Reporting from Washington — A much-touted federal effort to keep U.S. firearms out of the Mexican drug wars is unwieldy, mismanaged and fraught with "significant weaknesses" that could doom gun smuggling enforcement on the border to failure, an internal Justice Department review concluded Tuesday.
Agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives focus only on small gun sales and do not share information with law enforcement officials on both sides of the border, the review said. Even the cornerstone effort of tracing U.S. guns in Mexico too often comes up short because of missing data and the lack of U.S. training for Mexican police, it found.
The investigation by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine is the first to find systemic problems in a once highly praised project, and it mirrors concerns of many on the border that weapons from the U.S. are helping the violence spiral out of control.
About 30,000 people have been killed in Mexican cartel violence since President Felipe Calderon started deploying troops to take on the drug and gun traffickers in December 2006. Nearly 70,000 U.S.-originated firearms were recovered in Mexico between 2007 and 2009.
About 7,000 licensed U.S. gun dealers operate near the 2,000-mile border, and cartel leaders often hire straw buyers to purchase firearms and pay others to transport the weapons into Mexico. Just as the drugs flow steadily north, the guns reach Mexico secreted under truck beds or stashed in car trunks, sometimes even hidden in clothing.
ATF officials defended their marquee program, named Project Gunrunner, saying it has gone a long way in combating the illegal flow of U.S. firearms into Mexico since it was started in Texas in 2005 and expanded nationwide a year later.
Kenneth E. Melson, the ATF's deputy director, said in a lengthy rebuttal letter to the inspector general's report that there had been "significant accomplishments," with gun investigations up by 109% and prosecutions up by 54% under the project.
But he said a reduction in funds had limited some gun-tracing operations and had stalled attempts by the ATF to place more U.S. agents in Mexican police stations to work on joint investigations.
He said funding last year covered only seven of the 23 agents needed to expand intelligence operations and that funding for the remaining 16 was not authorized this fiscal year.
Fine acknowledged the budget restraints but said he was concerned that the ATF was not using its current manpower wisely. He said the ATF "does not systematically and consistently exchange intelligence with its Mexican and some U.S. partner agencies," including the Drug Enforcement Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
As examples, Fine said that "ATF and ICE do not regularly conduct joint investigations of firearms trafficking to Mexico, do not consistently notify each other of their firearms trafficking cases, and do not consistently coordinate their investigative work with each other."
U.S. and Mexican officials estimate that more than 90% of the guns seized at the border or taken after raids and shootouts in Mexico originated in the United States, with California and Texas the largest providers.
And just as the U.S. is pushing Mexico to do more to stop the drugs, Mexico wants the American guns halted at the border. When President Obama visited Mexico last year, Calderon appealed for him to do more. The Mexican leader reiterated his position last week. "We do not want them to continue sending to Mexico, illegally, dirty money and weapons," he said.
Mexican Sen. Sebastian Calderon Centeno accused the U.S. of "doublespeak" by demanding the drugs stop while the guns keep pouring south. "The U.S. government does nothing to stop it," he said.
Thomas Mangan, a career ATF agent in Phoenix, acknowledged Tuesday that the agency was fighting an uphill battle. "We've got a couple of things coming up, some wiretaps on some gun trafficking operations, some really good stuff coming up," he said. "But has the violence slowed down in Mexico? No, it hasn't."
An ATF supervisor in south Texas, who asked not to be identified, was equally frustrated. "Mexican officials don't have the training to correctly trace the guns, and we don't have enough agents to go down there and train them," he said.
He said there were more Border Patrol agents in tiny Nogales, Ariz., "than we have in our whole agency." There are only 2,500 ATF agents in the country, and the Border Patrol has about 3,300 agents in the Tucson Sector, which patrols Nogales. And he and other agents worry that ATF funds will be cut even further when Republicans take control of the House next year and the National Rifle Assn. steps up its Capitol Hill lobbying efforts.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City contributed to this report.