Why Operation Fast And Furious Failed

The operation was run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 2009-10. NPR's Ted Robbins and Michel Marizco of the Fronteras Desk talk about the intent of Fast and Furious, why the operation failed, and solutions to curb gun-running on the U.S.-Mexican border.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. You've probably heard about the Washington side of Fast and Furious. Yesterday, a House committee voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, and President Obama invoked executive privilege to protect disputed documents.

House Republicans say the attorney general and now the president are trying to cover up the fallout from a bungled gun sting on the Mexico, Arizona border. Democrats say it's all election year politics. But let's step back to 2009, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives created Fast and Furious as part of an effort to stem the flow of U.S. weapons to Mexican gangs and drug cartels.

What was the intent? What's the scale of the problem? What went wrong? And what happens now? If you have questions about Fast and Furious or gunrunning to Mexico, give us a call, 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's npr.org.

Later in the program, Loving Prize-winner Reginald Daniel joins us to talk about teaching multiracial identity in a changing world. But first, NPR national desk correspondent Ted Robbins joins us from his office in Tucson, where he covers the Southwest, and nice to have you back on the program.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Hi, Neal, it's good to be with you.

CONAN: And what was Fast and Furious?

ROBBINS: Well, Fast and Furious, let's go back even a little farther, if we might.

CONAN: OK.

ROBBINS: Because really these - it was only one program in a series of sting operations called gun walking, essentially, which began in 2006 and ended in 2011. And so it was part of I guess the umbrella would be Project Gunrunner, and it was supposed to stem the number of firearms that were leaving the United States and going into Mexico, into the hands of drug cartel members, largely because it is much easier to obtain guns in the United States than it is in Mexico, which has some fairly stringent at least legal, you know, ways to get guns, it's fairly stringent gun-control laws.

So what they would do, is instead of actually arresting a person who bought a gun, as a straw purchaser - bought a gun for somebody else, which is illegal in the United States - that's the way it works, and then they hand them over, and then they walk them into Mexico.

So instead of arresting somebody - talking about ATF right now - they would let the purchaser walk, and in this case take the guns, meaning gun walking, take the guns into Mexico in hopes of arresting the people who they gave the guns to, so leading them to bigger targets in the cartel operations.

That was the intention of Fast and Furious, as I say, which was one of a number of these kinds of operations, which actually began under the Bush administration.

CONAN: And gun walking, as opposed to gunrunning, one - the ATF does it, it's gun walking, and if it's done purely illegal, it's gunrunning. What's the scale of the problem? Obviously the United States provides a lot of assistance to the Mexican government and the Mexican army. Are we essentially arming both sides in the drug wars in Mexico?

ROBBINS: Well, by we, I mean, we're arming one side, the army and the police. The government is helping with aid. And the other side is being armed illegally by a number of American gun dealers, not that they're doing anything illegally, mind you. Some are, but a lot of them are not. So yeah, you could say that we, as a country, are.

CONAN: And so obviously tens of thousands of people have died in the drug wars in Mexico. Joining us now from member station KUAZ in Tucson is Michel Marizco, Tucson senior field correspondent for the Fronteras Desk, a collaboration of public radio stations across the Southwest, and it's good of you to be with us today.

MICHEL MARIZCO: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And tell us a little bit about these gangs the ATF was trying to track down.

MARIZCO: From the number of guns and where the guns were going, the ATF was trying to land somebody in the Sinaloa cartel. The Sinaloa cartel has been going after the Zeta cartel in northeastern Mexico, the Gulf cartel, the Juarez cartel in Cuidad Juarez; and for a certain number of years they were also going after the Arellano-Felix organization in Tijuana - so virtually throughout all of Mexico.

Now, where the guns were ending up seemed to always be in the hands of people working for the Sinaloa cartel, whether that - whether the guns were being seized by the Mexico army in Tijuana, here on the Arizona border or in Mexico. Over and over again, the guns kept landing in the hands of one particular cartel.

CONAN: And it's obviously a risk allowing those guns to go through. They can cause problems. They presumably get used.

MARIZCO: They did, and ostensibly this was the purpose of Operation Fast and Furious and its predecessor Operation Wide Receiver. And Fast and Furious, of course, two of the guns used, two of the guns at the murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry were Fast and Furious guns. It's unknown whether they were actually used to commit the murder. The FBI ballistics report was inconclusive on this.

