The Magazine

More DOJ Malpractice

A misbegotten scheme to boost gun control turns deadly.

Jul 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 42 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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The Obama administration’s Justice Department has been no stranger to controversy. Attorney General Eric Holder has staked out controversial policies on everything from terrorist detainee trials to the decision not to pursue voter intimidation charges against two New Black Panther party members patrolling a polling place with weapons.

Eric Holder Cartoon

GARY LOCKE

Now a slow-burning scandal at the Justice Department is threatening to become the largest law enforcement debacle in decades. The scandal, dubbed “Gunwalker,” involves the department’s role in knowingly supplying guns to Mexican criminal gangs. Holder has been lucky to avoid taint thus far, but his luck may not hold. Gunwalker could tarnish not just his department but the entire Obama administration.

The scandal was touched off by three pivotal events:

n On December 14, 2010, Brian Terry and three other border patrol agents got caught in a firefight with Manuel Osorio-Arellanes and two other Mexican nationals carrying AK-47 rifles near Mesquite Seep, Arizona. Terry was shot in the pelvis and died the next day.

n On February 15, 2011, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila were ambushed while driving on a highway near San Luis Potosi in northern Mexico. Zapata was killed; Avila survived his wounds. The gun used to kill Zapata was traced back to Otilio Osorio, a Dallas-area man known for helping Mexican gangs.

n In May, rumors began to spread that a Mexican military helicopter was forced to land after it had been fired upon in western Mexico by a heavy caliber weapon. The Mexican military later seized some 70 weapons in the accompanying raid—including a .50 caliber rifle, known for its ability to fire long distances and pierce armor. A number of the seized guns were said to have originated in the United States.

To hear the Obama administration tell it, the fact the guns used in these attacks came from the United States should not be surprising. In April 2009, the administration claimed that “90 percent” of the weapons used in Mexican cartel violence originated in the United States, a figure that was also parroted by the Mexican government.

When congressional hearings examined the substance of that claim, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) revealed that figure referred only to guns that the Mexican government handed over to the ATF. Of the total number of guns seized by Mexican authorities, about 8 percent were of  U.S. origin.

So in the three attacks mentioned above, it might seem surprising that all would involve guns of U.S. origin. But this turned out not to be coincidental. In fact, the weapons used to kill the two U.S. law enforcement agents and down the Mexican helicopter were all provided to Mexican criminals as part of a baffling and ill-considered scheme initiated by the ATF and Justice Department.

“Gunwalking” is ATF slang for investigations where potentially illegal gun sales are allowed to go forward so that the guns can be used to help trace smuggling routes. Until recently, such obviously risky investigations have been rare.

That changed when the Obama administration in its first few months took up the cause of doing more about the alleged threat of U.S. guns entering Mexico. The White House’s warnings about U.S. culpability in Mexican drug violence—particularly the “90 percent” fiction—were so alarming to the National Rifle Association that the organization gave prescient congressional testimony in March 2009 warning that the White House would make “scapegoats” of lawful U.S. gun owners as a justification to pass more gun regulation to address violence in Mexico.

By the fall of 2009, ATF had launched an operation dubbed “Fast and Furious” that shifted ATF tactics away from seizing guns as soon as possible in favor of gunwalking. Fast and Furious may have allowed as many as 2,500 straw purchases of guns to Mexican gangs with no clear plan for recovering the weapons. The program was so out of control that when Arizona representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot last January, ATF agents immediately feared that the gun would be traced back to Fast and Furious.

And the operation appears to have come right from the top. “This shift in strategy was known and authorized at the highest levels of the Justice Department. Through both the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona and ‘Main Justice’ headquarters in Washington, D.C., the Department closely monitored and supervised the activities of the ATF,” according to a June 14 report produced by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

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