Fast guns, furious Mexicans

Posted on April 2, 2011

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By ZACH LINDSEY
Mexico Weekly / March 11, 2011

When special agent John Dodson appeared on the CBS network to decry “Operation Gunrunner” and its spin-off operation “Fast and Furious,” it was a wake-up call for some. For others, it was just one more nail in the operation’s coffin.

Dodson explained that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) was selling guns to known drug cartel members to determine who was ultimately buying them.

“The supervisors in the agency had told us they … finally wanted to make that leap from the underlings to the management,” Dodson told CBS. “In order to do that, we have to identify these people to build a case against them.”

But with guns sold by the ATF turning up in the Dec. 14, 2010, fatal shooting of a U.S. Border Patrol agent, whatever the original intentions of the program were, it all seems to have gone sideways. The repercussions of the error will last for years, Dodson said.

“There’s (sic) agents that aren’t even on the job yet that are going to be dealing with this their entire career,” Dodson told CBS.

Diplomatic Tit for Tat

When the U.S. Embassy on Thursday posted a bulletin on its website implying that Mexican officials knew all along about the operation and were even “present for” the arrest of 19 people as a result of the operation, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office responded with its own statement: “The Mexican government has not given, and will never give its tacit or explicit approval for the deliberate flow of weapons into Mexican territory.”

On Friday, the U.S. Embassy posted a clarification: “The briefings that took place between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement focused on operations on U.S. territory to crack down on trafficking operations. The alleged transfer of arms to Mexican territory at this point is exactly that – an allegation.”

But the clarification did little to calm Mexican lawmakers’ anger.

From the Senate floor, PAN Sen. Ricardo García Cervantes said the operation not only violated Mexico’s laws but also dishonored the bilateral commitment for “cooperation and responsibility in the fight against international organized crime operations.”

“Firearms have been responsible for increasing the levels of violence, and criminal organizations have taken the lives of our soldiers, marines, police officers and ordinary citizens,” García said.

García finished his intervention by asking the Senate to vote on a resolution disapproving any operation that involves sending guns into the country and calling on the government to request from the ATF all available details relating to operation “Fast and Furious.”

García also asked the Mexican Ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhán to lobby the U.S. government to make all such programs illegal.

Running Contraband

Rogelio Ramírez de la O, a political science professor at UNAM, was blunt, calling the operation a “clear violation of sovereignty – the U.S. authorities were part of what is technically smuggling.”

Theoretically, he said, U.S. officials involved in the plan could be prosecuted under Mexican smuggling laws. But Ramírez de la O wonders if the Mexican government is strong enough to directly address the issue.

“I would advise this government to simply forget about it,” Ramírez de la O said. “It’s not a strong government, [and] it’s not a government respected by its citizens.”

When the Mexican government agreed to the Mérida Initiative, they immediately lost their ability to complain about U.S. intervention, Ramírez de la O said.

An ATF press release issued March 3 – after Dodson’s comments – said the agency would review the operation, but did not give many more details, or specify if “Operation Fast and Furious” had been suspended.

The ATF “will ask a multi-disciplinary panel of law enforcement professionals to review the bureau’s current firearms trafficking strategies employed by field division managers and special agents,” ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson said in the statement. “This review will enable ATF to maximize its effectiveness when undertaking complex firearms trafficking investigations and prosecutions.”

But U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made public his fears about the operation as early as Nov. 3, 2010, in testimony before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee.

After U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison asked him about it, Holder openly criticized “Operation Gunrunner” and “Operation Fast and Furious.”

“Guns are different than drugs or money when we are trying to follow their trail,” Holder said. “We cannot have a situation where guns are allowed to walk.”

Indeed, one the ATF’s and other U.S. law enforcement agencies’ priorities is to stop the illegal flow of weapons.

Despite being vilified north and south of the border, U.S. officials insist “Operation Fast and Furious” has had its successes, among them the indictment of 20 Phoenix-based defendants accused of illegal arms trafficking from the United States to Mexico.

But the almost 2,000 guns involved in “Operation Fast and Furious” are not the only things that will be turning up in strange places for a long time, according to Ramírez de la O.

The operation’s repercussions are also “costly in terms of good will,” he said. “These are costs that are going to be there for some time.

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