But the guns were also being found in the hands of Sinaloa cartel members. For example, in Juarez they were used to kill the brother of a high-level attorney general for the state of Chihuahua. And of course this is all going on at a time when the United States is trying to coordinate with the Mexican government after the (unintelligible) initiative to implement certain types of priorities in Mexico's handling of organized crime cases. So while that's going on, they ended up allowing these guns to be smuggled into Mexico, and then they were used to kill this attorney general's family member.

CONAN: And Ted Robbins, clearly that's not the intent. What went wrong here?

ROBBINS: Well, what went wrong is it was as, I think, as almost everybody admits right now, it was a flawed plan. They really couldn't adequately track the firearms once they went into Mexico.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Daryl(ph), and Daryl's with us from Lake Worth in Florida.

DARYL: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I guess I'm just a little confused as to the logic behind the plan to stop guns going into Mexico by sending this huge number of guns into Mexico. I'm just - I'm flummoxed by it.

CONAN: Why did they use so many guns, Ted Robbins?

ROBBINS: Well, I mean, they - most of the guns that are taken into Mexico are not - were not part of this. I mean, they just - they're being - as you had said earlier, it's gunrunning, and it's illegal, and they don't know about it, our government, that is.

CONAN: Well, how many guns were involved in Fast and Furious?

ROBBINS: Michel might have a better - I think it was something like 1,600. Is that right, Michel?

MARIZCO: Yeah, it was roughly 1,800, mostly AK-47 variants, but also 50-calliber rifles, which are, you know, a bullet the size of a small beer bottle.

ROBBINS: Yeah, so the standard, you know, sort of the standard training was to follow the straw purchasers to where they handed off to the cartel members and then arrest everybody and seize the guns, and they just lost track in this operation.

CONAN: And obviously things - disaster ensued. Daryl, thanks very much for the call.

DARYL: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Richard(ph), Richard with us from Salt Lake City.

RICHARD: Yeah, my question is how much did the Mexican government know about this because if somebody was running guns into America to feed our criminals, it just - that just stinks. I don't know. How much did they know?

CONAN: Michel Marizco, can you help us with that?

MARIZCO: The previous attorney general for Mexico had reportedly been briefed on Fast and Furious and gun walking. He's now a diplomat in another country, an ambassador, ostensibly. He has said that he did not know. Mexico has pounded on the table, saying that they are shocked and disappointed with the United States, but it did appear that at least some people, including that former attorney general, had been briefed on the ATF's idea.

But it's also interesting to note that ATF agents working in Mexico had no idea what ATF in Phoenix had been up to at the time.

CONAN: So different branches of ATF weren't talking to each other.

MARIZCO: Right, I mean, and this - we kept seeing this throughout the entire case. For example in 2009, the lead Fast and Furious subject had been picked up by the ATF, give him a business card and tried to recruit him to work for them to nail two Mexican drug lords. It turned out the two drug lords that he was supposed to be working as a snitch on were informants for the FBI.

And in all this, the DEA was also involved running pole cameras, they call them, on these same two suspects. So really we had I do not know how many suspects that were working for either the ATF, the FBI, the DEA and in some cases all three being involved in this fiasco.

CONAN: And they still lost track of the guns.

MARIZCO: Yes, sir.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call, Richard. This email question, you mentioned earlier, there was an earlier project in the Bush administration. Gloria(ph) wants to know: How does Fast and Furious differ from the Project Gunrunner in the Bush administration? Ted Robbins, do you know?

ROBBINS: Yeah, they got caught in the sense that it came to light. Fast and Furious came to light only because - well, let me back up. There were a number of guns that were traced, and ATF agents were voicing opposition. But really all of this came to light because of the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry just over this side of the border, which was arguably - he was arguably shot by a couple of the guns allowed to walk.

And that really brought this to light, and I think an agent named - an ATF agent named John Dodson and another were upset at this operation, and they had reached out to superiors in ATF, and finally they went to Congress, and they went especially to Senator Grassley of Iowa and then Representative Darrell Issa.

And they started complaining about this tactic, and that's really how it came to light.

CONAN: Were similar numbers of weapons involved in the Bush administration?

ROBBINS: I don't know the answer to that.

CONAN: All right.

ROBBINS: I know that there were no prosecutions during the Bush operations, and there were prosecutions during - when Obama took office.

CONAN: We're talking about fast and furious, what went wrong with the operation and the gunrunning problem it was designed to target. If you have questions about it, give us a call, 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. We're speaking with Ted Robbins, NPR's national desk correspondent in Tucson; and also with Michel Marizco, senior Tucson field correspondent for the Fronteras Desk. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan; it's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News; I'm Neal Conan. Attorney General Eric Holder and House Republicans signaled a willingness to negotiate a way out of their standoff over the investigation into Fast and Furious. That would keep the power struggle out of the courts and avoid a contempt charge against the attorney general.

