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.

Gregory Bull/AP
In this 2008 file photo, a soldier stands guard during the presentation in Mexico City of captured arms, about 288 assault rifles, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, numerous grenades, and several .50-caliber rifles. The US State Department says firearms obtained in the US account for an estimated 95 percent of Mexico's drug-related killings.

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.

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.

But at the very least, the Columbus case hints at how difficult it became to trace the walking guns, says Dave Kopel, a Second Amendment expert at the Independence Institute in Golden, Colo. The whereabouts of some 1,400 Fast and Furious guns remain unknown.

In January 2010, Border Patrol agents near Columbus stopped two locals, Blas “Woody” Gutierrez, a town councilor, and Miguel Carillo, and found a cache of eight guns in their trunk, six of which were among the Fast and Furious collection. Nothing suspicious came up when the agents attempted to trace their provenance, but, as it emerged five months later, six of the guns were linked to Operation Fast and Furious.

The original source of the pair’s weapons, an alleged straw buyer known to BATFE named Jaime Avila, has been tied to two WASR-10 rifles found near the murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, who was killed by bandits in a shootout near Nogales, Ariz. in December 2010. Bureaucratic delays apparently led to the registration numbers of the Columbus guns not being entered into a federal database in time for the Border Patrol to get the information and alert BATFE.

Though the connection to Fast and Furious is not mentioned in the indictments against the Columbus 11, the details of that link were established by CPI through interviews with government officials, agency memos, and court records.

In a June 24, 2011 letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa, who are heading up a Congressional investigation of Fast and Furious, demanded for the second time details about the Columbus traffic stop as well as a reported Border Patrol stop of Jaime Avila last summer where he had in his possession the two weapons later found at the scene of the Terry murder.

"Why were these individuals not arrested?" Messrs. Issa and Grassley ask.

Letting the two men go after the January 2010 traffic stop had dire consequences. In February of this year, one of the Fast and Furious guns that had been in their possession, a Ruger pistol, was reportedly used in a murder in Palomas, Mexico, a stone's throw across the border from Columbus. That revelation fuels claims by Issa and Grassley that Operation Fast and Furious not only didn't stop the flow of guns, but contributed to border violence.

“The Columbus, N.M., incident marks a rare instance in which federal officials acknowledge guns from an ATF sting have crossed over to another crime ring, affecting a sister federal agency,” CPI journalists John Solomon, David Heath, and Ricardo Sandoval Palos wrote in late March.

Earlier this year, Kenneth Gonzales, the US Attorney for New Mexico, told the Wall Street Journal that he could not provide any extra information about the circumstances of the Columbus raid, which took place in March. But he acknowledged that some of the guns tied to the operation were found in Mexico.

“Every effort was made through the course of this investigation to keep that from happening,” Mr. Gonzales said.

Both Obama and Holder have said they only learned of Operation Fast and Furious after the scandal broke in January, although Holder played up BATFE's Project Gunrunner, under which Fast and Furious was spawned, in a speech in Mexico in 2009, saying that $10 million of the 2009 stimulus bill would go to fund new arms interdiction measures amid disputed reports that up to 90 percent of illegal guns found in Mexico came from the US.

“My attorney general has made clear that he certainly would not have ordered gun-running to be able to pass through into Mexico,” Obama said at a press conference in late June. “I’ve made very clear my views that that would not be an appropriate step by the ATF, and we’ve got to find out how that happened. As soon as the investigation’s completed, I think appropriate actions will be taken.”

The DOJ's inspector general is conducting an internal investigation and the Justice Department has released over 2,000 documents to congressional investigators. Grassley and Issa have accused the DOJ of coaching witnesses, stonewalling their investigation, and redacting documents with a heavy hand.

For their part, BATFE officials have defended some of their actions, saying the lack of a stronger federal antitrafficking statute has hampered the agency's attempts to control the flow of illegal arms across the border.

To that end, House Democrats on Friday introduced the Stop Gun Trafficking and Strengthen Law Enforcement Act of 2011 to curtail what the Violence Policy Center's Kristen Rand called “a virtually unregulated bazaar of military-style firearms” on the US side of the border.

Also this week, the Obama administration put new multiple gun sales reporting requirements into place for 8,500 gun shops along the southern US border, fueling criticism from the NRA and conservative commentators that Fast and Furious was a White House political ploy to link US weapons to Mexican cartels in order to build support for stronger gun control on the US side of the border.

On Wednesday, House Republicans voted to strip funding for the new requirements out of the federal budget.

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