US gun-tracing program in Mexican drug war comes under congressional fire
Allegations that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed US arms to flow to Mexican cartels are now facing congressional scrutiny, including questions about whether that may have contributed to the deaths of a US law enforcement officer and numerous Mexicans.
Busting a major gunrunning ring on the New Mexico frontier – and netting a mayor, a police chief and a town councilor in the process – would normally be a huge feather in the cap of embattled federal agencies under pressure to stop cross-border arms smuggling and corruption.Skip to next paragraph
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But instead, the resolution of the so-called Columbus 11 case in the historic border village of Columbus, N.M., has taken on a muted tone, primarily because of its potentially critical role in the growing Operation Fast and Furious scandal.
Allegations that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) allowed US arms to flow to murderous Mexican cartels are now facing congressional scrutiny in Washington and have put Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama administration on the hot seat over the extent, if any, of their involvement in an operation that may have at least partially contributed to the deaths of a US law enforcement officer and numerous Mexicans.
This week, former Columbus Mayor Eddie Espinoza became the first of the Columbus 11 to plead guilty to charges that his group smuggled over 500 guns into Mexico, arming a deadly border war between competing cartels in nearby Palomas, Mexico. The details of the plea are unknown, since the deal was sealed.
According to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a nonpartisan journalism organization, the men also transported into Mexico several guns allowed to “walk” out of an Arizona gun shop by Phoenix BATFE agents running Operation Fast and Furious. The Department of Justice has maintained that BATFE never knowingly allowed guns to be transported to Mexico, though internal emails obtained by congressional investigators seem to contradict those statements.
President Obama has called Fast and Furious, in which since late 2009 BATFE allowed an estimated 1,880 guns to walk out of US gunshops in order to trace them to higher-ups in the Mexican cartels, “a serious mistake.” One congressional investigator called the scheme “felony stupid,” and the operation may, in fact, have violated the Arms Export Control Act by turning the taxpayer-funded BATFE itself into a de facto gunrunner.