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.
“However, if it helps put you at ease, we are continually monitoring these suspects using a variety of investigative techniques, which I cannot go into [in] detail,” Mr. Voth wrote.
Later, ATF arranged a meeting between the dealer and Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley, the lead prosecutor in Fast and Furious, during which the dealer was again assured that safeguards were in place to prevent further distribution of the weapons.
The dealer had sought assurances after selling more than 300 weapons to straw buyers he knew were Fast and Furious targets. After being told by ATF and the U.S. Attorney’s Office that the gun buyers and weapons were being continually monitored, he went on to sell an additional 450 guns.
Less than six months later, the ATF confirmed that two WASR-10/63 assault rifles found at the site of the Terry killing had been traced to Jaime Avila Jr., a suspected straw buyer and one of the Fast and Furious targets.
He had bought the weapons, a Romanian variant of the AK-47, at the Lone Wolf Trading Co.
By the time of the shooting, Mr. Avila had been under surveillance for more than two months. It took ATF less than 24 hours to confirm that he had purchased the weapons found at the site of the Terry killing.
The operation was shut down, and Mr. Avila was arrested, along with 19 others named in a federal grand jury indictment on charges of dealing in firearms without a license, making false statements in connection with the acquisition of a weapon, and smuggling goods from the United States.
Trials for the 20 straw-purchase suspects are pending.
Those identified as the straw buyers in Fast and Furious were nothing if they weren’t ambitious. They bought hundreds of high-powered weapons and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although many of the purchased weapons were not top of the line, they weren’t cheap.
According to government records, the straw buyers spent an average of $648 for each AK-47-type assault rifle they bought. The Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifles went for more than $6,000 each, and the FN 5.7mm pistols cost an average of $1,130 each.
Uriel Patino, a food-stamps recipient, proved to be the most prolific straw buyer, said the indictment, which alleges that he bought 316 weapons, although congressional investigators said the number might be twice as high. Included were 246 AK-47 assault rifles purchased during 24 visits to two Phoenix-area gun shops over a nine-month period.
Mr. Avila and Mr. Patino, the indictment said, shopped together at the Lone Wolf Trading Co.
According to the 43-page indictment handed up in January, Mr. Patino’s buying habits were aggressive.
On Nov. 24, 2009, he purchased five AK-47 assault rifles; on Dec. 11, 2009, he purchased 20 more; on Jan. 15, 2010, he bought 10 more; on Jan. 30, 2010, he purchased 15 more; on March 15, 2010, he purchased 40 more; on March 25, 2010, he bought an additional 26; on April 27, 2010, he bought 10 FN 5.7mm pistols; on June 10, 2010, he bought an additional 10 AK-47s; and on July 8, 2010, he bought 16 more AK-47s.
Mr. Patino came to the attention of ATF in October 2009. Within three weeks, he had purchased a total of 34 weapons, including the AK-47s from gun dealers cooperating in Fast and Furious. The serial numbers of the weapons were logged into the ATF’s Suspect Gun Database, which discovered that one of them had turned up in Mexico just 14 days after it had been bought.
“ATF is supposed to stop criminals from trafficking guns to Mexican drug cartels,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who began the Fast and Furious probe last year. “Instead, ATF made it easier for alleged cartel middlemen to get weapons from U.S. gun dealers.”
Kept in the dark
While Fast and Furious was supposed to monitor the purchased weapons as they headed to buyers in Mexico, ATF agents assigned in Mexico had been kept in the dark about the operation.
“I would like to apologize to my former Mexican law enforcement counterparts and to the Mexican people for Operation Fast and Furious,” Darren Gil, former ATF attache to Mexico, told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “I hope they understand that this was kept secret from most of ATF, including me and my colleagues in Mexico.”
During a rancorous five-hour hearing, ATF agents assigned in Mexico said they discovered the Fast and Furious investigation only after documenting that an alarming rate of guns found at violent crime sites in Mexico were being traced to Arizona gun dealers.
Mr. Gil said he found it “inconceivable” that any competent ATF agent would allow “firearms to disappear at all,” especially on an international border. As a result, he said, Mexico will continue to suffer the consequences of drug-related firearms violence.
Agent Carlos Canino, ATF’s acting attache to Mexico, angrily told the committee that “walking guns” was not a recognized investigative technique, adding that hundreds of weapons ultimately went to ruthless criminals in Mexico.
“It infuriates me that people, including my law enforcement, diplomatic and military colleagues, may be killed or injured with these weapons,” he said, adding that “never in my wildest dreams” would he have thought that ATF agents would allow guns to be walked to Mexican criminals.
Noting that Fast and Furious ended with the killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent, one high-ranking former Border Patrol official described the operation as “scary.”
“The only thing I can figure is that the politicians in the upper management of the agencies involved decided it would work,” the official told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity for fear of being reprimanded. “They sure as hell couldn’t have run it by the agents in the field who would have known what would happen.”
‘The most fun you have’
Not only were the ATF agents in Mexico unaware of the Fast and Furious investigation, several ATF agents involved in the operation itself had their own concerns.
Agent Olindo James Casa testified before the House committee that as a member of the Group VII Strike Force, he discovered that straw buyers were purchasing numerous firearms, that “no law enforcement activity” had been planned to stop them, and that numerous firearm traces had put many of the weapons in Mexico.
Because they were “increasingly concerned and alarmed,” he said, he and several other strike force agents took the matter to their bosses, including Mr. Voth, but to no avail. Instead, he said, they received an email they regarded as a “direct threat to the agents who were not in agreement” on how the operation should be run.
“Based on my 18 years of experience with the ATF, I did not think the email was an empty threat. I took it very seriously,” Mr. Casa said.
In that March 12, 2010, email, Mr. Voth told the agents that “close attention” was being paid to Fast and Furious by “people of rank and authority” at ATF headquarters in Washington.
“It may sound cheesy, but we are ‘The tip of the ATF spear’ when it comes to Southwest border firearms trafficking. I will be damned if this case is going to suffer due to petty arguing, rumors or other adolescent behavior,” Mr. Voth wrote. “If you don’t think this is fun, you’re in the wrong line of work — period!
“This is the pinnacle of domestic U.S. law enforcement techniques. After this, the toolbox is empty,” he wrote. “Maybe the Maricopa County Jail is hiring detention officers, and you get paid $30,000 (instead of $100,000) to serve lunch to inmates all day. We need to get over this bump in the road once and for all and get on with the mission at hand. This can be the most fun you have with ATF, the only one limiting the amount of fun we have is you!”
Mr. Voth summed up the Fast and Furious program in an April 2010 memo, saying the violence in Mexico “is severe and without being dramatic, we have a sense of urgency with regards” to Fast and Furious. He noted that the straw buyers had purchased 359 firearms during the month of March 2010 alone, including numerous Barrett .50-caliber rifles.
“I believe we are righteous in our plan to dismantle this entire organization, and to rush in to arrest any one person without taking into account the entire scope of the conspiracy would be ill-advised to the overall good of the mission,” he said.
William McMahon, ATF deputy assistant director for field operations in Phoenix and Mexico, and William Newell, former ATF special agent in charge of the Phoenix field division, also defended the operation in their committee testimony.
Mr. Newell testified that ATF had good intentions when it began the operation in 2009 and that it was not its purpose to permit the transfer of firearms to Mexico. He said he would do such an investigation again with some changes.
In a supplemental statement to the committee, Mr. Newell said that after reviewing his testimony, he concluded he “should have conducted more frequent assessments” of the operation during which he could have “articulated to my staff the need to be proactive in ascertaining the quantity of guns being purchased that we were not able to intercept.”
Mr. Voth, Mr. Newell and Mr. McMahon all have since been moved to administrative duties.
Knowledge on high
President Obama has said he did not authorize Fast and Furious, and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told the House Judiciary Committee in May that he first became aware of it in April. “I probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few weeks,” he said.
But Mr. Grassley and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, said Mr. Holder received at least five weekly memos beginning in July 2010 describing the Fast and Furious investigation.
The July 2010 memo from Michael Walther, director of the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), specifically identifies the Fast and Furious operation, says when it began, names the law enforcement agencies involved, and identifies the major investigative targets.
Sent to Mr. Holder through the office of the acting deputy attorney general, the memo also noted that the operation involved a Phoenix-based firearms-trafficking ring and said “straw purchasers” were responsible for buying 1,500 firearms “that were then supplied to Mexican drug-trafficking cartels.”
The Walther memo also said the straw buyers had direct ties to the Sinaloa drug cartel, “which was suspected of providing $1 million for the purchase of firearms in the Greater Phoenix area.”
“Attorney General Holder has failed to give Congress and the American people an honest account of what he and other senior Justice Department officials knew about gunwalking and Operation Fast and Furious,” Mr. Issa said. “The lack of candor and honesty from our nation’s chief law enforcement officials in this matter is deeply disturbing.
“Tragically, it wasn’t until Fast and Furious guns were found at the murder scene of a Border Patrol agent that Justice officials finally ended this reckless and arrogant effort,” he said.
Mr. Holder, in a letter last week, denied that emails sent to his office showed he knew of Fast and Furious before April.
He said public comments about the inquiry and his involvement with it had become “so base and so harmful to interests that I hope we all share,” he had to publicly address the matter.
He said he took “decisive action” when he learned about the program in ordering the Office of Inspector General to investigate the matter. He said he also overhauled the leadership at ATF and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix.
Last week, Mr. Issa issued a subpoena for Justice Department officials, including Mr. Holder and more than a dozen of his top deputies. He said the department’s top echelon of officials “know more about Operation Fast and Furious than they have publicly acknowledged.”