That's the political fallout. Today we're talking about the Fast and Furious operation itself, what it was designed to do and how it went wrong. If you have questions about Fast and Furious or about gunrunning to Mexico, give us a call, 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website, npr.org.

Our guests are Ted Robbins, NPR's national desk correspondent who's based in Tucson; and Michel Marizco, senior Tucson field correspondent for the Fronteras Desk, a collaboration of public radio stations across the Southwest, where they cover the border, immigration and the changing demographics of the border region.

And this is an email from Joshua(ph) in Indiana, who's following up on what you just said, Ted Robbins, and is it true there have been no prosecutions of gunrunners resulting from the botched operation?

ROBBINS: There have - you know, let me back up, actually, to the previous caller, that according to the sources during our break that I looked at that Fast and Furious was by far the largest sale of firearms under these gun walking programs.

There were - I think there's been one actual conviction of a gunrunner under this - under these programs. Michel might have more on that.

MARIZCO: There was a ring run by a guy by the name of Manuel Solis Acosta(ph). There were four people there who were eventually sentenced in Operation Fast and Furious. And then of course there's the predecessor case, Operation Wide Receiver, which started in '06, and in that case, there were 11 defendants, and of those 11, nearly all have pleaded out at this point, and their cases have been adjudicated.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Wren(ph), Wren with us from Ann Arbor.

WREN: Good day. Yeah, just a few questions, that this entire operation is termed by many commentators in the media as botched, but here we have this most recent statement of one of your guests that there were 11 prosecutions, Wide Receiver. Then a much larger operation is conceived and rolled out with hardly anyone in other agencies knowing about it, where 1,800 weapons, a much larger number go out, which such a terrible track record on the first one, 11 prosecutions.

And then a single conviction or, you know, this is incredible that AK-47s - let me ask, just, the question. How could AK-47s be sold here in the United States with assault weapon ban, how could - why were they not tagged, RFIDs? You know, you can tag a box of Corn Flakes and trace it across continental distances. What was going on? This is, to me, an out-of-control agency, completely berserk.

CONAN: RFIDs are very short-range, but they could have put a GPS device or something on it. Ted Robbins, do you have any answers for Wren?

ROBBINS: You know, I recall testimony, on the Hill, of one of the ATF agents who was critical of this operation saying that they had put - they had put GPS devices on some of these and that the batteries ran out, and they hadn't thought of that when they did it. So yeah, I mean, the parts of - in terms of botched, it's a shorthand way of saying it didn't work.

CONAN: Michel Marizco, do we know whose idea this was?

MARIZCO: Well, there's the million-dollar question everybody's trying to figure out. The U.S. attorney in Arizona took the blame. He resigned as a result of the scandal. The ATF chief, at the time, in Phoenix, told reporters emphatically no, there was no gun walking going on. He was quietly laterally transferred back to Washington as a result of this.

Now going back to Wide Receiver, because I've always had questions about this, see, when they started the prosecutions of people in that case, they brought in a special prosecutor from Washington, D.C., to handle the prosecutions here in Tucson. In other words, prosecutors here didn't handle it, she did from D.C.

So what happened there? Defense attorneys tell me she had to have known because she'd talked to all the agents, she knew all the parts of the program, and in Wide Receiver, they clearly new, the courts documents stated, that these suspects had been going into Mexico with guns and coming back into the U.S. to buy more from snitches here in Tucson.

So at the end of the day, the question becomes OK, if you brought in a special prosecutor from D.C. to handle these prosecutions quietly in Tucson, who was her boss? How did he not know? Who approved her travel to Tucson from Washington to handle this? And these are the questions that, you know, House Republicans are trying to find out right now.

CONAN: And Ted Robbins, another part of Wren's question, sales of AK-47s?

ROBBINS: Well, they're not - as long as they're not sold as fully automatic, they're not illegal, and then they can be easily - I don't know how easily - but they can be converted. And it's also not - it's not illegal to buy these guns. It's illegal to buy them in somebody else's name.

In terms of tracing, you know, there were gun dealers who were worried about this, who took part in it and worked along with the ATF. There are reputable gun dealers who will not sell if they have any suspicions that this is going on in the Tucson area and Phoenix area, and in Texas, as well. But some of these people were actually, you know - some of the dealers were working with the ATF. So I don't think you can put it on the dealers for selling the guns.

