ATF Death Watch 53: The Truth About Operation Fast and Furious


The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is the agency charged with enforcing federal gun laws. In 2005, the Bureau launched Project Gunrunner. They established the program to stop gun smugglers from buying and exporting weapons from gun dealers to Mexican drug cartels. Project Gunrunner led to the arrest of hundreds of so-called straw purchasers: citizens with clean criminal records buying firearms illegally on the behalf of criminals. The ATF claimed they were stemming an “Iron River” of illegal guns headed south. Despite an Inspector General report condemning the ATF for failing to catch “the big fish,” Congress rewarded the ATF with additional funding. In 2009, Project Gunrunner mutated into something far more sinister: Operation Fast and Furious.

During Project Gunrunner, ATF agents arrested straw purchasers before weapons crossed the U.S. – Mexican border. In Operation Fast and Furious, ATF agents made no attempt to arrest either the original purchaser or the criminal who received the illegally purchased firearms. In some cases, ATF agents hand-delivered weapons to gun smugglers. In all cases, the federal law enforcement agency let the smuggled guns “walk” across the border.

Several American gun dealers (who had not been informed of the sting operation ahead of time) were immediately suspicious of the straw purchasers, many of whom bought multiple guns multiple times. The gun dealers contacted the ATF and requested guidance or intervention. The ATF told the dealers to complete the transactions and let the weapons go.

As expected, straw purchasers smuggled these semi-automatic rifles and handguns across the U.S. border into the hands of Mexican drug cartel members. Hundreds and then thousands of semi-automatic rifles and handguns disappeared into the hands of vicious criminals.

Concerned ATF agents monitoring the sales understood the danger to Mexicans and Americans alike. They begged their superiors for permission to interdict the guns at the U.S. border. All such requests were summarily refused.

Within months, Fast and Furious-enabled firearms began to show up at Mexican crime scenes via the ATF’s eTrace tracking system. It’s not possible to determine how many Mexicans were murdered by cartel members using Fast and Furious firearms. All parties involved admit that the numbers reached into the hundreds.

ATF agents at the sharp end became increasingly disturbed by the notion of drug thugs using Bureau-enabled guns to murder rivals and innocent civilians. They worried that cartel members would use the guns against U.S. law enforcement officials. The agents published their discontent on a website called Gun bloggers David Cordrea and Mike Vanderboegh pursued the story.

Inevitably, the agents’ worst fears were realized. Some of the ATF-enabled weapons found their way back into the United States. When one or more members of a “rip crew” (ripping off drug smugglers) used one of the Fast and Furious guns to murder U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, the ATF’s wall of silence was breached.

With inside info and prodding from pro-gun bloggers, Congressman Darrell Issa and Senator Chuck Grassley began investigating. The ATF stonewalled their requests for information, refusing to provide key documents. The Bureau threatened retaliation against ATF line agents who raised objections to Fast and Furious—both during and after the Operation.

After zealous digging by the Gun Rights Examiner and The Sipsey Street Irregulars, after three House Oversight Committee hearings and some better-late-than-never coverage by CBS, Fox and others, the details of Project Fast and Furious began to emerge. We now have information about Operation Fast and Furious that Bureau managers withheld from ATF line agents tasked with overseeing its implementation.

We now know that cartel criminals used a Fast and Furious .50 caliber rifle to shoot at a Mexican military helicopter that was subsequently forced to land. Two other Fast and Furious weapons were used by members of the Sinaloa cartel in the kidnapping, torture and murder of high-profile Mexican attorney Mario González Rodríguez, the brother of a state prosecutor in Mexico.

We now know that many of the so-called straw purchasers were paid FBI informants. William Newell, Former ATF Special Agent in Charge of the Phoenix Field Division, testified before Congress that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and Immigrations and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were “full partners” in Operation Fast and Furious.

We now know that senior ATF officials in Washington were regularly briefed on Operation Fast and Furious. Agent Newell testified that he discussed the gun smuggling operation with Kevin O’Reilly, a staffer on President Obama’s National Security Council. The White House knew the program’s risks and nevertheless approved of the Operation and its tactics.

We now know that Operation Fast and Furious was not the only ATF gun smuggling program. The ATF ran “Operation Castaway” out of their Tampa office. Hundreds of guns moved from Florida straw purchasers into Honduras, ultimately bound for Mexican cartels. Castaway firearms have been connected to several crimes in Puerto Rico and a murder in Colombia.

