A secret operation to run guns across the border to Mexican drug cartels — overseen by U.S. government agents — threatens to become a major scandal for the Obama administration.
The operation, called "Fast and Furious," was run out of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) office in Phoenix, Arizona. ATF sanctioned the purchase of weapons in U.S. gun shops and tracked the smuggling route to the Mexican border. Reportedly, more than 2,500 firearms were sold to straw buyers who then handed off the weapons to gunrunners under the nose of ATF.
But once across the border, the agency seemed to lose track of the weapons. Hundreds of AK-47s and Barrett .50 caliber rifles — favorites of warring drug cartels —made it easily into the hands of some of Mexico’s most ruthless crime organizations.
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In arms trafficking parlance, knowingly allowing smugglers to go about their business is called "gunwalking." According to ATF whistleblowers, the agency stood by and watched as buyers purchased up to 20 weapons at a time and quickly passed them off to smugglers in nearby parking lots. The hope was to trace the guns into Mexico and bust a major cartel.
In December 2010 "walked" guns were identified as the murder weapons in the death of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry by drug cartels. An anguished ATF agent made the decision to expose the gunwalking operation, after the bureau ignored months of complaints.
Agent John Dodson blew the whistle on Fast and Furious in an interview with CBS News on Mar. 3. Dodson had been concerned about the operation since well before the Terry murder. As large numbers of guns freely crossed the border during the early part of 2010, he and other ATF agents noted with alarm the rise in violent crime south of the border. He said he told his supervisors, "The more our guys buy, the more violence we’re having down there."
Dodson reports that his supervisor replied, "If you’re going to make an omelet, you’re going to scramble some eggs."
Even some of the gun shop owners expressed discomfort with the number of weapons they were selling to shady customers, but were reportedly told to continue the operation.
Soon after the Dodson interview, the director of the ATF Mexico office, Darren Gil, told CBS that he began to receive disturbing reports of an unusually high number of Phoenix-area guns showing up in Mexican cartel violence. When he began asking questions, Gil discovered that his team had been blocked from computer access to information on Fast and Furious.
Gil questioned officials at U.S. headquarters who told him they were under direct orders from the Department of Justice and that he should say nothing to the Mexican government about the program.
Gil resigned in disgust in December 2010 after watching "seizure after seizure after seizure" of walked guns turned up at violent crime scenes in Mexico.
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In early 2011, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) requested an ATF briefing. The agency refused. Congress has now issued a subpoena summoning ATF to report on the Fast and Furious program.
Meanwhile, U.S. government officials are attempting to deny being involved without actually confirming that the operation took place. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano did not deny allegations concerning the program, but claimed she found out about the operation only after Agent Terry’s murder and had no information regarding the participation of Customs agents.
In the hot seat, Attorney General Eric Holder assigned an inspector general to investigate. President Obama defended Holder twice — on Univision and CNN — stating that neither he nor Holder knew about the operation.
The investigation will result in one of two conclusions, neither positive for the attorney general. The first is that Holder authorized an operation that likely violated U.S., Mexican, and international law and armed dangerous drug traffickers.
The second is that the head of the Justice Department is presiding over rogue staff that decided not to tell their boss about an operation that poses major legal, ethical and diplomatic breaches.
Holder recently issued a memo to Southwest border attorneys ordering them not to permit arms trafficking to Mexican cartels. The memo states, "We should not design or conduct undercover operations which include guns crossing the border." Logically, a memo advising justice officials not to engage in illegal gunwalking would be unnecessary were it not for a precedent to the contrary.
Some ATF officials have justified the program by claiming the operation could result in prosecutions of individuals higher up the smuggling chain. The ATF issued a press release the day of Dodson’s interview announcing a decision to "review the bureau’s current firearms trafficking strategies…"
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Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his cabinet have been remarkably sanguine about the possibility that guns were trafficked to the archenemy with the encouragement of a foreign government. National Security spokesperson Alejandro Poire refused to accept that the operation existed and reserved comment until after the results of the pending U.S. investigation are released.
Calderon appears unwilling to risk jeopardizing the U.S. government’s political and financial support for his war on drugs by complaining too loudly. His counternarcotics strategy has come under heavy criticism in his country in the last few months due to sharply increasing violence and corruption.
Opposition members of the Mexican Congress, media, and public have ordered an investigation and called the operation a violation of international law and even an act of war. The outrage increased when William Brownfield, the State Department’s head of International Narcotics, praised the program to the Mexican press and confirmed it was "ongoing." The former ambassador to Colombia and long-time promoter of the drug war scoffed at criticisms, stating that the number of arms that have passed to "uncontrolled destinations" was "limited."
But for many U.S. and Mexican legislators and citizens even a single weapon allowed to fall into the hands of brutal cartels is one too many. The gunwalking program has increased public skepticism toward the "shared responsibility" that Obama and Calderon have tried to sell in numerous public statements, and fueled the growing popular protests within Mexico that reject the violent drug war model for dealing with illicit narcotics trafficking and consumption.
With evasive responses from government agencies, major international implications, and persistent questions of "who knew what, and when," the Fast and Furious operation could develop into a major scandal for the Obama administration. That will depend on the administration’s response. .
The Obama administration faces a tough choice: either orchestrate a cover-up, as the ATF appears to be doing, or open up the case and accept the consequences.
The gunwalking case tests the integrity of the Obama government. It also further weakens support for a failing drug war strategy. The administration is currently seeking millions more dollars in security aid to Mexico under the Merida Initiative.
The best path forward is to fully investigate the operation and punish those responsible — no matter how high up the blame goes. It is also time to end support for a war on drugs that becomes more entrenched and more violent every day.
LAURA CARLSEN is director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy in Mexico City at www.cipamericas.org.