came across three victims and three pimps.”

The San Gabriel cops knew they had some kind of sex trafficking situation, Marks said, “because of the awareness that’s catching on. But they still needed some help. So they called our Task Force.”

Solving the Recruitment Problem

One of the greatest difficulties both the task force and the leadership team face is keeping kids from being recruited in the first place, Ladenheim and Guymon said.

This is particularly problematic when dealing with youth in the probation system or in the group homes of Los Angeles’ child welfare system, where other young people who are being sexually exploited themselves will try to recruit peers by glamorizing the life. They tell other kids about all the “good” things they could have, things they might not normally get, if they join.

In order to combat recruitment, CSEC ILT conducts educational workshops in the county’s three juvenile halls. It’s a prevention curriculum, according to Guymon. The idea is to ensure that kids understand what the commercial sexual exploitation of kids really means.

“We teach kids the tactics exploiters and peer recruiters will use to get them into the life. [At the workshops] we get a lot of disclosures, where kids are saying, ‘This is what my boyfriend does to me.’ They are starting to question what their peers have told them about the life,” Guymon said.

Those young kids who are recruiting their peers are under an enormous amount of pressure by their trafficker, according to Guymon. “Many of our adult survivors say they regret recruiting other kids. They did it out of fear, to try and keep themselves safe,” she said.

Preventing victims from returning to their traffickers once they’ve been extricated is another difficulty.

“On average, the victims run back to their traffickers because of the trauma bonds or Stockholm Syndrome that has developed,” Ladenheim said.

With this issue in mind, about two years ago, the leadership team added additional training for task force members on the intersection of trauma and sexual exploitation. It’s important to include such training, Guymon said. Otherwise staff and officers often don’t understand why kids run away from placement and back to an exploiter.

For a very long time, she said, law enforcement viewed trafficked children with the lens of criminality. “We saw them as teenage prostitutes, we didn’t see them as kids who were being victimized and exploited.” And the exploitation often starts at home, or close to home.

Adult survivors, according to Guymon, often say that their personal history of child sexual abuse was more devastating to them, long term, than their exploitation by strangers. “That childhood abuse and trauma is something they still struggle with today. We help with unpacking the layers of trauma these kids have had.”

Vidhya Ananthakrishnan, a project director at the Vera Institute of Justice, explained why underlying trauma is a driving force: “Sexual abuse, family violence, it forces kids to make this choice [to run away]. They end up on the streets homeless, so they are recruited into being trafficked. It’s about survival, and trying to make the best out of a terrible situation.”

When Channell was an emergency response manager, she learned from victims how difficult it is to get out of being trafficked: “At least they know they’ll eat and know where they’ll sleep.”

The Problem of Vanishing Testimony

The conundrum of solving the child trafficking problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is so difficult to convict the traffickers.

According to Guymon, the task force struggles to get trafficking cases to court primarily because trafficked kids are terrified and not willing to testify. Without the primary evidence of victim testimony, the case against the trafficker usually vanishes.

If a child is willing to testify, then CSEC ILT works on the case with the DA’s office. They use a protocol developed specifically for victims who are witnesses in these cases to ensure the child receives protection and services throughout the process.

“What we have done in the past is to wrap as many services around them as possible. If there are any threats, intimidation or harm, we work with the DA’s office to get the kids relocated,” Guymon said.

The risk is very real, she said. When a child is testifying against someone who has sexually abused them, they run the risk of harm from their trafficker, and others, especially when the trafficking is gang-related. The trafficker is the one being prosecuted and going to prison, but the gang is still in the community.

Guymon said they are looking for better solutions, such as having the victims testify via closed-circuit television, so that they don’t have to face a trafficker while testifying.

California Senate Bill 176, approved in 2015, already allows for alternative court procedures to protect the rights of a child witness who are under 13. But youth over 13 were left out of the equation.

