Mexico: did US let guns “walk” to drug cartels?

Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretariat (SRE) said on March 5 that it had requested “detailed information” from the US government on Operation Fast and Furious, in which the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) reportedly allowed some 2,000 firearms to enter Mexico illegally in an effort to trace the activities of gun smugglers. The operation was said to be carried out without the knowledge of the Mexican government. (La Jornada, Mexico, March 6) Gun running from the US is considered a major source of weapons for drug cartels in Mexico, which has stricter gun control laws than several US states near the border.

The first report about Fast and Furious—part of Project Gunrunner, an ATF program intended to stop the flow of weapons to Mexico—appeared on CBS News on Feb. 23. According to unnamed sources, including six veteran ATF agents and executives, in late 2009 the bureau learned about cash purchases of semi-automatic versions of military-type rifles and pistols at seven gun stores in the Phoenix, Arizona area; these are weapons favored by Mexican drug traffickers. The sources told CBS News that several gun shops wanted to stop the sales but ATF managers decided instead to use a tactic known as “letting the guns walk”—allowing the weapons to be bought so that agents can gather intelligence on their use. “The numbers are over 2,500 on that case, by the way,” one source said. “That’s how many guns were sold—including some 50-calibers they let walk.”

The operation unraveled on Dec. 14, 2010, when US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent Brian Terry was killed in a shootout with bandits near Rio Rico, Arizona. Two assault rifles found at the scene were among the weapons that suspected gun smuggler Jaime Avila of Glendale, Arizona bought a year earlier, at a time when the ATF was keeping an eye on Avila but allowing him to make purchases. Avila and 33 others were arrested after Terry’s death. (CBS, Feb. 23)

After further investigation, the Washington, DC-based Center for Public Integrity and the Los Angeles Times reported that “1,765 guns were sold to suspected smugglers during a 15-month period of the investigation. Of those, 797 were recovered on both sides of the border, including 195 in Mexico after they were used in crimes, collected during arrests or intercepted through other law enforcement operations.”

Several agents objected vehemently to the practice. “With the number of guns we let walk, we’ll never know how many people were killed, raped, robbed,” Agent John Dodson told the Center for Public Integrity. “There is nothing we can do to round up those guns. They are gone.” The dissent reached a point in March 2010 where the operational supervisor, David J. Voth, warned the agents in an email against “petty arguing, rumors or other adolescent behavior.” “Whether you care or not, people of rank and authority at HQ are paying close attention to this case, and they also believe we…are doing what they envisioned the Southwest Border Groups doing,” Voth wrote. He suggested that if they didn’t like the program, the ATF agents might prefer working at the Maricopa County Jail, where “you can get paid $30,000 (instead of $100,000) to serve lunch to inmates all day.”

Agent Dodson gave an example of the ATF’s attitude to possible victims of the operation when the guns circulated in Mexico. “If you’re going to make an omelet, you’ve got to scramble some eggs,” a supervisor said, according to Dodson. “I took it to mean that whatever crimes these guns were going to be involved in, those were the eggs, those were acceptable,” Dodson explained.

On March 3 US attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. asked Justice Department officials to look into the possibility of an investigation of Fast and Furious. Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the leading Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has started his own inquiry. (LAT, March 3) It should be noted that Grassley is an opponent of gun control, with an “A” rating from the National Rife Association (NRA). (On the Issues website, accessed March 6)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 6.

See our last post on Mexico’s narco wars and the gun traffic controversy.