The Real Reason the ATF Smuggled Guns Into Mexico

As the mainstream media [finally] investigates the Gunwalker scandal, we’re learning more about the who, what, when and where. The unanswered question: why? Why did the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allow, indeed encourage, smugglers to move weapons from American gun dealers to Mexican drug cartels? Until we hear from the agents in charge, including ATF acting head Kenneth Melson, we won’t know. And probably not then. Gunwalker is sure to torpedo the career of any federal employee stupid enough to defend the indefensible. All we have at the moment: speculation. But it’s becoming increasingly informed speculation. And the most likely explanation for this boondoggle is not the one you would expect, or the ATF suggests . . .

1. To catch the “big fish”

The ATF launched Operation Fast and Furious after the Inspector General’s office ripped the Bureau a new one for Project Gunrunner’s [non] performance. Specifically, the IG criticized the ATF’s firearms interdiction effort for not catching the “big fish” swimming down the so-called “Iron River” of guns flowing north to south. [Click here to download the IG's full report.]

As TTAG reported at the time, the IG’s report was fundamentally flawed. There was no Iron River.  The ATF had exaggerated the problem for their own political ends. At best, U.S. to Mexico gun smuggling was a trickle—especially compared to the guns flowing from the Mexican Army and police to the drug lords. So the IG’s exhortation to find the “Sr. Grande” of the trade created a a criminal conundrum: how do you catch something that doesn’t exist?

The ATF responded to the report by launching Operation Fast and Furious. As the title suggests, the ATF opened the flood gates, releasing (if not farming) smaller fry to catch bigger fish. Less metaphorically, they “let” guns flow South so they could follow the weapons into Mexico and catch the “real” bad guys.

This is the explanation offered by the whistle-blowing ATF agent featured on CBS News’ recent Gunwalker report. And yet the big busts never happened. Why would they?

First, there was no way the guns would flow to the drug lords themselves or their major lieutenants. That’s not how organized crime is organized. The ATF knew that. Second, the ATF expects us to believe that they somehow “lost” the guns—ALL the guns. Oops? I don’t think so.

Third, how was the ATF going to bust the big fish in Mexico without informing the Mexicans? We know for a fact that the ATF kept the Mexican government in the dark about Operation Fast and Furious. The ATF can’t operate within Mexico. So . . . ?

This “guns as bait” explanation lacks common sense credibility. The possibility of governmental incompetence—ATF Agents blindly followed a deeply flawed plan—brings it back from the brink of NWOGGE (No Way on God’s Green Earth). But only just.

2. Empire building

Another possible explanation for ATF-enabled weapons heading south: the Agency wanted to inflate the numbers of guns smuggled into Mexico so they could continue to milk Uncle Sam for more of the “special funding” that created four new Gunrunner regional offices—the first increase in ATF personnel in decades.

In this scenario, the ATF let smugglers smuggle guns so they could get money to stop smugglers smuggling guns. It just crazy enough to be true. We know that the ATF has a chip on its shoulder the size of the Yucatan Peninsula. The ATF has been struggling to justify its existence since it was given Agency status. And entrapment is the ATF’s primary way of doing business.

BUT, as TTAG pointed out when this idea was first mooted, why bother? The ATF had already lied to Congress and the American public about the scope of the U.S. to Mexico gun smuggling problem, using unproven and misleading stats based on ATF traces on guns confiscated by the Mexican government. The “ninety percent of guns used by Mexican cartels come from the U.S.” stat was such a PR success that it’s still circulating in the MSM.

If the ATF wanted to hype the Iron River all they had to do was . . . continue to lie. Instead of enabling smugglers to smuggle actual guns, they could just make up some new stats. As the ATF and Mexico have thrown a cloak of invisibility around the weapons themselves—SHOW US THE GUNS—there was no need to do the deed.

This “smuggled guns as empire building” claim also lacks credibility.

3. ATF Agents enabled smuggled guns to line their own pockets

The amount of money—cash money—flowing in the drug trade is beyond your wildest imagination. Tens of billions of dollars. The Mexican drug lords have corrupted officials on both sides of the border, at the highest possible levels. Why not the ATF? Money talks, guns walk. Makes perfect sense.

According to, “New [ATF] agents are hired on at either the GS-5 or GS-7 level. As a GS-5 a new agent will earn between $28,349 and $36,856 a year and as a GS-7 an agent will earn between $35,116 and $45,648.” A drug gang could hand that amount of money to an agent, in cash, for a few dozen ARs. As we learned yesterday, an ATF agent could make his or her annual salary with ONE gun smuggling trip.

A dirty ATF agent could “earn” hundreds of thousands of dollars by enabling gun smugglers. He or she could spread that wealth around to the DEA or ICE or the FBI or U.S. Customs and Border Protection to help make it so.

ATF Agents are hardly strangers to corruption. In May 2010, former Arizona-based ATF Agent Brandon McFadden pleaded guilty to possession and conspiracy to distribute drugs, possession of a firearm during drug trafficking, and money laundering. There’s an entire website dedicated to exposing the ATF’s institutional corruption, and no reason to suspect that relatively low-paid members of the Agency are immune to the lure of major drug money.

As in Watergate, the key to this scandal is to “follow the money.” Never mind the guns themselves—even though drug thugs used ATF-enabled weapon to murder two federal agents. Who paid for the ATF-enabled smuggled guns? How much did they cost? How were the smugglers/informants paid, and how much were they paid? How much did the smugglers get for the guns and what happened to that money?

Occam’s Razor says that if you’re forced to choose between competing theories explaining a given event, the simplest explanation is the most likely to be true. I vote for door number three.

The ATF didn’t “botch” Project Gunrunner or Operation Fast and Furious. I reckon they started out setting up straw purchases, and then “forgot” to stop the guns before they crossed the border. They subverted the normal rules of a police sting—NEVER LOSE TRACK OF THE DRUGS/MONEY/GUNS—for cash.