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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.



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  1. Number three doesn’t seem particularly likely to me. I would think that the cartels could get a far larger return on their investment by bribing or intimidating military personnel in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador so that they could take their pick of actual military hardware, instead of the expensive, semiautomatic firearms available on the US commercial market.

    Frankly, I suspect that most of the US made guns being used in Mexico by the cartels were acquired in this manner. Foreign governments acquired them, probably as military aid from the US to help fight the incredibly unsuccessful “War on Drugs”, and then the cartels took them by force, or paid some private a few pesos to help them load the truck and then handcuff himself to a chair and say they surprised him.

    • I agree with your basic analysis, and wider perspective (another post on that later). ALL of this is a distraction from the real show.

      According to my sources, Bushmaster ACRs are VERY popular in certain Mexican states. A full accounting of OFFICIAL sales to Mexico would be nice.

      But I reckon the ATF Agents saw a chance and took it.

  2. You asked David Codrea the question during our live chat:

    Robert Farago: Is there any evidence that the ATF agents took money for any of this? Is there personal corruption as well as institutional corruption?

    His response was:

    david codrea: I have not seen that–I have seen allegations of ambition on the part of mgrs

    If someone was “on the take,” we’ll probably never know.

    • Believe it or not, the feds keep scrupulous records of all the money they spend on sting operations. I bet there’s a paper trail.

      But what we really need is another canary. One motivated by fear (jail) rather than altruism.

  3. The Atf well bussy sherding paper trail or have list top secret. Are goverment acb law enforment agencies are get good white wash there way out trouble.

  4. Think Poindexter/North on a smaller scale but similarly twisted. You can’t imagine what they’ll get up to till they do it. Not that you’re surprised when a little light their dark deeds reveals. Still it requires torque to wrap your mind their screwball antics.

    This sh*t is systemic top to bottom. (Not to slight or sully the many who truly help maintain the health of this nation.) It is just one pustule, symptomatic of the increasing corruption that hopefully won’t be terminal but will be ugly.

    The absurdity of what is repeatedly gotten away with is what amazes me. Look at what’s going on. One man with a conscience, a working moral compass and the fortitude to state a simple truth, “this ain’t right” riles a mendation of minions who’ll not stop explicating till the citizenry weary. And we pay the bill for them to tell us they’re not abusing us. Now it’s even more “not right.”

    Buggery can take many forms and this be one of them. These ATF dudes seem to have been led down a bad path, but they’re just prey/tools of even badder dudes that operate from the shadows. This goes to show; guns aren’t dangerous or evil, only certain people, and the most dangerous work for the government. They are the ones that need to be controlled!

  5. I am no fan of the ATF, so I am not defending them here. But the lack of any evidence to support the “they did it for the money!” allegation you make here makes me question your judgment. Find extraordinary facts to support extraordinary claims. (And claiming that the ATF agents are selling guns for personal profit is an extraordinary claim. It is. Really. Most people will dismiss the allegation as absurd.)

  6. Create enough backlash for enabling certain gun control advocates to ram through otherwise unwanted gun control laws.

  7. I believe it so this clumsy, incompetent and buffoonish administration can point to the “flood” of guns coming from our side of the border and demand more draconian control measures for the good of everyone. It fits the narrative of liberals.
    American sovereignty must be overcome and the dissarmament of it’s citizenry is a key component to the new borderless society.

  8. I am reminded of the old saying, “never ascribe to malice anything that can be explained by shear incompetence,” as well as its corollary, “any sufficient amount of incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.”

    Most of the damage done by large institutions like government or big business is done by people seeking the relatively minor rewards of a promotion or pay raise. They don’t do it for the big bucks. I think the explanation that the ATFs institutional imperatives drove them down this road.

    The ATF exist to regulate civilian guns in the US only. If guns in Mexico aren’t coming from US civilian sources then the ATF can’t be involved in the big events in Mexico. Therefore, the ATF quickly convinces itself that flow of civilian source guns to Mexico must be a big deal.

    Except it isn’t so any action the ATF takes predicated on that it is, results in failure. Then they begin to push more and more extreme measures in a futile attempt to prove that it is.

    Incompetence, not malice.

  9. I really don’t think that individual corruption for profit is a significant factor for one simple reason-the misdeeds reported on this site, by Mr. Codrea, and lately by CBS, are much more systemic. In the US corruption by government officials rarely takes the form of directly enriching its beneficiaries. Much more common is the Blagojevich (or closer to your home, Buddy Cianci) style of soliciting campaign contributions and patronage for others to expand their fiefdoms. I think Codrea is closer to the truth, managers from the field office to the Bureau chief want to expand their realms.

