Part of the reason for not telling Mexican authorities, Gil and others noted, is the widespread corruption among officials in Mexico that has long made some U.S. officials reluctant to share intelligence. By late last year, however, with the kidnapping of Mario Gonzalez and tracing of the AK-47s, some ATF officials were beginning to tell their superiors that it was time to inform the Mexicans.
Carlos Canino, an ATF agent at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, warned headquarters that failure to share the information would have dire consequences for the U.S.-Mexican relationship.
"We need to tell them [Mexico] this, because if we don't tell them this, and this gets out, it was my opinion that the Mexicans would never trust us again," Canino testified to congressional investigators in Washington.
Atty. Gen. Morales said it was not until January that the Mexican government was told of the existence of an undercover program that turned out to be Fast and Furious. At the time, Morales said, Mexico was not provided details.
U.S. officials gave their Mexican counterparts access to information involving a group of 20 suspects arrested in Arizona. These arrests would lead to the only indictment to emerge from Fast and Furious.
"It was then that we learned of that case, of the arms trafficking," Morales told The Times. "They haven't admitted to us that there might have been permitted trafficking. Until now, they continue denying it to us."
In March, after disgruntled ATF agents went to congressional investigators, details of Fast and Furious began to appear in The Times and other U.S. media. By then, two Fast and Furious weapons had been found at the scene of the fatal shooting of a U.S. border agent near Rio Rico, Ariz.
As well, a second agent had been killed near the Mexican city of San Luis Potosi, sending the ATF hierarchy into a "state of panic," ATF supervisor Peter Forcelli said, because of fears the weapons used might have arrived in Mexico as part of Fast and Furious. So far, all the U.S. government has said in the latter case is that one of the weapons was traced to an illegal purchase in the Dallas area.
In June, Canino, the ATF attache, was finally allowed to say something to Atty. Gen. Morales about the weapons used by Mario Gonzalez's captors, thought to be members of the powerful Sinaloa cartel.
"I wanted her to find out from me, because she is an ally of the U.S. government," he testified.
Canino later told congressional investigators that Morales was shocked.
"Hijole!" he recalled her saying, an expression that roughly means, "Oh no!"
Canino testified that Fast and Furious guns showed up at nearly 200 crime scenes.
Mexican Congressman Humberto Benitez Trevino, who heads the justice committee in the Chamber of Deputies, said the number of people killed or wounded by the weapons had probably doubled to 300 since March, when he said confidential information held by Mexican security authorities put the figure at 150. The higher number, he said, was his own estimate.
A former attorney general, Benitez labeled the operation a "failure," but said it did not spell a collapse of the two nations' shared fight against organized crime groups.
"It was a bad business that got out of hand," he said in an interview.
Many Mexican politicians responded angrily when the existence of the program became known in March, with several saying it amounted to a breach of Mexican sovereignty. But much of that anger has subsided, possibly in the interest of not aggravating the bilateral relationship. For Mexico, the U.S. gun problem goes far beyond the Fast and Furious program. Of weapons used in crimes and traced, more than 75% come from the U.S.
"Yes, it was bad and wrong, and you have to ask yourself, what were they thinking?" a senior official in Calderon's administration said, referring to Fast and Furious. "But, given the river of weapons that flows into Mexico from the U.S., do a few more make a big difference?"
Still, Mexican leaders are under pressure to answer questions from their citizens, with very little to go on.
"The evidence is over there [north of the border]," Morales said. "I can't put a pistol to their heads and say, 'Now give it to me or else.' I can't."
Ellingwood and Wilkinson reported from Mexico City and Serrano from Washington.