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Did flawed US policies play role in death of a border patrol agent?

Before a US border patrol agent was killed in a shootout with Mexican bandits, the agents opened fire with bean bags. Found at the scene: two guns the ATF allowed gun runners to purchase.

By Staff writer / March 4, 2011


The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is facing criticism of a program that funneled illegal guns into the hands of Mexican gun runners, drug gangs, and other criminals after two of those guns were found at the scene of the Dec. 14 shooting of US border patrol agent Brian Terry by Mexican bandits in Arizona.

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Under the ATF’s Operation Fast and Furious, gun smugglers were allowed to buy the weapons in the hopes the US agents could track the firearms to the Mexican drug runners and other border-area criminal gangs as well as build cases against the gun dealers themselves.

Also facing criticism are the rules of engagement employed by US border agents, who are trained to use nonlethal force when possible.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

The Dec. 14 shootout in Peck Canyon, near Nogales, Ariz., occurred after border patrol agents halted a group of armed border bandits and fired at them with bean bag guns. The bandits then opened fire with live bullets from AK-47 submachine guns, killing Mr. Terry.

Critics of US border patrol procedures, including Terry's family, say that Terry, a former Marine, was operating under specific Department of Homeland Security (DHS) orders that required agents encountering suspected illegal immigrants on US soil to fire nonlethal bean bags before using live ammunition.

DHS: No orders overriding agents' judgment

DHS has denied the bean-bag gun allegations, saying agents are trained to use "less-than-lethal force" weapons but that no specific orders overriding the best judgment of agents have come down from management.

Similarly, the Department of Justice initially denied that ATF knowingly allowed guns to be sold to drug runners, a statement contradicted by later reports from whistleblowers and admissions from officials that the agency did lose track of hundreds of guns as part of Operation Fast and Furious.

The events in Peck Canyon place into sharp relief the political problems of managing the increasingly violent borderlands between the US and Mexico, where treatment of illegal immigrants on the US side and the flow of arms from the US into Mexico have become powder keg issues in the relationship between the two countries.

"This is a management issue in both cases," says Mark Krikorian, director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies. "The bean bag thing is a symbol of fake border enforcement, where this administration wants to go through the motions of border enforcement without actually doing it. An ordinary agent is not going to say, 'Let's shoot bean bags first’ if they've got guns. I also can't imagine an ATF guy getting a call from a gun store where they say, ‘Hey, someone is buying a bunch of AKs, it smells bad,' and where that agent then says, 'No problem.' "

Sen. Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has led the congressional criticism of Operation Fast and Furious, saying recently that "it's time to step back" and reassess the operation.


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