  10. No. 2 seems the most reasonable explination. Inflate the numbers so as to provide funding and a career. Mr. sMelson like crap and his ilk probably were just trying to make a political foot in the door for a long time career. Of course if you want to hear God laugh? Make a plan.

  11. “The Latin American drug cartels have stretched their tentacles much deeper into our lives than most people believe. It’s possible they are calling the shots at all levels of government.” – William Colby, former CIA Director, 1995

    The rivers of cash are easy enough to dry up. I wonder when the US will decide it has had enough prohibition?

  12. From the media reports that I have seen so far, your third supposition is way off. It was the operational level agents that called BS on this operation after years of having their bosses in DC push this operational template. I can assure you that street agents would not unilaterally allow guns to “walk” south while videotaping the buys and writing reports about it. As a former ICE agent, we would conduct “controlled deliveries” of narcotics smuggled into the US from MX. We would follow shipments into the US interior until they reached a transhipment point and then seize them and arrest everybody. This was the bread and butter of the agency. But ICE supervisors didn’t like doing them because of the possibility of losing the load. This was rare, but supervisors who presided over lost loads bore the wrath of the DC suits.

    The ATF’s leaders have been overly aggressive and reckless for a long time. Much like the CIA they have never been punished for mistakes like Waco, Ruby Ridge, and Santa Clarita. It stands to reason that they will continue to act this way until they are stopped.

    As an aside, when I went to the Academy, it was with ATF candidates. All of the agencies at FLETC had their students wear some horrible blue slacks and a polo shirt as a uniform except two. The ATF wore blue camo utilities with ATF in giant yellow letters stamped on each leg, back of the blouse and on the chest as if it was unclear who was wearing the blue cammies. I found it amusing as a Navy SEAL that they were trying so hard to instill a militant and elite mentality into their trainees.

  13. My brother was an agent for another agency in Texas during the Waco siege and shared offices with ATF agents. They told him that Waco was a “made for media” event designed to draw attention to the ATF and allow the agency to go before Congress and plead for expansion and more funding to fight the rising “right wing militia/religious extremist” threat. I think we are seeing another failed attempt to create a problem which will then require additional funding/power/agents so the ATF can do battle against the self created crisis. While there is little doubt, considering human nature, that money has changed hands in a few cases, I have to vote for motivation No. 2 in this instance. It follows the institutional history of ATF efforts to “shape the narrative”.

  14. As the days go by we still don’t hear a peep about this from the anti-gun blogs out there. Surely they don’t approve of this, do they? Or maybe they don’t mind a few hundred Mexicans and an American or two dying if it inflates the numbers. That would help out their cause after all.

  15. The real problem is not that American guns are winding up in the hands of Mexican criminals, but that the fundamental human right to keep and bear arms is systematically denied the Mexican people. Just like here in the US, this right is enshrined in the constitution of Mexico. But official laws mean very little in a 3rd world nation that can best be described as a Kleptocracy. If it weren’t for corrupt government, Mexico would have no government at all.

    If the average Mexican were armed to the teeth, as every free man and woman should be, then the government there would be of the people, by the people, for the people, and the drug cartels would never have gotten off the ground. The first and best defense against violent crime is an armed citizenry. This is also the first and best defense against tyranny by the state. Criminals don’t like it when their victims have the power to resist, especially criminals acting under color of law.

    • Hey buddy, let just say that you are shot in the head outside the Macdonald’s by an 18 year old that bought the gun in the black market. I bet your family would not support your words. Guns should be carried by the law or by citizens that are investigated to the teeth as any stupid jerk in the street is allow to buy a gun after a very inappropriate background check we the citizens of the U.S. currently have. The Second Amendment should be used by our government and people correctly before we end up killing each other, specially if the economy keeps getting worse. Most border towns on the U.S. side are being over stacked by gun manufacturers, so that drug money laundering can help workers in the gun industry to be employed. How do you think those people can pay their mortgages in a tough economy if they do not sell their goods? Basically, U.S. manufacturers and dealers have been smuggling guns to Mexico directly involved in the dead of over 40,000 innocent people in that country. If Mexico being the 2nd largest buyer of American goods has lost 40,000 consumers, I guess to a certain extent, lots of people have lost their jobs because there are less consumers buying their products south of the border.

      • Can you show me the new gun manufactures that are being “over stacked” on the border, as you put it? Also how about providing a source for said manufacturers shipping guns illegally to Mexico, and a source about the 40,000 killed by those illegal guns.

