How much damage did ATF's ill-fated gun-running sting do to war on drugs?
Fast and Furious, the Mexico gun-running sting gone bad, may cost the ATF's acting chief his job. A larger concern is that it may undermine efforts to stop the flow of US guns south.
Fast and Furious – not the movie franchise, but the US government’s ill-fated undercover gun-running operation targeting Mexican drug cartels – ended up putting more guns in the hands of criminals on both sides of the US-Mexico border.Skip to next paragraph
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It deepened a rift between the US and Mexico over weapons flowing south, caused a major scandal in the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which hatched the operation in 2009, and appears to have played a role in the murder of a US Border Patrol agent in 2010.
Now Fast and Furious is about to claim another victim. As the Obama administration seeks to stanch the embarrassment and controversy flowing from investigations into the operation, speculation is growing in Washington that the ATF’s acting director will be fired in the coming days.
IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war
With evidence mounting – particularly in recent congressional hearings – that ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson was deeply involved in managing a sting operation gone seriously bad, the administration has little choice but to remove him, many government-operations experts say.
But beyond the fate of a government official, the saga of Fast and Furious has underscored a number of troubling trends on the US-Mexico border:
• The role US borderland gun shops play in feeding the region’s drug-related violence.
• How Mexico’s ruthless crime gangs use the weakly regulated US market to arm themselves.
• How the American gun lobby’s opposition to regulation has stifled government efforts to plug the flow of arms into Mexico.
Undercover operations called vital
At the same time, undercover operations and investigations will be critical if the US is to get a handle on gun-smuggling operations, say some US-Mexico experts, who worry that the debacle of Fast and Furious will put a devastating chill on that kind of initiative.
“The only way to stop, or more realistically slow down, the weapons trafficking will be through enhanced intelligence and undercover operations, and increased cross-border cooperation,” says Eric Olson, a senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute in Washington. “But if the result of this scandal is to pull back on all of that,” he adds, “the problem will continue to grow.”
Reached by telephone in Mexico City, Mr. Olson says Fast and Furious has already heightened suspicion in Mexico toward the US, with some analysts equating the operation to a “declaration of war.”
The Fast and Furious operation, launched out of the ATF’s Phoenix office, sought to determine the role of US gun dealers in arming Mexican drug cartels by tracking weapons sold out of border gun shops. More than 2,500 high-powered weapons were let loose through the program, but the agency lost track of hundreds of AK-47s and other arms that filtered across the border in Mexico – and into the hands of Mexico’s violent drug gangs, according even to some ATF officials.