By WHITNEY PHILLIPS, Associated Press
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Authorities made a rare disclosure Monday linked to the botched gun-smuggling investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious, revealing identities and requesting the public's help in capturing four fugitives accused in the shooting death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent 18 months ago.
The announcement comes in the wake of pressure from U.S. House Republicans who led a vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, criticizing the nation's top prosecutor for withholding information related to the probe.
"We believe it's in the best interest of this ongoing investigation to unseal the case at this point in time and to enlist the assistance of the general publics in both Mexico and the United States," said federal prosecutor Laura Duffy. She said the decision to release the information came independently and would not discuss the recent congressional action against Holder.
Operation Fast and Furious was launched in 2009 to catch trafficking kingpins, but federal agents lost track of most of the weapons they were trying to trace. Some of the guns purchased illegally with the government's knowledge were later found at crime scenes in Mexico and the U.S.
Critics have hammered federal authorities for allowing informants to walk away from Phoenix-area gun shops with weapons, rather than immediately arresting suspects and seizing firearms.
Since the fatal shootout near the U.S.-Mexico line in December 2010, deep flaws in the government's weapons trafficking case have come to light, and federal authorities have repeatedly declined to disclose information related to the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, such as what became of the gun used to kill him.
Operation Fast and Furious focused on an accused smuggling ring suspected of purchasing guns for the brutal Sinaloa cartel.
U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents lost track of about 1,400 of the more than 2,000 weapons — including AK-47s and other high-powered assault rifles — which authorities believed were headed for drug cartels in Mexico.
Smuggling operations often seek out firearms in the U.S. because they have limited access to weapons in Mexico, due in part to very restrictive laws there.
Border bandits have operated in the region for decades, running weapons and drugs and robbing and sexually assaulting illegal immigrants.
The release of the suspects' identities in a newly unsealed indictment Monday came with the offer of a $1 million reward for information leading to their capture.
It marked the first time all five people accused of being involved in the shooting were named by authorities.
The FBI says it is seeking information related to 31-year-old Jesus Rosario Favela-Astorga, 34-year-old Ivan Soto-Barraza, 34-year-old Heraclio Osorio-Arellanes and Lionel Portillo-Meza.
Portillo-Meza's age and birthplace were unavailable. The other three fugitives were born in Mexico, but their hometowns were not available.
Authorities had previously released the identity of the fifth suspect, Manuel Osorio-Arellanes, of El Fuerte in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. His age was not immediately available.
All five have been charged with murder. They also face charges of assaulting four federal agents.
Manuel Osorio-Arellanes has been in custody since the night of the shooting. He has pleaded not guilty in the case.
Manuel Osorio-Arellanes was shot during the gunfight. He told investigators that he raised his weapon toward the agents during the shootout but didn't fire, the FBI said in records.
FBI agents declined to discuss which fugitive is suspected of firing the shot that killed Terry. They also would not comment on whether the weapon was linked to an Operation Fast and Furious purchase.
Much of the information in the Manuel Osorio-Arellanes case has been kept from public view after a judge sealed records in spring 2011. Six news organizations, including The AP, asked for the documents to be uncovered, and earlier this year prosecutors agreed.