When federal law enforcement officials last year began collecting dossiers on mostly American journalists, activists and lawyers in Tijuana involved with the migrant caravan, one part of their investigation focused on an alleged plot by a drug cartel to sell guns to protesters, according to a Federal Bureau of Investigation report.
A Dec. 18, 2018, document from the FBI, obtained by the Union-Tribune, specifies an alleged plan for activists to purchase guns from a “Mexico-based cartel associate known as Cobra Commander,” or Ivan Riebeling.
The protesters wanted to “stage an armed rebellion at the border,” the FBI reported to dozens of federal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and Mexico.
The unclassified report was provided to the Union-Tribune on the condition the person providing it would not be named, and with the request that the entire document not be shared online because of the ongoing nature of the investigation.
The document warns of “anti-fascist activists” that “planned to disrupt U.S. law enforcement and military security operations at the US/Mexican border.”
Two additional law enforcement officials confirmed the investigation is ongoing, although no one has been charged. “Unclassified” means information can be released to people without a security clearance, but the document was also labeled “law enforcement sensitive,” which means it was intended to be seen only by those in law enforcement.
“This is an information report, not finally evaluated intelligence,” the six-page report states. “Receiving agencies are requested not to take action based on this raw reporting without prior coordination with the FBI.”
The FBI sent its report with “priority” to the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Drug Enforcement Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Administration, among other agencies.
Soldiers deploy concertina wire in a location along the Southwest border of the United States near Hidalgo, Texas.(U.S. Customs and Border Patrol)
Two people named in the report, Ivan Riebeling and Evan Duke, said the accusations are untrue and illogical.
Duke said he never met Riebeling and that Riebeling was not someone he would have associated with.
Riebeling also said the accusations in the FBI's report are illogical.
“It doesn't make any sense that someone from the United States would purchase guns in Mexico. And the Hondurans certainly didn't bring money to buy guns. It doesn't make any sense; in fact it's extremely absurd to say the Hondurans wanted to attack the United States at the border,” said Reibeling.
A few names included in the FBI report overlap with names included in a secret database of people being monitored by Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security Investigations, originally reported by NBC San Diego and Telemundo 20.
However, the database includes many others not included in the FBI's report, and it remains unclear why those people — mostly American journalists, activists and attorneys — were targeted and monitored.
In March, it was discovered that Customs and Border Protection had compiled lists of people it wanted to stop for questioning at the border. Agents questioned or arrested at least 21 of them, according to documents obtained by NBC San Diego. On that list, Reibeling is described as an “instigator,” and Duke's name and picture is also included.
CBP said the names on the list are people who were present when violence broke out at the Tijuana border in November and January, when agents deployed tear gas. The agency said people were being questioned so that the agency could learn more about what started the altercations.
Some of the people detained and questioned said they were asked whether anyone was encouraging migrants to rush the border during the two incidents. Several people confirmed they were told they were being questioned as part of a “national security investigation.”
The FBI's report says a group of activists in Tijuana supporting the migrant caravan “were encouraged to bring personally owned weapons to the border and the group also intended to purchase weapons from a Mexico-based cartel associate known as Cobra Commander, AKA the Mexican Rambo, and smuggle the weapons into the United States.”
Several activists involved with the migrant caravan said the accusation that they would try to purchase weapons in Mexico is especially absurd, given that buying guns in the United States is easy and legal.
“Here I find the government again trying to tie me into some (stuff) I wasn't involved in,” said Duke, a U.S. activist who is opposed to President Donald Trump's immigration policies and whose work in Tijuana was monitored by federal authorities.
Duke said Riebeling was not someone he would have associated with because he didn't trust him and because Riebeling had expressed negative views in social media videos about the migrants in the caravan.
“We were warned to look out for him,” said Duke. “We took the precaution to find out who he was and where he was, but we never had any contact with him. And we never saw him around the migrant caravan.”
Riebeling said he was originally helping an earlier caravan of mostly women and children who arrived in Tijuana, but he quickly decided he “no longer wanted to help Hondurans.”