CONAN: This - AK-47 is what's called a select-fire weapon, Wren. There are switches, as manufactured, switches for single shot when you pull the trigger or a burst of three or - then fully automatic. They are - as sold in this country, only supposed to be the single-shot version, but there are kits available that you can adapt it, as Ted Robbins said, to - back to the full select-fire options.

WREN: Indeed, and, well, thank you for taking my questions. I just wanted to make a point that with - undoubtedly, hundreds and hundreds of these weapons still out there, we can only conclude after 300 Mexican citizens have been killed with them, that the rate of killings will continue at one every two or three days. That's the arithmetic rate of killings under this program, and it's got to be continuing.

CONAN: All right, Wren, thanks very much for the phone call.

ROBBINS: You know, I should say that over the last couple of years, Customs and Border Protection has really ramped up its operations in - at the ports of entry in terms of southbound cargo. They're now inspecting - they get a lot more cash than firearms, but they get a fair amount of firearms going south, as well, and that's only been in the last few years.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is - there she is, Lynn(ph), Lynn with us from Peoria.

LYNN: Hi. I'm wondering, does an operation like this, even under the best of circumstances, does it succeed in really dealing a blow to the cartels? Does it get anybody high up in them, or does it just get these boot soldiers on the - you know, the peons of the operations?

CONAN: Michel Marizco, that was the design here, that instead of just getting those straw buyers, the foot soldiers, the idea was to go higher up the chain.

MARIZCO: Great question, and this comes back to so much of the criticism. No, they've never landed anybody. Manuel Solis Acosta, who was the leader of the gun-buying ring in Phoenix, is the biggest proverbial fish that they landed. And keep in mind that, you know, he was supposed to be working as a snitch against two suspects who were working as snitches for the FBI.

So at the end of the day, no major arrest had ever resulted from either Operation Fast and Furious or Operation Wide Receiver, none.

LYNN: So why are they doing it?

ROBBINS: Well, that's a great question. I'm afraid I don't have an answer for you on that.

MARIZCO: Well, they're not anymore.

CONAN: They say they're not. They said they weren't doing it when they were doing it.

ROBBINS: Thank you, Neal.

Right, they did say they were not doing it back when Brian Terry was first killed, and later they ended up having to retract quite a few statements as a result of that.

CONAN: Thank you very much, Lynn.

LYNN: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email question from Colin(ph) in Palo Alto: I have a question and a comment. Firstly, how many of the people who worked on Operation Wide Receiver were also involved in Fast and Furious? Is this is a case of institutional continuity, where the same people were making the same decisions? We'll get that part, Michel Marizco?

MARIZCO: Yeah, when you look at the structure of who's in charge of these operations, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona under Dennis Burke and also under Paul Charlton, who was the former U.S. attorney terminated by the Bush administration. And then the ATF at the time had many of those same people in charge of their office in Phoenix and then Tucson. So ostensibly we had the same people. Who was on the ground at the time? I'm afraid I don't have answer for you there because court documents will not reveal people.

CONAN: And the second part of Colin's email: I ask this because it seems like changing the administration, even the head of the ATF, has had no effect on what the agency does. As such, it begs the question of whether or not any executive branch can effective manage the ATF or other branches. Ted Robbins, is the ATF out of control?

ROBBINS: You know, that's a loaded statement to say they're out of control, but I think it's - it calls into question federal bureaucracy, that once you get a ball rolling, it's a lot harder to stop. So, I mean, clearly, there was a lack - and I think even they would admit, the ATF, that is - there was a lack of internal responsiveness to critics, and there was a lack of sort of, you know, what bureaucrats call outcome-based decisions.

CONAN: Here's an email question. This is from Rick(ph): I think the Obama administration used Fast and Furious as an existing program to make an attempt to force new restrictive gun rules on U.S. gun owners. As - he says, like Obama said, keep gun control under the radar.

Michel Marizco, is there any evidence of that?

MARIZCO: Well, I don't know about evidence. But when you look at the timeline of events, in 2008, Bill Newell - and he was the head of the ATF during Fast and Furious - came out to say that 90 percent of the guns being used in Mexican killings came from the U.S. What he should have said was 90 percent of the guns that were seized in Mexico, that were used in crimes came from the U.S. They don't know how many guns were actually used, obviously.

ROBBINS: And traced. Seized and traced.

MARIZCO: Exactly. And when - as a result of that statement - and, of course, that went like wildfire, but as a result of that statement, he kept, you know, pushing this mandate. You know, now we're - now - last summer, the Obama administration started a reporting requirement for anybody trying to buy more than two rifles in a border state.

And more and more of these types of questions started coming up because, at the end of the day, I don't know that they meant to implement this as a way to create gun control in border states, but the argument can certainly be made that that's what happened as a result of this.

CONAN: So there were new restrictions promulgated?

MARIZCO: Yes. A federal judge only recently ruled in the Obama administration's favor that the - that they could uphold - that they could enforce these new federal rules for gun dealers in the four border states.

CONAN: We're talking with Michel Marizco, the Tucson senior field correspondent for the Fronteras Desk, and NPR's Ted Robbins is also with us. They're both in Tucson. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Ted Robbins, you said earlier that the dealers themselves, in some cases, were working with the ATF, but that some may have been violating the law. Were there any instances of gun dealers wink, wink, nod, nod, here's a case of AK-47s?

ROBBINS: There have been prosecutions, but I'm not sure that they were under Fast and Furious. I mean, there have been a number of dealers prosecuted in border states for allowing straw purchases, illegal straw purchases. I don't - Michel, do you know if there were any actually connected with these - with the gun-walking operations?

MARIZCO: No, there were not. The only gun dealers that have surfaced publicly have - were both snitches working for the ATF, running wiretaps on suspects for the ATF, and obviously neither of those had been convicted.

CONAN: Let's see if we get G.E.(ph) on the line, G.E. with us from Denton, Kansas.

G.E.: Yes, sir. Even if the Mexican drug cartel does get illegal weapons from the United States, which I disagree with, but what stops the drug cartel, which has a lot of money, obviously, from getting weapons from China or other Third World - no, they're not Third World anymore.

CONAN: No, they're not.

G.E.: But they're not really going to care who they send weapons to because, I mean, we've obviously had products come from China that contain lead and this, that and the other. So that's my question, sir.

CONAN: Ted Robbins, can you help us out? Is the United States the largest supplier of illegal weapons to Mexico, and are other countries providing weapons?

ROBBINS: Well, I mean, United States is a large weapons provider illegally to the world. I mean, we - this is one of the - one of our larger - not in terms of money, but it is certainly one of our - in terms of the rest of the world, we supply guns to - you know, we sell guns. I mean, this is one of our manufacturing industries. So - and they're on the border, let's face it.

I mean, it's pretty easy to get the guns across the border as opposed to putting it on a ship from China. But I think there's been plenty of evidence of things like grenades, for instance, coming from other countries. I think the caller is right that they're getting guns from places other than the United States as well.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

MARIZCO: Neal, if I can add to that really quick.

CONAN: Sure.

MARIZCO: The - because the ATF just released some data. But as you'll see in a second, it's inconclusive. Between 2007, 2011, there were 99,000 guns seized in Mexico, turned over to ATF for tracing. Two-thirds of those came from the United States. However, what Mexico would not tell ATF was exactly how many guns they actually seized. All we know is that they turned over 100,000 to ATF for tracing.

And so it always adds to more of this mystery, more of this enigma. Exactly what percentage of the guns in Mexico are actually coming from the U.S.? We don't know. And ATF and Mexico are not telling us.

CONAN: And we have a pretty clear image in our heads of what it looks like coming north from Mexico into the United States. What is it like going the other way? As Ted mentioned, they're seizing a lot of money and a lot of weapons too. Michel?

MARIZCO: Yes. What they have is these outbound inspection teams standing at each port of entry, and they're randomly searching people. The point I would add to this is this is a program that generally seizes cash because you need to declare more than $10,000 when you're heading out of the country and, of course, drug traffickers are not. And occasionally, yeah, they are landing weapons. However, when you look at the data on, for example, Fast and Furious weapons seized in Mexico, the CBP's outbound inspection teams never actually got any.

And I'm looking at Issa and Grassley's report on Fast and Furious here. All these weapons were being seized by the Mexican army and Mexican customs on the Mexican side of the port of entry.

ROBBINS: Yeah, I was going to say you have to - when you come up to go into Mexico there are signs all over the place: Do not bring weapons into the country so - into Mexico that is.

CONAN: Well, thank you, guys, for helping us define botched. Ted Robbins, NPR's national desk correspondent based in Tucson and Michel Marizco Tucson senior field correspondent for the Frontera's Desk. Thanks very much. Coming up...

MARIZCO: Thank you.

ROBBINS: You're welcome.

CONAN: ...Reginald Daniel created one of the first courses on multicultural identity 20 years ago. He'll join us in just a moment. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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