        Next up…

        Stop spouting your BS about how we should have MORE restrictions on our rights. The Second Amendment, in my opinion, should protect my right to have every bit of the hardware that the military (any military) may have. That’s what the framers of the constitution had in mind when they wrote it, albeit vastly different than the militaries are armed today. I should be able to wander over to the gun store and purchase surface to air ballistic missiles to my hearts content. Why do I need them? Well, I feel that it is my DUTY as a U.S. citizen to be prepared to defend this country from whatever threat there may be. If an invading army or extremely large terrorist event were coming tomorrow, with the majority of our standing military spread across the world, it might just be up to the citizenry to defend our homeland. It’s not likely, but neither is getting a flat tire, and I still carry a spare. This is not some fantasy world I live in, by the way. I do not consider this a significant threat. I am just using it as an example to illustrate my point.

  16. Gave up my FFL years ago after realizing that the power it gave the BATF over my life and property was completely unacceptable. This mess and other situations like it make me more convinced than ever that I did the right thing.

  17. The most obvious explanation that the Obamatons were out to create facts in support of the their ongoing effort to blame Mexican gun violence on American arms dealers, as justification for further infringing the constitutionally protected gun rights of American citizens. Not empire building by ATF, but political agenda by Obama/Holder. Analysis at my link.

  18. I believe Option 3 is a stretch. If the decision to proceed with this was done by maybe a handful of agents I could see the veracity in it, but the fact that it was so widely known makes it untenable to say the least. I believe arrogance was a factor in this more than anything else. Arrogance with a liberal seasoning of incompetence made this a perfect storm. The ATF should be dismantled when this done, it has a long bloody history of lies, death, and incompetence that make it unreformable in the scope of things.

  19. I think the BATFE recognizes the Mcdonald and Heller SCOTUS decisions as an existential threat. They desperately need a crisis they can prevent going to waste.

  20. A good rule of thumb is “never attribute to bad intentions that which can be explained by incompetence”.

    By this rule, no matter how stupid it sounds, explanation #1 is the most likely. This also explains the reason for the obvious cover-up; the ATF managers don’t know how they can explain their behavior without coming across as total dumbshits.

  21. One thing to remember is that option two actually represents worse corruption than option three.

  22. I confess, I do not know the answer. But, if I have to choose from among the three aklternatives you suggest, it’s gotta be #3.

    Human nature—money attracts the things it wants to buy. It’s not like ATF or any other arm of government is all that selective in who it accepts as employees, or does a very good job policing them once hired.

    But, I imagine teh officialstory will be #1—because the government generally also thinks we are all idiots, and they have gotten away with it any times before.

  23. The answer is even more simple. BATF was ordered by the Obama Administration to come up with sensational gun trafficking figures to justify new gun laws. Look at the new multiple long gun sales regulations proposed for border states. The gun stores that expressed their concerns to BATF were told to keep selling or they’d be jeopardizing an ongoing investigation. BATF then turns around and fingers these same shops as being part of the problem. Only the real problem was the system broke down when BATF told them to continue to sell.

    Congress needs to investigate this, find out how high it goes, and those responsible need to be jailed or impeached.

  24. The ‘real’ reason is so the marxists / authoritarians in the Executive could foist their gun control agenda on us by creating a crisis, inflating the drug war by arming it, increasing the body count, increasing the alaraum over ‘gun show loopholes’ etc etc.
    Evidence – the highly coordinated media bleat about the situation; the highly coordinated and proven falsehood about ‘90% of cartel crime guns come from the US’, which lie was rapidly repeated by every creep in teh adminstration and every gun banner in Congress; the follow-on ’emergency’ request by the ATF to institute draconian registration of long arms in ‘problem border states’, after – as we see with this unfolding scandal – it was the ATF that inflamed the problem in the first place.
    It was some of the gun stores themselves that made worried phone calls, to be told by the ATF ‘let it go thru’. Yet the ATF pretends now that the stores were the problem.
    Senior mgmt in the ATF and DOJ that perpetrated this massive fraud in service to their sick disarmament agenda should HANG for these treasons. HANG I say.

  25. Mr. Farago,

    While your reasons #1 and #2 may fit and have some documentation that support them, your #3 reason holds no water.

    The documents that Senator Grassely has made public prove beyond any doubt that ATF management was aware and actively directing “fast and furious” operations. When you add in the supervisor email that was intended to squelch street agent dismay of the operation it blows your #3 out of the water.

    As to your argument of why bother, the “traced guns” 90% myth was exposed. Most folks don’t realize that “a” gun can be traced multiple times during the investigation of a single crime….and that guns that were not involved in a crime can be traced on a “hunch” by law enforcement to see if it is stolen. Since nobody but ATF management see raw trace data and ATF managements interpretation of that data has never been examined independently, I would not hang my hat on any of the numbers.