“I can send you several videos of myself attacking the Hondurans because they are my enemies,” Riebeling said during a recent interview.
Reibeling said he was never detained or interrogated by the FBI about his involvement with the migrant caravan. He said he took no part in trying to sell guns to anyone and that he's not a cartel member.
“I am not cartel. I don't sell drugs. I don't sell arms,” said Riebeling. “I'm a revolutionary. A man who believes in his ideals, and I'm going to defend Mexico.”
The unclassified FBI report identifies Riebeling as being “associated with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel,” but Riebeling, a Tijuana resident, said he is not.
“If I were selling drugs, or guns, they would kill me,” said Riebeling.
Riebeling said he was upset by the accusations in the report.
“The government of the United States knows perfectly well that I am not a member of any cartel,” said Riebeling. “I have associates with several of the cartels, yes I do, but I am not a narco-trafficker and they know that.”
Riebeling said he became angry with members of the Central American caravan in Tijuana after he discovered some were selling items he brought them for humanitarian relief, like blankets, water and shoes.
“They were exchanging these items for drugs and it made me mad, and I no longer wanted to help them and I was vocal about it,” he said.
In a video he posted online, he encouraged members of drug cartels to attack migrants with bats and “hunt down” migrants to take them to Mexican immigration authorities to be deported.
Many members of the migrant caravan were attacked with rocks and tear gas. Two Honduran teenagers were brutally killed.
Duke said he was told to avoid Riebeling because of his negative views about migrants.
“I was warned about him when I arrived in TJ,” said Duke. “His name came up to me from a couple different sources to watch out for this guy.”
The FBI's report says Duke was working with Riebeling and others not just to procure weapons, but to help set up camps to train activists to become “community defense militias, also known as autodensas.”
“Organizers planned for the camps to be used as staging platforms from which five person units would form to train anarchists in fighting, combat, and conducting reconnaissance, and then launch to disrupt U.S. government operations along the border,” the report states.
After the report was distributed to dozens of law enforcement agencies, Duke faced intense scrutiny when crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
Duke said that along with another activist, he was twice hot-stopped — held at gunpoint by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and detained for hours — as he tried to cross.
In one instance, Duke said, he was driving into San Diego from Tijuana at the San Ysidro Port of Entry after delivering supplies to migrants at shelters in Tijuana.
When he got near the CBP checkpoint, border officials drew their guns and ordered him out of the car, Duke said.
“My first thought was: 'Wow I don't think this is good. This can't be good,'” said Duke. “I overheard their radios and someone was saying, 'You've got so many guns on these guys. You're only supposed to have six guns on them.' I think there were 25 guns on us at that moment.”
Based on questions investigators asked him, Duke said he believes it's possible that authorities are acting upon information provided to law enforcement by right-wing conspiracy groups. He said a North Dakota radio talk-show host bragged on the air about reporting him and his colleagues to law enforcement.
In mid-November, Duke and a group of activists began renting a house in Tijuana and hosting about 25 volunteers at a time working to counter what they viewed as the U.S. government's violation of asylum seekers' human rights.
The FBI's report says the rental house in Tijuana was guarded by armed group members.
Riebeling, who also goes by the names Ivan del Campo, Ivan Mariano Martin del Campo and Jose Ivan Reiveling Sierra, has criminal records in Mexico and the United States, according to a Mexican state police document and confirmed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Riebeling was arrested in 1997 by CBP for allegedly trying to smuggle nine to 10 pounds of marijuana into the United States, but the charges against him were dropped, according to a June 2017 letter from the DEA to Baja California's Policía Estatal Preventiva.
In March 2007, Chula Vista police arrested Riebeling on suspicion of carrying a concealed stolen gun in his car, according to the letter. DEA agents in San Ysidro arrested Riebeling in March 2008, and he was convicted in federal court for kidnapping and robbery. He was sentenced to 48 months in prison but received clemency, the DEA's letter states.
The “Procuraduría de Justicia del Estado de Baja California,” which is the equivalent of the attorney general for the state of Baja California, confirmed that Riebeling has at least two criminal records in Mexico for assaulting police officers.
©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.