Univision has done some outstanding investigative reporting on Operation Fast and Furious, the ill-conceived and disastrously executed gun-smuggling operation that was designed to identify the kingpins of a Mexican firearms-trafficking network but resulted in the transfer of approximately 2,000 high-powered weapons into the hands of dangerous thugs connected with the drug cartels. A recently issued report from the Justice Department’s inspector general criticizes the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona, and senior DOJ officials for their roles in this botched investigation. The report cites “a series of misguided strategies, tactics, errors in judgment, and management failures that permeated ATF Headquarters and the Phoenix Field Division, as well as the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
President Obama remains in denial about Fast and Furious. When asked about it two weeks ago, he responded: “Well, first of all, I think it’s important to understand that the Fast and Furious program was a field-initiated program, begun under the previous administration. When Eric Holder found out about it, he discontinued it.” This is wrong on two counts. First, Operation Fast and Furious began in the fall of 2009, under the current administration. Second, it ended on December 15, 2010, the day it was discovered that two Fast and Furious weapons were found at the scene where U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was murdered. That was two full months before Attorney General Eric Holder claims to have known about the operation.
Operation Fast and Furious began in 2009, after federally licensed firearms dealers informed ATF that several individuals were purchasing large quantities of AK-47-style rifles and FN 5.7 caliber pistols. These pistols are known as “cop killers” in Mexico because the bullets fired from them can penetrate the Kevlar vests worn by law-enforcement authorities. At the time, the northern Mexican states were a veritable battlefield, where the Sinaloa and Juárez drug cartels were fighting for control and the increasingly powerful Zetas were seeking to enlarge their territory. ATF encouraged gun-store owners to continue selling to the straw purchasers it was monitoring to avoid alerting the criminals to the presence of law enforcement.
Former Mexican attorney general Victor Humberto Benítez Treviño estimates that approximately 300 Mexican citizens have been killed with Fast and Furious weapons, and hundreds of guns remain unaccounted for. Some victims had been identified even before the Univision report. For example, there was Mario Gonzalez Rodriguez — the brother of former Chihuahua state attorney general Patricia Gonzalez Rodriguez — who was kidnapped by members of the Sinaloa drug cartel in October of 2010. His tortured body was later discovered in a shallow grave. Following a shootout with Rodriquez’s suspected kidnappers, Mexican police seized 16 weapons, two of which were traced to Operation Fast and Furious.
But Univision has made some startling new and tragic connections. On the night of September 2, 2009, twelve hit men, looking for members of the Sinaloa cartel and carrying AK-47s they had acquired thanks to Fast and Furious, forced open the main door of Casa Aliviane, a drug-rehabilitation center in Ciudad Juárez. Once inside, they sprayed the building with bullets. Of the 19 young recovering addicts, 18 were killed. The massacre was ordered by José Antonio Acosta Hernandez (also known as “El Diego”), the leader of La Linea, the enforcement arm of the Juárez cartel.
At the time, Acosta Hernandez was at war with José Antonio Torres Marrufo, an enforcer — he reportedly once skinned an enemy’s face to make a soccer ball — close to Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa cartel. When Mexican authorities captured Marrufo in February 2012, they found a cache of guns that included powerful anti-aircraft weapons, as well as firearms linked to Operation Fast and Furious.
According to Univision, Acosta Hernandez was behind another bloodbath involving Fast and Furious guns. On January 30, 2010, a commando unit of at least 20 hit men parked outside a house in Ciudad Juárez. A birthday party of high-school and college students was going on inside, but Hernandez mistakenly thought it was occupied by members of the Sinaloa cartel. Around midnight, his men broke into the house and opened fire on nearly 60 teenagers. Outside, lookouts gunned down a screaming neighbor and several students who tried to escape. When the hit men fled, they left 16 young people dead and twelve others wounded. Three of the weapons used that night were traced to Operation Fast and Furious. When Acosta Hernandez was finally captured in July 2010, with Fast and Furious weapons in his possession, he confessed to Mexican authorities that he was responsible for nearly 1,500 murders.
And, as if letting 2,000 high-powered guns “walk” were not enough, it appears that the Obama administration launched other gun-walking operations as well. According to Univision, “weapons from [Florida-based] Operation Castaway ended up in the hands of criminals in Colombia, Honduras and Venezuela.” And the inspector general’s report states that his office is investigating “at least one other ATF [operation] . . . that involves an individual suspected of transporting grenade components into Mexico, converting them into live grenades, and then supplying them to drug cartels.”
The Mexican government has every right to be furious about this matter. If foreign law-enforcement agents had let nearly 2,000 weapons be delivered into the hands of U.S. gang-bangers — without any notice to or coordination with the feds — there would be serious repercussions.
Operation Fast and Furious is a disaster and a disgrace. Univision and the inspector general deserve credit for attempting to get to the bottom of this mess.
— John G. Malcolm is a senior legal fellow at the Center for Legal & Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation.