A Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives initiative to reduce the flow of weapons from the United States to Mexico has “significant weaknesses” that undermine its effectiveness, including ATF’s failure to share intelligence information with Mexican authorities and some of its U.S. law enforcement partners, a report said Tuesday.
Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said deficiencies were identified in Project Gunrunner, despite increased ATF activity associated with the program, including the number of cases initiated and referred for prosecution and an increase in gun-dealer compliance inspections on the Southwest border.
“Drug traffickers have turned to the United States as a primary source of weapons, and these drug traffickers routinely smuggle guns from the United States into Mexico,” Mr. Fine said. “Despite the increased ATF activity associated with Project Gunrunner, we found that significant weaknesses in ATF’s implementation of Project Gunrunner undermine its effectiveness.”
ATF began Project Gunrunner as a pilot program in Texas in 2005 and expanded it into a national initiative in 2006. Agents and investigators were assigned along the border to increase “strategic coverage” of the region and disrupt firearms-trafficking corridors.
As war rages between rival drug cartels in Mexico, ATF and other law-enforcement agencies have seized thousands of firearms, including assault rifles, semiautomatic rifles, grenade launchers, pistols and .38 caliber “Super” pistols. More than 31,000 people have been killed across Mexico since December 2006 in that nation’s ongoing drug war.
The ATF has said Project Gunrunner sought to deprive the drug cartels of weapons, suppress firearms trafficking and stem gun violence on both sides of the border.
But Mr. Fine said a review of the project identified deficiencies in ATF’s intelligence tracking and information sharing. The IG’s office said ATF does not systematically and consistently exchange intelligence with Mexican and with other federal law enforcement agencies.
The 138-page report also said intelligence personnel in ATF’s Southwest border field divisions do not routinely share firearms-trafficking intelligence with each other. It said the ATF focuses largely on inspections of gun dealers and investigations of “straw purchasers,” rather than on higher-level traffickers, smugglers and the ultimate recipients of the trafficked guns.
The report noted that 68 percent of Project Gunrunner prosecutions were single-defendant cases; that some ATF managers discouraged field personnel from conducting complex conspiracy investigations targeting higher-level members of trafficking rings; and that ATF also has not made fuller use of federal law enforcement resources to conduct more complex conspiracy investigations.
It also said the majority of recovered guns in Mexico were not traced, although trace requests to ATF for guns recovered in Mexico increased from 5,834 in fiscal 2004 to 22,000 in fiscal 2009. It said most trace requests from Mexico are considered “unsuccessful” because of missing or improperly entered gun data. It also noted that ATF had a substantial backlog in responding to requests for information from Mexican authorities.
Mr. Fine said that in its response to the report, ATF provided new information regarding the accomplishments it said it had achieved under Project Gunrunner in fiscal years 2006 through 2009, but that most of the data differed from the information ATF provided his investigators during their review. He said investigators determined that the new data contained discrepancies and questioned its validity.
But ATF Deputy Director Kenneth E. Melson, in a letter to the Inspector General’s Office in response to the report, said the agency was “concerned that the review did not adequately reflect the challenges that the United States and Mexico face in seeking to reduce violence, gun and drug trafficking along the border.
He said the agency was operating “in an unprecedented capacity in Mexico” and was providing more assistance regarding firearms trafficking and explosives investigations than ever before.
“Our work in Mexico has not been without challenges, including effective sharing of information,” he said. “Accordingly, these very dynamic circumstances create information-sharing challenges that ATF and the government of Mexico are diligently collaborating to overcome.”