A Brief History
With El Paso so close to the Mexican border and Mexico in the throws of revolutionary struggle during the early 1900s, southwest Texas became a key focus of the Bureau soon after its founding in 1908. The El Paso office, in particular, played a central role in ensuring that revolutionary schemes against foreign governments would not be supported from U.S. soil. This work brought El Paso agents into close partnership with many groups: personnel from the U.S. Army and State Department; political, intelligence, and law enforcement officials in Mexico; and law enforcement authorities across Texas.
One early record is a January 1911 letter from Bureau Director Stanley Finch to Special Agent J. Herbert Cole—who was assigned to El Paso—about a potential Neutrality Act Case. Within four months of that letter, Cole had been assigned as Special Agent in Charge in El Paso, apparently the first so designated.
Cole was soon transferred, and the office’s next leader was Special Agent in Charge L.E. Ross. Ross and another agent, however, were implicated in munitions sales to Mexican revolutionaries, a violation of the Neutrality Act. Both were forced to resign.
Following this incident, the agents of the office served with distinction during World War I and the political and economic turmoil that followed. The Bureau’s national security responsibility increased greatly during this time. El Paso’s geographic location made it a center of this growth, with Neutrality Act violations continuing to be a major focus and the U.S./Mexican border becoming a key launching point for Germany’s intelligence operations against this country.
The Roaring ‘20s and Great Depression
In the 1920s, Neutrality Act cases remained an important responsibility. The new crime of interstate automobile theft was also growing, and the border between the U.S. and Mexico became a tempting escape point for such thieves.
Proximity to Mexico also meant that the office needed strong language skills. Hispanic agents like Manuel Sorola—who joined the El Paso office as a special agent in 1922 and served the FBI until the late 1940s—began playing numerically limited but operationally significant roles. Spanish speaking agents, though, were needed in many other offices as well, and the Bureau’s linguistic resources were often stretched thin in those days.
Paul E. Reynolds
Although agents did not regularly carry firearms and could not make arrests as law enforcement officials until 1934, our work in El Paso was often dangerous during this time. Tragically, El Paso Special Agent Paul E. Reynolds was killed in the line of duty in 1929. Reynolds had traveled to Phoenix in pursuit of evidence in a case. On August 9, he left his hotel and never returned. His body was found three days later with a bullet wound in his heart. A thorough investigation failed to shed any light on his murder, and his loss remains the sole unsolved line of duty death in FBI history.
As America endured the Great Depression, the El Paso Division was closed in 1932 as a cost-cutting measure. The Bureau, however, was just beginning its struggle against major violent criminals like John Dillinger, and the area around El Paso remained important to a number of our investigations. As a result, the office was reopened in February 1934. Within six months, agents had been given significant new tools to tackle crime, including the authority to carry firearms and the power to make arrests. The El Paso Division, like the rest of the Bureau, quickly developed a strong training program to make sure its personnel used these tools appropriately.
Even with these new authorities, the job of a special agent remained dangerous. On June 1, 1937, Special Agent Truett Rowe of the El Paso Division attempted to apprehend escaped prisoner Guy Osborne in Gallup, New Mexico. Osborne had been tracked down by Rowe and a Gallup police officer. While Osborne was gathering some personal effects, he secretly pulled out a gun and shot Rowe. The Gallup officer returned fire, but Osborne escaped. Rowe died in transit to the hospital. Osborne was later captured by the Gallup police and ultimately sentenced to life in prison under a new federal law that outlawed the murder of a federal officer.
World War II and the Cold War
By the late 1930s, another world war was underway. As in World War I, the border between Mexico and the U.S. was central to the Bureau’s national security responsibilities. Many German agents operated in Mexico, and our El Paso office was part of America’s defensive line against their threats. The border was so important to the Bureau’s mission that the El Paso employee newsletter at that time was titled “Borderlines.”
Another border—between Texas and New Mexico—was important to the Division in the early Cold War. At the time, the El Paso office was operating smaller satellite offices, or resident agencies, in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Most of the work handled in these resident agencies back then was related to the newly passed Atomic Energy Act, which required many employee and applicant loyalty-security investigations.
During the 1950s, El Paso Division personnel also investigated matters as diverse as the defrauding of a Mexican widow by two con men, the interstate theft of automobiles, and the apprehension of many dangerous fugitives—including heavily-armed bank robbers Dale and Trent Boyes in 1955 and two Top Ten Most Wanted fugitives in 1959.
Contact with the Spanish-speaking communities remained vitally important. In 1960, for instance, the Division was commended for a series of Spanish language tapes that it had recorded. The tapes were used to explain the FBI to Spanish-speaking residents and to solicit their help in bringing forward allegations of crimes and tips about fugitives and other criminals hidden in their communities.
The 1960s and 1970s
|El Paso Division, 1960s|
Major crime remained a concern into the 1960s. The El Paso Division played a crucial role in one of the nation’s earliest airline hijacking cases. In 1961, Leon Bearden and his son Cody hijacked a plane during its flight from Los Angeles to Houston and demanded that it be flown to Cuba. The elder Bearden claimed he was a socialist and wanted to relocate there. When the plane landed in El Paso to refuel, agents disabled it, arrested the men, and safely freed all of the passengers and crew.
