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'Fast and Furious' ATF/Mexico Gun Scandal Heats Up

Operation Fast and Furious, the U.S. government arms sting that allowed guns to walk over the border into the hands of Mexican organized crime, made headlines here in Mexico over the past weeks after a Congressional hearing in mid-June brought out new allegations.

As we wrote extensively last April, the program run by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) stood by and watched high-powered assault arms being smuggled over the border--and then apparently lost track of them. Many ended up in the hands of drug cartels and were later decommissioned at crime scenes. The nearly 2,000 arms have been traced to multiple murders, including that of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.

Whistleblower John Dodson, an ATF agent out of the Phoenix office that ran the operation, stated in a CBS interview that he was told by superiors that the Justice Department had full knowledge of the plan. Watch this exchange between Attorney General Eric Holder, who appears to be writhing on the hook, as he fields questions from Rep. Darrell Issa in a House hearing held May 3.

A June 14 official report by the joint staff of Sen. Charles Grassley and Rep. Issa now finds that the plan "was authorized in the highest levels of the Justice Department." The report is the first of a series, promising more revelations in the future as the Mexican and U.S. governments await the results of further investigation by the U.S. Inspector General.

The congressional report establishes some basic findings:

ATF led a strike force comprised of agents from ATF, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).  The operation’s goal was to establish a nexus between straw purchasers of assault-style weapons in the United States and Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) operating on both sides of the United States-Mexico border.
ATF agents entered the serial numbers of the weapons purchased into the agency’s Suspect Gun Database.  These weapons bought by the straw purchasers included AK-47 variants, Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifles, .38 caliber revolvers, and the FN Five-seveN...

It also  reaches some damning conclusions:

This hapless plan allowed the guns in question to disappear out of the agency’s view...
Unfortunately, ATF never achieved the laudable goal of dismantling a drug cartel.  In fact, ATF never even got close.  After months and months of investigative work, Fast and Furious resulted only in "lying and buying" indictments of 20 straw purchasers, filed January 19, 2011, after Terry's death.  "Lying and buying" involves a straw purchaser falsely filling out ATF Form 4473, which is to be completed truthfully in order to legally acquire a firearm.  Even worse, ATF knew most of the indicted straw purchasers to be straw purchasers before Fast and Furious even began.   

Now it turns out that the scandal may run even deeper. Kenneth Melson, head of the ATF, testified at the hearing that some of the Mexican drug cartel leaders targeted in the program were paid informants for the FBI and the DEA, but that his agency did not know this at the time.

So according to Melson, ATF was working alongside DEA and FBI agents who never bothered to mention that the targets of the operation were, in fact, paid informants. Assuming this is true, this indicates either an extreme lack of common-sense coordination, or some reason for the DEA and FBI to want their drug cartel contacts to receive shipments of illegal arms from the United States.

The recent testimony has made the investigation even more turbid. Federal agencies presented the committee with heavily censored materials, angering committee members. The cloak of secrecy surrounding events, even under Congressional subpoenas and on-going investigation, has frustrated lawmakers and added to suspicions.

What does this mean for U.S.-Mexican relations?

The Mexican government should logically be preparing legal cases against the U.S. government and all responsible for the Fast and Furious program. The Congressional report indicates that "ATF supervisors regarded violence and deaths in Mexico as inevitable collateral damage". Mexican government officials estimate that at least 150 Mexican deaths resulted from arms registered in the Suspect Gun Database and traced back to Fast and Furious.

A memo released showed Supervisor David Voth eagerly reporting that during the month of March 2010 straw purchasers under surveillance purchased 359 firearms and murders spiked to 958. The correlation between gun-walking and increased violence in Mexico was viewed with enthusiasm. One agent noted that the response was "the violence is going through the roof down there, we are onto a good thing here."

Mexican lives didn't seem to matter.

The recent allegations of DEA and FBI paid informants in drug cartels also raise serious questions, especially given the lack of public information regarding DEA and FBI actions in Mexican territory.

We, as citizens from both countries, have a right and an obligation to get to the bottom of what happened under Operation Fast and Furious. We demand:

1. A full investigation with public results and legal consequences where indicated.

Investigations must lead to full information on the operation, its consequences and implications, and be shared with the public, both governments and their agencies. The investigations should go as far up the chain of command as necessary and include not only ATF, but also the reported involvement of DEA and FBI agents operating in Mexican territory and in the U.S.

2. Information to name the victims: We demand a list of all the victims in crimes where arms on the Suspect Gun database from Fast and Furious were used. Brian Terry is a tragic example; the other victims deserved to be named and their deaths investigated by both governments.

3. Analysis of possible violations of international law: We demand that the Mexican government undertake an investigation independent of the U.S. Inspector General's investigation to determine the facts of the case and possible violations of international law involved.

In the U.S., these measures are important to assure legality, government accountability and a mutually respectful binational relationship.

For Mexico, they are fundamental to the defense of national sovereignty and dignity, and of Mexican lives.

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