Operation Fast and Furious resulted in twenty indictments against low-level gunrunners—most of which were made immediately after Agent Terry’s murder, once the program came to light. Weighed against the deaths of Border Patrol Agent Terry, Mario González Rodríguez and countless others, the operation’s costs seem to heavily outweigh the return.

All of which begs the question: why did the ATF allow the guns to walk? How could such an obviously dangerous program—a “sting” that violated Mexican sovereignty—ever have been implemented?

When Operation Fast and Furious broke cover, gun-bloggers “revealed” the ATF’s motives. The Bureau wanted to create an Iron River. Guns eTraced from the U.S. to Mexico would enhance their power, prestige and budgetary allocation. At the same time, the ATF could use the stats generated by their anti-gun running gun running “sting” to attack the Second Amendment and, thus, usher in legislation to restrict Americans who wish to buy, sell or keep firearms.

From Project Gunrunner to Operation Fast and Furious, “never waste a good crisis” morphed into “never miss a chance to create a good crisis.” Allegedly.

To understand the truth about Operation Fast and Furious, you have to see the bigger picture . . .

Mexico is at war. Rival drug cartels and the Mexican military are fighting a bloody battle for control of the country and tens of billions of dollars worth of illegal income. In the last five years, more than 40,000 Mexicans have died in this internecine conflict. Twice as many people have been tortured. Tens of millions of Mexicans live in fear for their lives, without any civil liberties (including gun rights).

The situation in neighboring Guatemala is even worse. Although not well-publicized, Guatemala’s murder rate is three times higher than Mexico’s. The drug cartels are completely entrenched; less than one percent of crimes are punished.

The horrific, remorseless violence raging in Mexico and Guatemala can be laid squarely at the feet of the drug cartels and their puppets in both governments. Every gang is knee-deep in blood. Every gang bears equal responsibility. Both governments have been infiltrated and corrupted by drug cartels dispensing billions of dollars worth of blood money.

While members of the Mexican and Guatemalan federal governments are doing well from the conflict, the governments themselves are losing control. In Mexico, drug cartels are now in charge of huge swathes of territory, including large cities like Ciudad Juarez. Within their strongholds, cartels own the police, judiciary and prison system. They’ve murdered and tortured the press into silence. They are, literally, a law unto themselves.

One Mexican drug cartel has risen above all the rest: Los Zetas.

Los Zetas was founded by a group of former Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (Special Forces Airmobile Group), deemed to be among Mexico’s military elite. Los Zetas drafted-in former federal, state, and local police officers as well as “ordinary” soldiers. They’ve formed an alliance with Guatemala’s jungle warfare specialists Los Kaibiles.

Los Zetas and their Kaibiles allies have the organization, training and discipline to destabilize an entire hemisphere. They have unlimited funds, unlimited access to weaponry (including fully automatic rifles, grenade launchers and grenades) and an army of more than ten thousand loyal members.

Both Robert Plumlee, a former CIA pilot and Phil Jordan, a former CIA operative and DEA director, claim Los Zetas have stockpiled thousands of weapons to disrupt and influence Mexico’s national elections in 2012. Los Zetas end game: a seat at the government table. Guatemala also elects its national leaders in 2012. In both countries, there’s a very real chance that Los Zetas could subvert the political process completely and stage a successful coup d’etat. 

All that stands between Los  Zetas’ leaders and complete hegemony: the governments of Mexico and Guatemala and their “friendly” drug cartels. Just last week, Mexico completed operation Lince Norte (“Northern Lynx”), a 20-day attack on Los Zetas by 4,000 Mexican troops. The Mexican military boasted they’d killed Nuevo Laredo’s Zeta boss and the arrested a cartel financial manager.

The Mexican and Guatemalan governments remain under siege. Neither has enough trustworthy forces to be assured of victory against Los Zetas.

The United States is assisting Mexico’s fight against Los Zetas every way it can. Last year, the U.S. State Department’s Direct Commercial Sales Program doled-out some $416.5 million worth of weapons and equipment to the Mexican military. U.S. taxpayers have stumped up more than a billion dollars to fund the so-called Merida Initiative, providing equipment and training to Mexico’s security agencies.

Despite all that time, effort, material and money, the situation in Mexico continues to disintegrate. Whatever help the U.S. has given to Mexico, it hasn’t been enough. And that includes Operation Fast and Furious.