Another major case involved Billie Sol Estes, a politically connected financier. Estes was suspected of mortgaging non-existent fertilizer tanks and was eventually convicted on mail fraud and conspiracy charges in what, at the time, was billed one of the most “gigantic swindles in the history of the U.S.”
The El Paso Division performed a wide array of other duties during this time. In 1964, for instance, agents gathered evidence that led to the indictment of a Texas Ranger for violating the civil rights of a prisoner by shocking him with an electric prodder; a witness in the case was also indicted for perjury. During a 1965 bank robbery investigation, analysis by the FBI Lab enabled El Paso agents to arrest a local police officer based on latent fingerprints found by Division personnel. The office was also commended for assistance it gave the Secret Service in protecting President Johnson’s family while they visited Mexico. And of course, the border provided the nexus for many automobile theft investigations, including the disruption of a large theft ring in 1965.
Although national unrest over riots and domestic terrorism in the late 1960s and the political corruption of Watergate in the 1970s did not seriously impact the Division, El Paso’s work continued to grow. In 1973, its investigation into an illegal gambling operation resulted in the arrest of the kingpin and many others involved in an extensive bookmaking enterprise. In 1976, another investigation led to the unraveling of a multi-city sting on stores selling bootleg copies of stereo tapes and cassettes.
By the late 1970s, the Division was developing several successful long-term undercover operations. Starting in 1978, Operation SIDEWINDER targeted a ring of thieves who stole weapons and vehicles, transported them to Mexico, and exchanged them for weapons and cash. The operation recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars and resulted in a number of arrests. Less than a year later, Operation BORDER SNATCH began to identify a major ring of thieves who targeted tractor trailers and construction equipment. By 1981, the office had made 22 arrests (another 29 were made by local authorities) and recovered millions of dollars in property. Such long-term investigations were important signs that the FBI was changing to address national concerns and evolving threats.
1980s and 1990s
In 1981, El Paso was a pioneer in adopting another innovation—the public tip line. In October of that year, the Division announced the creation of a public corruption hotline to solicit tips from local residents.
During this time, El Paso personnel chased fugitive white supremacists, child abusers, major drug kingpins, bank robbers, and others. The Division’s Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team and several ad hoc task forces, some of which included Mexican law enforcement, aided in many cases. White-collar crime investigations took on a new urgency in the 1980s as a series of bank failures spread across America. In the PERMBUST investigation, for example, El Paso played a crucial role in getting to the crimes at the bottom of the failures of three banks in the Midland/Odessa, Texas area. El Paso agents also helped pursue leads in the 1979 assassination of Texas Judge John Wood—one of the largest investigations in FBI history, leading to the conviction of Charles Harrelson—and sought the kidnappers and murderers of a U.S. Customs inspector.
New alliances also enhanced El Paso’s arsenal of law enforcement tools. In 1989, for instance, two indicted fugitives were featured on the new television show America’s Most Wanted. Thanks to tips from the broadcast, fugitives Jerry Whittington and Diane Armstrong—who were wanted for impersonation, transportation of stolen property, and other crimes—were captured.
Through the early 1990s, El Paso’s commitment to white-collar criminal investigations increased, but violent crime remained important as well. In June 1990, for example, El Paso agents arrested Jose Lorrente Eschevarria, one of two suspects in the murder of FBI Agent John L. Bailey of Las Vegas. Thanks to evidence recovered in the arrest, Eschevarria and his partner Carlos Gurry were convicted of Bailey’s murder and other charges.
Major drug enterprise investigations grew during this period as well. In the late 1990s, El Paso Division investigations led to the arrests and convictions of many members of the Amado Carrillo Fuentes Organization, a major criminal enterprise involved in illicit drug trade. El Paso personnel continued to make important contributions to the multi-agency El Paso Intelligence Center, which was launched by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in the 1970s to gather and share intelligence to help combat narcotics and weapons smuggling in the region. And in 1998, the opening of the new Federal Justice Center in El Paso confirmed the longtime cooperation between the FBI and the DEA, marking the first time that two agencies shared the same field office.
In the aftermath of 9/11, El Paso joined the rest of the FBI in reorganizing its priorities, making preventing terrorist attacks its new overriding mission. El Paso strengthened its Joint Terrorism Task Force (established in 1999), added a new task force in its Midland Resident Agency, and created a Field Intelligence Group to more proactively gather information on key threats.
The threat of violent gangs in the area has also led to strong cooperation between FBI, the El Paso Police Department, and other agencies through the El Paso Safe Streets Task Force. This task force—which combines agents, officers, and intelligence analysts of the various agencies—tracks and targets criminal groups like Folk Nation, the Texas Syndicate, and others in the region.
Political corruption has also remained a significant focus of the El Paso Division. In recent years, major investigations have targeted a wide variety of crimes—from bribery to fraud to conspiracy—involving politicians, judges, school trustees, and city employees in the area. The office has monitored its own affairs as well, arresting a language analyst for improper use of FBI computer systems in 2002. And it continues to build stronger partnerships with Mexican law enforcement officials on a wide variety of matters, from providing forensic science support in the investigation of multiple murders in Juarez, Mexico…to pursuing fugitives, drug runners, and potential terrorists.
As the FBI heads into its second century, the El Paso Division remains committed to protecting the people and defending the nation while upholding the rule of law and the civil liberties of all.