A subsequent bill, California Assembly Bill 1276, approved on Sept. 26, 2016, went one step further. This bill allows children 15 and younger to testify via closed-circuit TVs outside the courtroom. Guymon wishes the bill included all teenagers, although she believes it’s a good starting point. “It should have been everyone under 18 years old,” she said.

So, for now, she said, the force wraps the young people in services in whatever way is possible. “We want kids to know that if you are testifying, you’re not just a case. We will put the services, support and protections all the way through.”

Critical Next Steps

So, what should be done next to better solve the tragic problem of child trafficking?

For Guymon, more training is among the main steps most needed.

To date, CSEC ILT has trained about 12,000 professionals in Los Angeles county in the First Responder Protocol for CSEC youth — a sort of CSEC 101 that builds awareness of how the commercial sexual exploitation of children works, the vulnerability of the kids involved and what exactly puts children at risk. Those trained include probation officer, cops, county social workers, foster care providers, health care providers and more.

Guymon argues that everybody and anybody should be trained to increase public awareness. “You [the average citizen] might see something, so you need to know what to do,” she said.

Her voice is professional, but also filled with an urgency often present when she talks about the kids who have become her mission.

“That’s the only way you stop things. You have all eyes on deck.”

Marks agrees. He said it is essential for the public to “truly understand the magnitude of the problem.”

To illustrate he described one of the task force’s recent sting operations in which they posted fake ads, then an investigator talked to potential customers. One ad produced 1,200 text messages exchanged with would-be buyers, he said.

“That to me portrays the problem — and the demand that exists out there. Demand is immeasurable, you can’t quantify it. You post an ad and within seconds, you’re getting a response.”

So, now the task force is putting an emphasis on “the demand side” of sex trafficking, Marks said. “This is what we’re really looking at and coming up with ways [to combat it]. Combating demand involves enforcement, of course, but also, he said, it means “ the portrayal” of what the public considers “a john” to be. “He’s exploiting a woman, [or] a child for money.”

The other part of the “awareness campaign,” he said, is getting the message out “to these kids that are already in this life.” He wants them to know that law enforcement now understands that they’ve been victimized.

“Most of the youth are girls, but boys too, [and] they don’t trust the system.” The challenge, Marks said, is to break through that lack of trust that makes CSEC children so vulnerable to pimps and traffickers. He wants trafficked kids to know they’re not going to be treated like criminals, as was nearly always the case in the recent past.

“We’re not looking at you like you’ve done something wrong. … You have a safe place to come to. We want to help you.”

This is an edited and slightly condensed version of a story published this week by WitnessLA, produced as part of a reporting project for 2016 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellowship with the collaboration of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. The full version, along with videos, is available here. Kristy Plaza is a 2016 John Jay/Tow Reporting Fellow.  She welcomes readers’ comments.


Citigroup Subsidiary Admits Failure to Stop Money Laundering to Mexico

Banamex USA avoided prosecution this week by acknowledging its lack of oversight over more than $142 million in suspicious remittances between 2007-2012. But the fine imposed by the Justice Department amounted to little more than a “slap on the wrist,” says an analyst.

A subsidiary of one of the largest banking corporations in the U.S. this week admitted to engaging in criminal behavior by failing to properly investigate tens of millions of dollars in suspicious money transfers to Mexico.

But the $97 million fine imposed by federal authorities raises questions about how seriously Washington is pursuing financial wrongdoing by powerful corporations and financial institutions.

Photo by Ruy Landa

Banamex USA, a subsidiary of the US banking conglomerate Citigroup, accepted responsibility for “criminal violations by willfully failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering (AML) compliance program … and willfully failing to file Suspicious Activity Reports,” according to a May 22 press release from the US Department of Justice.

In exchange for cooperating with the government’s investigation, paying the fine, and admitting wrongdoing, the bank will not be formally prosecuted for breaking the law.

