Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.
For the past year, Attorney General Eric Holder has been under intense scrutiny from members of Congress. They have pressed him to reveal exactly how much he or his staffers knew about a disastrous gun trafficking operation in Arizona called Fast and Furious.
That is the question at the heart of the current Congressional investigation in which Attorney General Eric Holder was recently held in contempt. Last winter, he addressed Congress on the matter. “I can assure you and the American people that people will be held accountable for any mistakes that were made in connection to Fast and Furious,” says Holder.
What is known about the program is that Holder’s top officials in Arizona were quietly allowing illegal gun buyers to smuggle rifles into Mexico so they could track where the guns were going. “ATF agents assigned to the Phoenix field division with the concurrence of their chain of command walked guns,” says Peter Forcelli an ATF agent in Phoenix.
Gunwalking, as it’s come to be known, happened when ATF agents worked with a Phoenix gun storeowner to record the sales of weapons. The records helped the agents trace the guns and could be used as evidence in court. The problem is, the agents lost some of the guns.
“ATF agents allowed weapons to be provided to individuals who they knew were trafficking them to members of the Mexican drug organization,” says Forcelli.
Some of these guns were later found in the homes of drug cartel members. Some were used to kill family members of Mexican government officials and tragically, two AK-47s were also found at the murder scene of US Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
Thousands attended the memorial service for agent Terry in Tucson a month after the murder.
When friends and family reflect on him, Terry is described as a soldier’s soldier. “Agent Terry had a proud history of serving his country. Before Border Patrol, he served three years in United States Marine Corps,” says Tucson sector chief Rick Barlow.
Agent Terry was part of a five-man crew – a tactical Border Patrol unit called BORTAC. He and his unit ran into a group of Mexican bandits who were out hunting drug smugglers for their marijuana loads. The agents identified themselves and soon after, one of the officers shot at the bandits with a beanbag gun. The bandits returned fire. Terry was shot in the back, one time. One bandit was hit, but survived the shooting. He was later arrested. The other four bandits ran off into the night.
Friends say Terry carried a poem in his pack, One Warrior’s Creed. It begins: “If today is to be the day, so be it.”
After his murder and after Fast and Furious was revealed, the US Attorney for Arizona resigned. He took full responsibility for the decision to allow guns to walk. Attorney General Holder is now held in contempt of Congress. He has become the first sitting Attorney General to face contempt.
What’s interesting is that despite the furor here in the US, Mexico has gone completely quiet. Initially, the Mexican Senate demanded President Felipe Calderón protest the decision.
Calderón did criticize Rapido y Furioso, as the operation was called in Mexico, but then he later relented. What’s even more interesting is that Calderón took office the same year the ATF in Arizona started an earlier gunrunning program called Wide Receiver.
A wiretap from the Wide Receiver case allowed the ATF to record conversations during illegal arms sales. For example, one conversation was recorded by an informant hired by the ATF to sell guns to a gang smuggling them into Mexico. The informant met the girlfriend of a Tijuana smuggler in a Tucson parking lot, an exotic dancer named Candy:
–So you got the guns that I like? The ones with the wood?
–Yeah, like the ones you bought before.
–Let me see them!
Agents allowed about 500 guns to be smuggled in under Wide Receiver, compared to 1,800 under Fast and Furious.
For Mexico, gun violence is an epidemic. Fifty-five thousand people were killed there in the past six years. Calderón has criticized the US for the ease with which people can buy semiautomatic rifles in the US. But even though he called for a ban on assault rifles in the US, he’s been conspicuously quiet on the subject of Fast and Furious and Holder’s mounting problems with Congress.
However, the damage that the scandal has done to US/Mexico relations has been very minimal, even short-lived. The two countries continue to work closely behind the scenes to identify gun smugglers and their weapons as part of their extensive security agreement. ATF officials say Mexico now sends about 90 percent of its seized guns to the ATF for tracking. That’s compared to barely 20 percent of guns in the previous administration.
This cooperation functions at the unofficial city level all the way up to the $1.4 billion Merída Initiative which the US supplies Mexico with technology and training to combat organized crime.
If anything has changed, perhaps it is this: the relationship of trust between American and Mexican agents.
“What law enforcement in the United States have done – primarily the DEA – is create vetted units,” says Tony Coulson. Coulson ran the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Tucson office before he retired in 2010. Those vetted units gave the Americans working in Mexico someone they could trust. When Fast and Furious was exposed, though the situation reversed. Now it was American agents who did not appear trustworthy.
“They’d tell you, ‘Hey! Wait a minute! You guys knew these guys were trafficking guns but did nothing to stop it?’” says Carlos Canino. Canino was ATF’s attaché in Mexico City when “Fast and Furious” began. When he was in Mexico, he suddenly found himself under suspicion.
“I was asked by the Mexican attorney general herself. [This was] beyond embarrassing – professionally embarrassing and personally embarrassing because she is a personal friend. She is a great ally of the United States. Every day when I think about it, I don’t know why they did this,” says Canino.
Mexico, facing tens of thousands dead – entire swaths of the country under cartel control – simply let the matter drop.
It is possible that Fast and Furious could have a long-term positive impact on US efforts to stop gun smuggling across the border.
The US Justice Department has brought in a new federal prosecutor to Arizona: Carlos Canino. The Justice Department brought in Canino from its ATF office in Mexico City to run Tucson. Canino’s boss, Thomas Atterbury, now runs Arizona.
“We walk a fine line with the Second Amendment and keeping guns out of the hands of some of the most dangerous, ruthless people in the world,” says Atterbury.
In addition, in the four border states, licensed dealers must now tell the ATF when someone is trying to buy more than two rifles in a week’s time. The agency will seize those guns even if agents do not have enough evidence to arrest the actual smuggler.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, the Office of Inspector General will issue its finding on the scandal by the end of the summer. Those findings may reveal whether Attorney General Holder himself knew about the gunwalking program.
– Reported by Michel Marizco for America Abroad