    The simplest explanation could be that AG Holder needed a crisis to put forth “gun control” to satisfy some need [constituents of the administration perhaps?]. They found an opportunity at ATF and meddled with it via ATF management via DOJ. If it went sour (it did), the ATF gets the heat not the administration.

    Some possibilities for you to consider,

    • Len:

      Good analysis, but a couple of corrections…. Guns not involved in a crime do not need a ‘hunch’ by law enforcement to do a trace. ATF officially encourages law enforcement to trace every gun they encounter. See: This will include a Concealed Carry gun which you allow police to examine, any recovered stolen gun, any gun temporarily held by police (as in a domestic dispute), etc. ATF has also acknowledged they occasionally will trace every gun in a dealer’s inventory and ‘bound book’ – just in case one shows up later.

      Far more than ATF management see trace data. The raw data is provided to the agency requesting the trace, including corrupt Mexican cops – or any of the other users of the ATF eTrace computer system. Remember that some 33 foreign countries and thousands of U.S. locations have direct access to eTrace and the raw trace data. Please refer to: for additional detail.

      Remember that ATF calls every traced gun a ‘crime gun’, regardless whether it was used in a crime or not.

    • The guns that turned out to be 90% from the U.S. were guns that the Mexican government asked for help from the U.S. in tracing because they suspected they came from the U.S.. They don’t include guns that the Mexican government didn’t suspect came from the U.S.. So the 90% is 90% of some other %, not 90% of all guns used in crimes in Mexico.

  26. Yet another article diminishing the US responsibility in gun traficking. I’m curious to know what your sources are to say guns are flowing to cartels from the Mexican military or other countries. It is certainly peculiar that the guns used by the Mexican military are mainly H&K G4. It is also peculiar that the most popular guns used by organized crime here are semiauto M4’s and AR-15’s and highly modified AK-47’s, with the kind of modifications that only come from the US market, as no military uses them (at least in latin America) (short barreled, pistol grip only, picatinny rails and oh, last but not least, US Import markings). You just have to watch the photographs, newscasts and will see. Better yet, try to live in Mexico without fear of being caught in the middle of a gunfight between rival cartels.

    Please stop giving me that BS about guns getting into Mexico from other countries. Otherwise be prepared for Mexico proclaiming that probably drugs are coming to the US from China and Somalia.

    • How are you seeing import markings in news footage? These markings are somewhat difficult to photograph under optimal conditions, let alone what news crews generally have to deal with. Also, if they are marked as having been imported from the US, they are not coming illegally. They are going through a legal importation process, and sold to criminals in Mexico.

  27. It is because it’s prohibited. See, if you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel.
    That’s literally true.
    Milton Friedman

    The truth is an apparition to the ghosts of American justice.
    R.D. / E.B.

  28. All of the lessons necessary to iradicate this problem have already been learned. To say parallels could be drawn to the 1920’s is an understatement. No one uses or doesn’t use drugs based on legality. The modification in behavior is in whether such behavior is clandestine or not. Legalization will destroy the profit incentive. By the same token, do not coddle those who get involved. Education is very important. Kids see commercials on TV like : This is your brain on drugs…. Useless. What they need to see is a young person being dismissed from a job interview because the prospective company found out they have a drug conviction. Drug use can and does damage someones life in real, tangible ways most young people fail to realize. Forewarned is forearmed. As far as “this is your brain…” The producers forgot that young people are immortal and invincible.

    • This is an incredibly astute observation. I have long been in favor of legalization of street drugs. I have never used any, and have no intention to regardless of their legal standing. I rarely even consume alcohol or caffeine and have never used tobacco, all for personal reasons.

      What caught my attention was the potential for true education on the ramifications of drug use. Legalization and dismissal from a potential job for a drug conviction is probably not possible, however, emphasis on an employers right to test for drug use could be very effective. You can’t work somewhere drunk, why would they let you work there high?

      More supply (due to being legal) and less demand (by removing the “bad” that does attract some, and better education about the effects) will drop prices so dramatically that the cartels will be forced out of business. The problem will be AS that is happening, and they each try to “win” and be the lone survivor. I am sincerely afraid of that prospect.

      Legalizing drugs has to be looked at from the same standpoint as alcohol. If you do something stupid while intoxicated, you cannot blame the alcohol. You did it, you pay the price and sometimes that price gets steeper when you add alcohol. Any sort of intoxication would have to go by the same standard.

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