Agents spying on Sinaloa Cartel associates traced two of their high-powered, semi-automatic assault rifles to a surprising source — a supervisor with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Joseph Michael Gill, tasked with rooting out traffickers amid America’s deadliest drug crisis, likely helped arm them during some of his 645 sales transactions on Gunbroker.com, according to court records. The veteran lawman — previously trusted to lead a team of about a dozen agents — even advertised on Gunbroker and Backpage websites using his government-issued phone number.
In a rare interview in February, Gill talked to The Courier Journal about the scandal and his ensuing 2018 resignation from the DEA, halting his 15-year career. Gill insists he did nothing wrong and said his case highlights a collision of overzealous regulators and ambiguous gun laws. The prosecutor says Gill knowingly evolved into a prolific gunrunner and his crimes are more indicative of how Americans, driven by greed, help arm dangerous criminals in the U.S. and cartels across the border.
“Cartels need firearms to support their business,” said Scott Brown, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Phoenix. “When they find people that are either willing to flagrantly violate the law or skirt the law or not practice due diligence, that is enabling the cartels to be armed and to have a destructive impact both in Mexico and the U.S.”
At least 70% of weapons seized in Mexico — including many guns used by cartels in massacres — were made in or came through America, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Some officials in Mexico and agents in the U.S. suspect the actual percentage is much higher. But Gill contends his case was “very political and not fair. If I wasn’t a DEA agent, I would never have been targeted the way that I was.”
“The 645 items that I bought or sold were mostly firearm parts and accessories, not all firearms,” he said of his Gunbroker.com sales that took place from 2000 to 2016. “I was always changing out holsters, sights, optics, tactical gear.”
Gill pleaded guilty in federal court in 2018 to one count of dealing in firearms without a license involving the sale of the two assault rifles — guns that originated in Kentucky — to the cartel associates and a third Mexican-bound rifle. He now insists he sold the three guns legally and only pleaded guilty because defending himself at trial could have cost more than $200,000. Phillip N. Smith Jr., who prosecuted Gill, characterized the amount of evidence as strong.
“It wasn’t political,” said Smith, who is now in private practice. “He broke the law. It’s a serious crime. That’s one of the ways bad guys who aren’t supposed to get guns to get a hold of them, by getting them from people who don’t play by the rules — like Mr. Gill.” Gill admitted to selling an assault rifle to a young man July 27, 2016, and, the next day, selling the same type of gun to Mauricio Balvastro, who identified himself to Gill as the young man’s “associate.” Both are alleged drug traffickers and associates of the Sinaloa Cartel, Brown told The Courier Journal. The men bought Colt M4LE rifles, which fire high-velocity rounds that can rip through police officers’ protective vests.
It’s a type of gun used by many SWAT teams and U.S. soldiers. Gill said he didn’t know the men were suspected drug traffickers and he did all that is legally required, checking the buyers’ drivers’ licenses and verifying they were of legal age and lived in his home state of Arizona.
Both buyers paid $1,000 for guns Gill bought online the month before for $632. That’s a 60% markup and a red flag. It’s commonly known by police — and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives warn about it on its website — that buyers who are willing to overpay might not be allowed to buy guns or don’t want to create a paper trail.
Brown called Gill’s crimes “disturbing.” Balvastro “was involved in the importation of a significant quantity of narcotics and distribution of those across the border and then to the East Coast, particularly the Philadelphia-Baltimore region.” Border agents confiscated one of the assault rifles Gill sold to the alleged drug traffickers in the small border town of Nogales, Arizona, according to court records. It was on its way to the burgeoning city of Nogales in Mexico, territory long controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel.
Smith, then an assistant U.S. attorney, urged a federal judge to send Gill to prison for 18 months for selling “large numbers of firearms to whoever would purchase them — without conducting any background checks and while ignoring red flags,” according to a 14-page motion filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson.
In court motions, the prosecutor pointed to several text messages by Gill to potential buyers, whom he sometimes met in mall parking lots, offering to sell assault rifles and more: “If you want another one of the colt m4’s (sic) let me know. I still have one left. I also have some handguns and a Remington 870 police shotgun.” Gill’s attorney, Jason Lamm, successfully lobbied for leniency, arguing in his motion that Gill committed a regulatory offense, “not an act of moral turpitude.” He pointed to his client’s accomplishments, including a DEA Exceptional Performance Award for toppling drug rings and pill mills a decade ago in and around Miami.
Lamm argued that Gill, now a convicted felon, is “being labeled a virtual pariah and an outcast from his brethren” in law enforcement, so a sentence of probation “still leaves the defendant with an ostensible Scarlet Letter for the rest of his life.”
In 2019, the judge opted for leniency, ordering Gill to remain on home detention for six months, perform 500 hours of community service and remain on probation for five years.