Federal agents are offering a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrests of four Mexican nationals charged in the shooting death of a US border patrol agent whose killing is linked to the notorious "Fast and Furious" gun-smuggling operation.
The million-dollar bounty offer was made Monday as Justice Department officials unsealed an indictment charging five men with involvement in the murder of agent Brian Terry during a December 2010 shootout in Arizona near the Mexican border. One of the five is already in federal custody.
The action comes 11 days after Attorney General Eric Holder was held in contempt of Congress for allegedly withholding documents subpoenaed by a House oversight committee investigating the Fast and Furious operation. In addition, President Obama has claimed the documents are protected by executive privilege.
The committee accused the attorney general of stonewalling Congress. The contempt vote was 255 to 67.
Also on Monday, a CNN/ORC poll showed that a majority of Americans support the contempt vote against Mr. Holder, although the poll also showed an even larger majority viewed the congressional investigation as an attempt by Republicans to gain a political advantage.
Fifty-three percent of respondents said they approved of the contempt vote against Holder, while 33 percent disapproved.
In contrast, 61 percent said they believed the oversight investigation into Fast and Furious was undertaken to gain a political advantage. Thirty-four percent said the probe was in pursuit of “real ethical concerns.”
It is unclear why Justice Department officials decided now to make the nine-page indictment public. A federal grand jury returned the charges in November. Such charges are routinely kept under seal to avoid tipping off indicted suspects before federal agents can locate and arrest them.
“This investigation has previously resulted in one defendant being charged with Agent Terry’s murder and taken into custody,” Holder said in a statement. “Today’s announcement reflects the department’s unrelenting commitment to finding and arresting the other individuals responsible for this horrific tragedy.”
The attorney general added: “Agent Terry served his country honorably and made the ultimate sacrifice in trying to protect it from harm, and we will stop at nothing to bring those responsible for his murder to justice.”
The Mexican nationals charged in the murder were allegedly part of an armed group that robbed marijuana traffickers as they transited the border region. Two assault weapons recovered at the scene were later traced to the Fast and Furious undercover operation.
During the firefight with US border patrol agents, Terry was shot and killed. One of the alleged shooters, Manuel Osorio-Arellanes, was arrested at the scene. The four others fled.
The four fugitives are identified in the indictment as Jesus Rosario Favela-Astorga, Ivan Soto-Barraza, Heraclio Osorio-Arellanes, and Lionel Portillo-Meza.
All five have been charged with first- and second-degree murder, as well as assault on a federal officer, and illegal possession of a firearm, among other charges.
A sixth man named in the indictment, Rito Osorio-Arellanes, was arrested prior to the shooting. He has pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.
Under the Fast and Furious undercover operation, federal agents allowed an estimated 2,000 weapons to be smuggled across the Mexican border in an effort to develop intelligence and, ideally, shut down criminal organizations operating in the border region.
Many of the guns were later recovered at crime scenes.
A similar operation was mounted during the Bush administration and was discontinued. A new version, code-named Fast and Furious, started up again during the Obama administration.
Members of Congress, led by House oversight committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R) of California, have been investigating the failed operation and want to know who at the upper levels of the Justice Department knew about it.
Holder and the White House insist that all relevant documents have already been shared with Congress.
Following the House vote, the Justice Department said it would not investigate Holder’s alleged contempt. The House is expected to file a civil action asking a federal judge to order the Obama administration to release requested documents to Congress.