The central characters in the failed “Fast and Furious” firearms investigation were 19 men and one woman, all legal residents of the U.S., accused of laying down hundreds of thousands of dollars in illicit cash at Phoenix-area gun shops to buy an arsenal of high-powered weapons for Mexican drug smugglers.
Between September 2009 and December 2010, congressional investigators said, they purchased or aided in the purchase of more than 2,000 AK-47 assault weapons, Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifles, FN 5.7mm semi-automatic pistols and other assorted rifles, shotguns and handguns that later were “walked” into Mexico. About half the weapons remain unaccounted for.
They paid cash, as much as $900,000, and with each purchase they signed their names on Form 4473, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) document, swearing under the threat of committing a felony that they were not purchasing the weapons for someone else — that they were not “straw buyers.”
But they were, and the ATF knew it.
Most of the purchases were recorded on video equipment mounted by ATF agents in the shops of cooperating gun dealers; other buys were personally witnessed by undercover agents in the stores. Some ATF officials at the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters could watch live video feeds of the weapons being purchased.
It was part of a plan, a risky strategy to allow weapons to be placed in what agents call the “Iron River” of guns flowing south into Mexico. The goal, of course, was to feed the gun-trafficking network and to identify the big fish, the drug cartel bosses in Mexico who were paying for the weapons.
There was to be no interdiction of the purchased guns before they crossed the border, as frustrated ATF field agents were ordered to “stand down.” There was no interest in prosecuting the straw buyers on charges of “lying and buying.” Those who put the Fast and Furious operation together had bigger targets in mind.
Eventually, hundreds of weapons found their way to drug smugglers and other violent gangs throughout Mexico, some traveling 1,800 miles south to Acapulco with others turning up 1,200 miles east in Reynosa, near the Gulf of Mexico. Some Fast and Furious weapons also were discovered 1,300 miles southwest in La Paz, on the tip of Baja California.
The strategy had neither a stop sign nor a cutoff switch — until Dec. 14, 2010, when the investigation came to an abrupt halt. What had been feared by field agents had happened: At least two Fast and Furious AK-47s purchased at an Arizona gun shop turned up just north of the Arizona-Mexico border at the site of the killing of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry.
The agent’s death during a firefight with Mexican bandits in a popular drug-smuggling corridor known as Peck Canyon confirmed the worst fears of at least one of the licensed Fast and Furious gun dealers. The dealer had sought assurances from the ATF on two occasions that weapons he was selling would never end up in the hands of the “bad guys.”
In an email, the dealer told the ATF he understood the investigation was ongoing so information about it would be limited, but since the border was awash in both guns and violence, he was reaching out for assurances that “none of the firearms” he was selling at the Lone Wolf Trading Co. in Glendale, Ariz., “could or would ever end up south of the border.”
The dealer told the ATF he wanted to help the agency with its investigation, “but not at the risk of agents’ safety, because I have some very close friends that are U.S. Border Patrol agents in southern Arizona.”
The dealer’s email prompted the following response from ATF Group VII Strike Force Supervisor David J. Voth, who oversaw the Fast and Furious operation: “I understand that the frequency with which some individuals under investigation by our office have been purchasing firearms from your business has caused concerns for you.