By Kim Murphy
Friday, March 4, 2011; 12:54 AM
A federal operation that allowed U.S. weapons to pass into the hands of suspected gun smugglers so they could be traced to the higher echelons of Mexican drug cartels has lost track of hundreds of firearms, many of which have been linked to crimes, including indirectly to the fatal shooting of a Border Patrol agent in December.
The investigation, known as Operation Fast and Furious, was conducted even though U.S. authorities suspected that some of the weapons might be used in crimes, according to a variety of federal agents who voiced objections to the operation.
Many of the weapons have spread across the most violence-torn states in Mexico, with at least 195 linked to some form of crime or law enforcement action, according to documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity and the Los Angeles Times.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which ran the operation, said that 1,765 guns were sold to suspected smugglers during a 15-month period of the investigation. Of those, 797 were recovered on both sides of the border.
The ATF said agents took every possible precaution to ensure that guns were recovered before they crossed into Mexico. Scot L. Thomasson, the bureau's public affairs chief in Washington, said the Fast and Furious strategy is under evaluation.
"It's always a good business practice to review any new strategy six or eight months after you've initiated it, to make sure it's working, that it's having the desired effect, and then make adjustments as you see fit to ensure it's successful," he said.
But enough concern has been raised that some Washington officials have begun to dig deeper into the details of Operation Fast and Furious. On Thursday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. asked top officials at the Justice Department to determine whether further investigation of the operation was needed.
U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, initiated an inquiry to determine whether guns traveled to Mexico through inadvertence or deliberate policy on the part of U.S. law enforcement.
"We still don't have the documents we've asked for. Maybe we will get the documents. But right now it's stonewalling," Grassley said Thursday.
Much of what is known about the operation has surfaced in only the past few months, after the Dec. 14 shooting death of Customs and Border Protection Agent Brian Terry.
Terry was killed in a shootout with bandits near Rio Rico, Ariz. Serial numbers on two guns found at the scene matched weapons purchased by a man suspected in a gun-running scheme. The ATF had been monitoring the man in the hopes that he would lead authorities to the Mexican drug cartels.
The man, Jaime Avila Jr., and 33 others were indicted in January on charges of acting as straw purchasers of weapons, along with related drug- and money-laundering charges. As a result of detailed spadework, ATF and Justice Department officials say, those cases now include strong evidence against suspected recipients of the contraband weapons.
No one, however, has been charged with shooting Terry. ATF officials said there was no evidence showing the two Fast and Furious guns found at the scene were used to kill the agent.
- Los Angeles Times