ATF's tactics to end gun trafficking face a federal review

A forensics team collects evidence last month after an official was killed in a drive-by shooting in San Nicolas de los Garza, Mexico.
A forensics team collects evidence last month after an official was killed in a drive-by shooting in San Nicolas de los Garza, Mexico. (Tomas Bravo)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011

A controversy over tactics used to break up an extensive Mexican gunrunning ring has prompted federal officials to reevaluate an aggressive law enforcement strategy to stop firearms trafficking.

The new scrutiny comes after two separate shootings in the past three months in which federal agents were killed and guns recovered by investigators were later traced back to people already under investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee has charged that ATF agents allowed hundreds of firearms to flow from gun stores in the United States to criminals in Mexico and elsewhere in order to build cases against more prominent gun traffickers.

In one of those cases, ATF agents in Phoenix were divided over when to conclude the investigation and arrest suspected traffickers. Some of those agents took their misgivings to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) after two AK-47s traced back to a U.S. gun store were recovered near the site of an agent's killing.

The controversy highlights the difficulty ATF agents face in complex cases against increasingly sophisticated gunrunning rings. Many gunrunning cases end with little more than paperwork violations against buyers who procure guns for others. Such "straw purchaser" cases rarely amount to more than charges of lying on federal documents.

"There is no gun-trafficking statute," said James Cavanaugh, a retired ATF supervisor. "We've been yelling for years that we need a gun-trafficking statute, because these cases are so difficult to prove."

This means that agents who want to make bigger cases must sometimes watch guns travel to criminals who use them in more serious crimes, such as drug trafficking.

"Asking cooperating gun dealers to arm cartels and bandits without control of the weapons or knowledge of their whereabouts is an extremely risky strategy," Grassley said.

The Justice Department has denied that the case unfolded the way Grassley asserts, but ATF agents have acknowledged using aggressive tactics in an attempt to break up high-level rings connected to Mexican drug cartels.

The undercover operation's goal, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich said in a letter to Grassley, was "to dismantle the entire trafficking organization, not merely to arrest straw purchasers."

Weich added: "The allegation - that ATF 'sanctioned' or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico - is false."

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) have asked for a review by the Justice Department's inspector general, which last year criticized the ATF for failing to pursue high-level trafficking cases. Acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson has asked "a multi-disciplinary panel of law enforcement professionals to review the bureau's current firearms trafficking strategies," the ATF said.

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