The latest headlines about gun running from the United States south to Mexico may involve the resignation of Mexico’s attorney general on 31 March, but at the heart of the story remain weak United States laws and paltry political efforts to enforce them.
So says a thorough, albeit tardy, report issued by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), which chronicles the nearly constant roadblocks agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) encounter on the road to prosecution of so-called “straw buyers” and their handlers, who move large quantities of assault rifles and other weapons into the hands of criminal groups waging war south of the border.
The laws, one former ATF assistant director tells CIP, are “very weak,” the resources “very few.”
These roadblocks are what set the stage for a prolonged investigation known as “Fast and Furious,” which saw hundreds, if not thousands, of guns “walk” into Mexican criminals’ hands as prosecutors and agents tried to build their case over a fifteen month period.
At least one of these weapons was used to ambush and kill a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent in December along the Arizona-Mexico border, touching off a firestorm that has since stretched from Washington DC down to Mexico City.
(Another, unrelated ATF investigation, connected a weapon used to kill an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent in Mexico to a Texas gun shop.)
This past week, Mexican Attorney General Arturo Chavez Chavez resigned, which some media attributed, in part, to his poor handling of the Fast and Furious case. Mexican officials told InSight, for instance, that Mexico had no idea that the investigation was happening until the U.S. announced several indictments in January. This, and other oversights, may have cost Chavez his job.
The announcement of the indictments in January was followed by the emergence of several letters, sent by U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, to ATF directors asking why they’d let so many guns “walk,” since these weapons posed a risk to U.S. law enforcement.
Grassley’s letters turned the focus toward the ATF and may be more in line with his political interests than furthering those of law enforcement. CBS, CPI and the Associated Press followed up on them with a series of reports citing ATF investigators who complained to their bosses about the way the investigation was being handled.
Last week’s CPI report is an attempt to refocus the debate on the U.S. loopholes and insufficient regulatory powers on the part of the federal government to track and prosecute gun runners. The story chronicles the lack of resources and the hurdles ATF agents must leap in order to secure indictments and prosecute cases involving seemingly flagrant violations. These difficulties, the reports says, can be attributed to political and legal factors.
"Problems highlighted by the so-called Fast and Furious investigation, which enabled at least 195 guns to cross into Mexico, point to what U.S. authorities say is a broader enforcement crisis," the CPI report says. "Their efforts to stop drug cartels from smuggling thousands of firearms into Mexico each year are handcuffed, they say, by a debilitating lack of resources and an absence of statutes to outlaw gun trafficking."
Several ATF agents have also told InSight that the threshold for these prosecutions is very high and the law very tricky to enforce. They point out, for instance, that buying multiple assault rifles is not, in and of itself, illegal. What’s more, prosecutors and agents alike seek to arrest ringleaders rather than small time couriers and try to understand how larger networks traffic weapons to big criminal organizations, none of which would happen if they simply arrested the first suspected straw buyer who drove towards the border.
While the U.S. Attorney General’s Office has apparently begun an internal investigation into Fast and Furious, it has also moved to keep the ATF quiet. Last week, the AG’s office cancelled an appearance by the ATF’s interim Director Kenneth Melson at a congressional hearing on the matter.
The ATF has long been the punching bag of gun advocates and anti-government zealots. It currently functions with about 2,400 total agents, the lowest of any of its federal counterparts.
It also has been hurt recently by a lack of leadership. The agency has functioned under interim director Melson for nearly two years, paralyzing it and its personnel who, judging by recent CBS news reports, are itching to tell their side of the story even if the boss is skittish.
InSight has spent its share of time studying arms trafficking south. In February, in conjunction with Frontline, the Center for Public Integrity and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, it launched a project looking into the path that weapons take, from the manufacturer in Romania, to the importer in Vermont, the gun seller in Arizona and the drug trafficking groups in Mexico.