The ATF’s claim that they created Operation Fast and Furious to to bust the Mexican cartels’ “big fish” strains credulity. The guns weren’t tracked. In fact, they were un-trackable. The ATF has no jurisdiction in Mexico. Mexico’s law enforcement and military are suffused with cartel spies and allies. The Mexican government was never informed about the program in the first place. There was no way of closing the supposed trap.

If the ATF intended to create a program that was designed to fail, it could not have done a better job than Operation Fast and Furious. But it wasn’t and they didn’t. Operation Fast and Furious was created to funnel weapons from American gun stores to anti-Zeta cartel members on the border. In this it was successful.

From its inception in the fall of 2009 to its termination roughly a year later, ATF-enabled smugglers walked at least 2000 weapons across the border. Because of the murders of Agent Terry and Agent Zapata, the Operation Fast and Furious never hit its stride. Had not sunk of its own weight, Operation Fast and Furious would still be funneling thousand of weapons into Mexico.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the federally licensed firearms dealers who filled the straw purchasers’ trucks with weapons were supposed to be the fall guys, should Operation Fast and Furious come to light. That ploy has failed. The ATF has been left holding the bag, with a Congressional committee hard at their heels.

Operation Fast and Furious’ disintegration and the ATF’s attempt to sweep it under the rug in no way implies that the ATF set the wheels in motion. On the contrary, the Bureau never had a “Plan B” if Fast and Furious went off the rails. Can they really be that stupid? Unlikely.

Since 2009 or before, the American intelligence community has feared that Mexico was becoming politically and thus militarily unstable. The U.S. military quietly but not secretly stepped up its training of Mexican security forces. Meanwhile, the CIA added Mexico to their watch list, right up here with al-Qaida.

The CIA should know. The relationship between the CIA and the anti-Zetas cartels goes back some twenty years. The former Guadalajara Cartel, Mexico’s top narco traffickers in the 1980s, was protected by Miguel Nassar Haro, Chief of Mexico’s Dirección Federal de Seguridad. Haro was a CIA asset. Most of the territory formerly dominated by the Guadalajara Cartel was taken over by the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels, both blood enemies of Los Zetas.

Yesterday’s New York Times reported that the U.S. is now sending “new” CIA operatives and retired military personnel to Mexico to help the federal government fight Los Zetas. Uncle Sam’s also looking at deploying private security contractors. Clearly, in the run-up to that Mexico’s national elections, the U.S. federal government’s concerns about the Mexican government’s survival are increasing.

Between these two events: Operation Fast and Furious. TTAG’s contacts tell us that the CIA is behind the ATF’s decision to let guns walk from American gun stores. The Agency saw Fast and Furious as a way to arm anti-Zeta cartels. Specifically, the Sinaloa cartel. They worked with the ATF, killing two birds with one stone: increasing the ATF’s credibility in Washington and countering Los Zetas’ power.

As for the involvement of the FBI, DEA, ICE, DHS (Department of Homeland Security), CPB (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) and the U.S. State Department, think Murder on the Orient Express. A CIA-originated and orchestrated anti-Zetas gun smuggling program gave everyone a piece of the action.

It explains the fact that the federal agencies in charge of patrolling the Mexican border failed to intercept a single “Gunwalker” gun. It explains Mexico’s silence about the ATF’s violation of their sovereignty. (President Felipe Calderon keeping a lid on the CIA’s role in Mexican politics lest The Company reveal his cronies’ connection with the Sinaloa cartel.)

It explains the ATF big-wigs’ high-fiving when Operation Fast and Furious guns were recovered at a crime scene; they were celebrating when Sinaloa cartel members used a Fast and Furious gun to kill Zetas. A practice suggests that the ATF’s top bureaucrats knew Operation Fast and Furious’ real goal, even if their front line agents did not.

The so-called Gunwalker scandal proves that America’s multi-billion dollar “War on Drugs” is an utter sham. Our government was (is?) involved in a drugs for guns conspiracy. The scandal also highlights the fact that America’s Mexican border is all but completely porous. If the Sinaloas can fly a 747 filled with cocaine into the U.S. with official approval, what’s to stop them bringing in something worse?

All this and more to stop Los Zetas from taking control of Mexico (and Guatemala).

Strange to say, a Mexican military-style dictatorship might force America to seal our southern border. No drugs and illegal immigrants in. No guns out. (Unless we sold weapons to the junta.) Meanwhile and in any case, one wonders if Congress will explore the CIA connection to Operation Fast and Furious or let sleeping dogs lie in the interest of “national security.” Watch this space.