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.

By , Staff writer

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    ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson may have to resign over his role in a gun-running sting that has armed Mexican drug cartels.
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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.

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.

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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.

ATF agents sounded the alarm

Indeed, it was ATF agents dismayed at the undercover operation’s disarray and consequences who blew its cover. Both Attorney General Eric Holder and congressional committees launched investigations.

At a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing last week, committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R) of California disclosed e-mails that reveal ATF Acting Director Melson’s close oversight of Fast and Furious. The committee’s investigation has focused on the fact that weapons sold under Fast and Furious were found at the scene of a Border Patrol agent’s murder in Arizona in December (though the actual murder weapon has not been traced to the program).

Melson has been acting ATF director, pending action on Obama’s nomination of Andrew Traver as the agency’s director. Mr. Traver, who heads ATF’s Chicago office, was nominated in November but was soon engulfed in accusations from pro-gun groups that he is not a staunch supporter of gun-owner rights.

Traver was scheduled to meet in Washington Tuesday with Attorney General Holder.

Documenting role of US arms

In the meantime, three Democratic senators have released a report finding that an overwhelming majority of the firearms used in crimes in Mexico originated in the US.

According to the report, released last week by Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Charles Schumer of New York, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, an ATF study of 2009 and 2010 crimes in Mexico involving firearms found that 70 percent of the traced weapons have a US source.

“Congress has been virtually moribund while powerful Mexican drug trafficking organizations continue to gain unfettered access to military-style firearms coming from the US,” Senator Feinstein said, releasing the report.

The senators’ report includes a number of recommendations to Congress, including that licensed gun sellers report all multiple firearms sales.

The Wilson Center’s Olson says the tragedy of Fast and Furious is that it, too, was aimed at addressing a problem that until a few years ago received little attention.

“All of a sudden a few years ago there was a lot of attention to this problem of straw purchasers, the people with clean records that the traffickers send into the gun stores to make their purchases,” he says.

“The intent of Fast and Furious was to get at that problem, and beyond that to try to somehow get at the network of traffickers,” Olson says. “The intent at least was a noble one, but according to all the reports it got way out of hand.”

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