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U.S. gun-tracing operation let firearms into criminal hands

A federal operation aimed at tracing weapons to Mexican drug cartels lost track of hundreds, including two guns found at the scene of a Border Patrol agent's killing in Arizona.

March 03, 2011|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
  • A Border Patrol agent attends a memorial service for slain agent Brian Terry in Tucson.
A Border Patrol agent attends a memorial service for slain agent Brian Terry… (John Moore, Getty Images )

A federal operation that allowed weapons from the U.S. to pass into the hands of suspected gun smugglers so they could be traced to the higher echelons of Mexican drug cartels has lost track of hundreds of firearms, many of which have been linked to crimes, including the fatal shooting of a Border Patrol agent in December.

The investigation, known as Operation Fast and Furious, was conducted even though U.S. authorities suspected that some of the weapons might be used in crimes, according to a variety of federal agents who voiced anguished objections to the operation.

Many of the weapons have spread across the most violence-torn states in Mexico, with at least 195 linked to some form of crime or law enforcement action, according to documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity and The Times.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which ran the operation, said 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.

John Dodson, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who worked on Operation Fast and Furious, said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit research group based in Washington, that he was still haunted by his participation in the investigation.

"With the number of guns we let walk, we'll never know how many people were killed, raped, robbed," he said. "There is nothing we can do to round up those guns. They are gone."

The ATF said agents took every possible precaution to assure that guns were recovered before crossing into Mexico.

Scot L. Thomasson, the ATF's public affairs chief in Washington, said the Fast and Furious strategy is still under evaluation.

"It's always a good business practice to review any new strategy six or eight months after you've initiated it, to make sure it's working, that it's having the desired effect, and then make adjustments as you see fit to ensure it's successful," he said.

But enough concern has been raised that some Washington officials have begun to dig deeper into the details of the operation.

On Thursday, as President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon met in Washington to discuss the increasing problems with drug and gun smuggling, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. asked top officials at the Justice Department to consult the inspector general to determine if further investigation of the operation was needed.

U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, initiated an inquiry to determine whether guns traveled to Mexico through inadvertence or deliberate policy on the part of U.S. law enforcement.

"We still don't have the documents we've asked for. Maybe we will get the documents. But right now it's stonewalling," Grassley said in an interview Thursday.

"Too many government agencies always want the big case," he said. "They keep these gun-running sales moving along, even when they have people within the agency that say something bad's going to happen. They had plenty of warnings … and the prophets turned out to be right."

Much of what is now known about the case has only surfaced in the last few months following the December shooting death in Arizona of Customs and Border Protection Agent Brian Terry.

But the investigation was underway more than a year earlier, when Mexican customs agents in the small border town of Naco stopped a passenger car traveling from the U.S. that was carrying a surprising cargo: 41 AK-47s, a .50-caliber rifle, 40 semiautomatic gun magazines, a telescopic rifle sight and three knives.

At least three guns found that day were traced through their serial numbers to a gun shop in Glendale, Ariz., which then led to a Phoenix man, Jaime Avila, who had purchased four weapons there.

Over the course of the next year, federal agents watched Avila and several associates buy more heavy-duty weapons, which investigators were convinced were intended for Mexican drug cartels.

Despite their suspicions, the ATF allowed Avila to continue.

It was part of a new strategy embarked upon after the agency had found it increasingly difficult to build cases against "straw buyers," who purchased weapons for the cartels.

The buyers were working for increasingly complex trafficking organizations in which guns were passed among several legal owners in many locations in the U.S. before being transferred to Mexico.

As a result, the ATF decided to go after not just the buyers, but the organizations, Thomasson said.

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