During the past week, the U.S. and Colombia indicted and arrested more than 50 individuals charged with organizing maritime and aerial smuggling of cocaine from Colombia to the U.S. via Central America and Mexico. The arrests again reflect the sustained nature of close law enforcement cooperation between the U.S. and Colombia. This cooperation has been nurtured patiently over more than a decade.
By stark contrast, cooperation between Washington and Mexico has been harmed as a result of Operation Fast and Furious, the botched law enforcement operation that allowed more than 2,000 guns to “walk” from straw buyers into the hands of criminals—Mexican and American. It also appears that an Arizona man believed to have supplied grenades to Mexican criminals may have slipped through the fingers of U.S. law enforcement.
As in the case of cooperation with Colombia, the rationale behind Operation Fast and Furious was to develop cross-border cooperation and prosecutions against higher-ups in criminal organizations. Defenders of Operation Fast and Furious say it was a way of getting around weak or ineffective U.S. laws regulating the sale and export of high-powered firearms, by going after gun-trafficking networks.
In a briefing paper in January 2010, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) explained:
The ultimate goal is…to identify and prosecute all co-conspirators of the DTO [Drug Trafficking Organizations] to include the 20 individual straw purchasers, the facilitators of the distribution cell centered here in Phoenix, the transportation cells taking firearms South, and ultimately to develop and provide prosecutable information to our Mexican law enforcement counterparts for actions.
Agents running the operation claimed they stood on the cutting edge of law enforcement.
Wrote a lead ATF agent, David Voth, in early 2010 to quiet doubters in the wisdom of the operation: “This is the pinnacle of U.S. law enforcement techniques. After this, the tool box is empty. Maybe the Maricopa County Jail is hiring detention officers and you can get paid $30,000 (instead of $100,000) to serve lunch to inmates all day.”
On April 2, 2010, Voth again urged zeal in pressing ahead with the operation even when massive quantities of weapons seemed to be walking away:
Our subjects purchased 359 firearms during the month of March alone, to include numerous Barrett .50 caliber rifles. I believe we are righteous in our plan to dismantle this entire organization and to rush in to arrest any one person without taking in to account the entire scope of the conspiracy would be ill advised to the overall good of the mission.
The disconnect between “gun-walking” and effective law enforcement widened. The Mexican cooperation piece is still missing.
In hearings before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on July 27, Carlos Canino, ATF acting attaché in Mexico, painted a grim picture: “I have reason to believe that we were kept in the dark because the ATF leadership in Phoenix feared we would tell our Mexican partners.” Asked former ATF agent Darren Gil, “Why were ATF personnel in Mexico kept in the dark on this operation, which has now imperiled cooperation…at a time when that trust and cooperation is more essential than ever?”
Now it appears members of President Obama’s national security staff who deal with sensitive Mexican issues—Dan Restrepo and Kevin O’Reilly—were also in the loop but took no action. The Los Angeles Times reports that the supervisor of ATF in Phoenix “specifically mentioned Fast and Furious in at least one email to a White House national security official, and two other White House colleagues were briefed on reports from the supervisor, according to White House emails and a senior administration official.”
It is the National Security Council’s job to make sure domestic actions with foreign policy consequences—like the gun-walking of Operation Fast and Furious—are in sync with U.S. anti-crime and anti-drug efforts abroad.
As in the case of Colombia, the bottom line for Operation of Fast and Furious should have been building more effective cross-border cooperation with Mexico. Yet the opposite occurred. This foreign policy disconnect is worrisome and is another important reason for Congress to press its investigation to avoid a dangerous repeat.