Between 2007 and 2012, Banamex internally issued some 18,000 alerts about suspicious transactions involving a total of more than $142 million in remittances to Mexico processed through the bank. Yet Banamex investigated fewer than ten of these, and warned US authorities of only nine suspicious transactions during the five-year period.

As part of the agreement with the Justice Department, the bank “recognized that it should have improved its monitoring of … remittances but failed to do so,” the press release states.

“As [Banamex] began to expand its remittance processing business in 2006, [Banamex] understood the need to enhance its anti-money laundering efforts, yet failed to make necessary improvements to its transaction monitoring controls or to add staffing resources,” the Justice Department said.

Although the Justice Department did not specify whether or not any of the Banamex transactions at issue were used for money laundering by organized crime, remittance transfers are one of the many ways that Mexican crime groups send money earned from illicit activities in the United States back to Mexico. And Citigroup is hardly the first major international banking company to be accused of failing to stop suspicious transactions of this kind.

Although the financial penalties paid by banks in such instances may sound large, they are in fact little more than a slap on the wrist when considering the vast profits raked in by these institutions year after year.

Take, for instance, the case of the now-defunct Wachovia bank, which was purchased by Wells Fargo in 2008. As part of a “deferred prosecution” agreement with the US Justice Department — remarkably similar to the recent deal struck with Banamex — Wachovia agreed to forfeit $160 million for “willfully failing” to implement anti-money laundering measures over a five-year period. However, this fine amounted to less than 2 percent of the bank’s profits during any given one of those years, according to The Guardian.

As for the latest incident with Banamex, the value of Citigroup shares lost less than 1 percent on the market following the official announcement of the fine, according to the New York Times.

The fact that so many banking companies have been and continue to be implicated in allowing money laundering to take place through their institutions suggests that the deterrant effect of deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements is minimal.

Thus, there is little incentive for financial institutions — whose main purpose is maximizing profit — to spend resources on oversight mechanisms, if they lose little when they are caught and stand to gain if they are not.

This is not the first time that Banamex has been hit with penalties for lax monitoring.

According to the Justice Department, the bank paid “a $140 million civil money penalty” in July 2015 to resolve separate, but related, investigations. Additionally, US authorities penalized several former senior executives of the company for related reasons in March 2017.

“As part of those actions, two executives were fined and prohibited from working at financial institutions in the future, one was fined, and one was prohibited from working at financial institutions in the future,” the press release says.

For its part, Citigroup released a statement saying that it was “pleased to resolve these matters which conclude all remaining open inquiries,” explaining that it is gradually closing down Banamex, with a liquidation date set for June 2017.

Too Big to Jail?

As previously pointed out by InSight Crime, the list of major banking entities that have faced similar reprimands from US authorities in the past is fairly extensive. In arguably the most famous incident, the British multinational bank HSBC was fined $1.9 billion in 2012, in part for allowing Mexican and Colombian cartels to launder nearly $900 million worth of criminal proceeds using the bank’s US subsidiaries.

SEE ALSO: InSight Crime Coverage of Money Laundering

The similarities between the HSBC case and the more recent one involving Citigroup are worth noting. The financial entities both admitted that they had failed to establish proper mechanisms to prevent money laundering to Mexico, but both evaded prosecution by cooperating with authorities and by paying a fine.

US authorities have argued that major financial institutions are simply too powerful for the government to successfully bring to justice, or that too aggressively prosecuting them for criminal wrongdoing could harm the US or global economy due to these companies’ huge size and importance.

However, critics have countered that this “too big to jail” philosophy has impeded efforts to seek more impactful penalties for wrongdoing in banks’ agreements with authorities.

Some US banks have taken proactive steps to avoid being involved in criminal activity. But experts have argued that the lack of incentive on the part of financial institutions to police themselves means that governments must take a greater role in detecting and disrupting the illicit financial flows that fuel the activities of crime groups in Mexico and around the globe.

This is an abridged and slightly edited version of a story that appeared this week in InSight Crime, a content partner with The Crime Report. The full version is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.