Courtesy of Mike Keefe and the Denver Post
By: Francisco Lara
After news of ATF’s botched operation, code-named Fast and Furious became public knowledge I met every update with a tempered irritation, but also some optimism. I thought, “Finally, there’ll be some real talk about the problems with arms-trafficking into Mexico. It’s a bi-national problem affecting people on both sides of the border in need of a bilateral solution.” Nowadays, I exclusively feel irritation, if not outright anger.
Operation Fast and Furious was an operation running out of the Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed weapons to be smuggled, or “walked” into Mexico with the intention of then tracing them to the higher ranks of Mexico’s drug cartels. Like I said, the operation was botched. The ATF knowingly let roughly 2,000 guns cross into Mexico, but lost track of many of them when they crossed the border. Only 600 have been recovered. To make things worse the ATF never notified anyone in the Mexican government. So imagine everyone’s surprise, when it was revealed that two of these weapons had been implicated in the fatal shooting of a Border Patrol agent near Nogales and ICE Special Agent Jaime Zapata in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí. Another gun of that same batch was used to murder and torture the brother of a prominent Mexican prosecutor of Chihuahua. By the ATF’s own count, 179 of their guns have been found at crime scenes. An unconfirmed number cited by the LA Times puts the number of people killed or injured by Fast and Furious weapons at 150.
It goes without saying that Mexico has already found itself the victim of the USA’s lax gun laws. In a country where over 40,000 people have died in protracted drug war, the deliberate smuggling of hundreds of weapons into Mexico is even more reprehensible. The people responsible for organizing such a misguided action should be held accountable. Indeed, they already have. Officers in the local Phoenix division of the ATF and the US attorney general assigned to Arizona have left their posts, and in the ensuing fallout ATF’s interim director was forced to resign. Now is the time for a policy discussion of how to stem the flow of weapons into Mexico. Instead, the US house of Representatives has seen it fit to turn the scandal into a witch hunt aimed at discrediting U.S Attorney-General Eric Holder and embarrassing the Obama administration.
The hearings called by Representative Issa have had almost no testimony about the substantive issue of arms smuggling. All of their energy has been spent trying to crucify Holder. Holder himself has already admitted that the operation was deeply flawed, and instructed the Inspector-General to conduct an internal investigation, but Republicans are out for blood. At the most recent hearing, Representative Ted Poe of Texas wildly suggested that officials in the Justice Department should be prosecuted for manslaughter because of their negligence. Democrats aren’t much better about shamelessly plugging themselves, but at least they’re trying to talk policy. Mike Quingley, Democrat of Illinois, probably characterizes the hearings best. “For those of you keeping score at home, one side is using this horrible screw-up to justify a policy, The other side is using this horrible screw-up to justify keeping A.T.F. weak and “extraordinarily lax” gun-control laws.
So far no documents have been able to prove that Holder knew what was going on in Phoenix, and even if he had known about the operation, his knowledge was cursory at best. But the hearings continue almost six months after the fact. The House of Representatives should stop wasting its time scoring political points off the deaths of US agents and Mexican nationals and get back to their real job: legislating. Every second they waste is another gun smuggled into Mexico, another crime committed, another preventable death. Let’s talk about how real and serious the issue of arms smuggling actually is:
- According to the Mexico Institute, a program of the Woodrow Wilson Center of International Scholars, over 85,000 firearms and 5 million rounds of ammunition were seized in Mexico from December 2006 to August 2010. In 2009, the Mexican government confiscated 32,332 firearms, an increase of more than 22,770 firearms over 2007 seizures.
- Sources differ on how many of these firearms and munitions found in Mexico come from the United States. A report published in 2009 by the General Accounting Office put the quantity at 87%. Most recently the report by Senator Feinstein, notes that in 2009 and 2010, 29,284 firearms recovered in Mexico were traced by the ATF. Of those 20,504 (70%) were determined to have originated from the U.S.
- Of the 20,451 guns recovered in 2009 44% were rifles, followed by pistols with 32%. Most recently, the report submitted by Senators Feinstein, Schumer and Whitehouse, have noted that 70% of those guns trafficked are coming from the border states of Texas (39%), California (20%) and Arizona (10%). The rifle number is particularly alarming because until recently multiple purchases of semi-automatic rifles were exempted from the federal reporting requirement even if they had been purchased in a period of 5 days.
- 99 of the guns recovered and traced by the ATF in 2009 were implicated in homicides. Another 82 were used in kidnappings and 311 more were related to dangerous drugs.
This is a real problem. Not Eric Holder’s knowledge or lack of knowledge. It’s time to start talking about bringing back the assault weapon ban, deepening gun regulations on gun owners and sellers, and even about expanding the ATF’s budget to bolster its enforcement efforts, so they don’t have to resort to desperate programs like these. Heck, I would settle for Republicans bringing the Second Amendment out of their back-pocket if it would mean talking about guns, instead of the butter greasing the gears of their self-indulgent political conflict. But don’t hold your breath for a change in the conversation anytime soon. My guess is the witch hunt will proceed, and the end is nowhere in sight.
Thanks to Andrea Lara for her advice and help in the drafting of this article.
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