Weapons traced to a failed U.S. law enforcement operation that sought to take down violent Mexican drug cartels have been recovered at more than 48 different crime scenes in Mexico, including bloody kidnappings and gun battles that left more than a dozen Mexican police and cartel members dead last May, according to a new report by Republican congressional investigators.
In one of the earliest discoveries, in 2009, authorities found more than three dozen AK-47s along the Southwest border in Sonora only one day after a straw buyer under surveillance by agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had purchased the weapons at an Arizona gun shop, the report by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) said.
(Straw buyers purchase guns and fill out government paperwork stating the guns are intended for their own use; but later, those purchasers hand over the weapons to others, including criminals and drug gang members.)
The heavy volume of U.S. weapons found across the border, many in the hands of members of the Sinaloa cartel, alarmed ATF staff members stationed in Mexico, who were allegedly "kept in the dark" about the ongoing law enforcement operation known as "Fast and Furious," the report said. When the staff members raised questions, they were allegedly told by senior officials in Arizona and Washington that "everything is under control."
But agency whistle-blowers say the operation instead was veering out of control as AK-47s, sniper rifles and .38-caliber revolvers bought in Arizona kept turning up in Mexico. Members of Congress say as many as 1,000 guns remain unaccounted for.
One agent, scheduled to testify at a House Government Reform and Oversight Committee hearing Tuesday in Washington, told committee investigators the operation known as "Fast and Furious" was "the perfect storm of idiocy ... nobody was thinking here." Another senior official stationed in Mexico, since retired, told investigators from Congress that he engaged in "screaming matches" with his bosses about the need to intervene and stop the flow of weapons.
Authorities shut down the operation in December 2010, only after the death of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent Brian Terry shortly before Christmas in a shootout with cartel members. Two weapons found near his body were later traced to a straw buyer who purchased hundreds of guns in Arizona and passed them to violent drug gangs. Terry's family has hired a lawyer to pursue a possible wrongful death claim.
William Newell, who oversaw the operation as a senior ATF official in Phoenix, is scheduled to testify Tuesday as well. His lawyer, Paul Pelletier, told NPR that "public safety was paramount" in the investigation. ATF officials had been under pressure to stop making small cases against small players — the people who buy guns — and instead to target higher-ups in the drug cartels themselves.
"They understood the best way to ensure public safety was to take out the full operation," Pelletier said. "Merely arresting straw purchasers has proven to have no effect on the flow of guns going south."
Justice Department officials in Washington have acknowledged that mistakes were made in the "Fast and Furious" operation. But they're resisting arguments by Issa that Attorney General Eric Holder may have known about the strategies at work in Arizona. Issa has signaled he will hold more hearings this summer on the case.
Democrats on the House Oversight Committee released their own memo before the hearing, including excerpts from a closed-door interview with ATF acting Director Ken Melson earlier this month. Melson told committee staff members he had been briefed on "Fast and Furious" a few times but he didn't know about guns crossing the border under the agency's watch until news reports in January 2011. Melson said senior officials at ATF and the Justice Department in Washington didn't develop or oversee the tactics. He and another high-ranking ATF official told the committee after reviewing investigative materials that they now believed some lower-level defendants in the case could have been charged and arrested months before the death of agent Terry.
In the meantime, Issa and Grassley say they worry the loose guns will have a deadly legacy along the Southwest border. One of the ATF agents told congressional investigators that in his opinion, large numbers of .50-caliber rifles that crossed the border "could change the outcome of a battle" between rival drug cartels and police.