On the night of December 15, 2010, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry joined with other agents in an effort to catch several bandits targeting illegal immigrants in Arizona near the border. In a firefight, Agent Terry was shot and killed. When law enforcement rushed to the scene, they discovered two Romarm/CUGIR 762 assault rifles dropped by the killers.
Tragically, it emerged that these guns were allowed to “walk” from the original purchaser or straw buyer to others in Operation Fast and Furious, a weapons-sting operation conducted by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) office in Phoenix, Arizona.
A new report and the latest hearings by the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee continue to assess the ill-advised strategy that sought to rein in weapons trafficking into Mexico but ended by delivering these weapons to Mexican drug cartels and giving a massive black eye to ATF, the Department of Justice, and the Obama Administration.
As of late July, the number of arms unaccounted for still numbers around 1,500. Weapons that “walked” under Operation Fast and Furious have appeared all over the U.S. and Mexico, often on crime scenes.
The latest round of hearings in the House focused on the disconnect between U.S. law enforcement and its agents abroad.
Just as the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City was reporting in July 2010 that illicit shipments of guns were generally small but numerous and purchased legally by Mexicans living legally in the U.S. who were not directly linked to organized criminal gangs, Operation Fast and Furious set out—with little success—to target major gunrunners.
ATF officials remained unresponsive to queries from Mexico and allowed guns to continue “walking” in hopes of following them, presumably by surveillance, informants, and threats of prosecution, up the criminal supply chain. But this was an unreasonable hope once the guns were allowed to cross the border into Mexico.
Darren D. Gil, former ATF attaché to Mexico, lamented, “why were ATF personnel in Mexico kept in the dark on this operation [OFF], which has now imperiled trust and cooperation between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement at a time when that trust and cooperation is more essential than ever?”
The often-stated view in Washington is that high risks of corruption and penetration of Mexican police structures by criminals inhibit cooperation and make U.S. law enforcement officials wary of working with their Mexican counterparts.
It is a sad irony that because of Operation Fast and Furious, officers in the field in Mexico and in the ATF’s operational ranks now feel betrayed by the Obama Administration, not the Mexicans. No one in the Obama Administration in Washington, from Attorney General Eric Holder down, is ready to assume responsibility for an operation gone astray and for the damage done to U.S.–Mexican relations.