Federal gun-smuggling surveillance program backfires.
Disturbing recent news reports suggest that federal agents knowingly let arms buyers for Mexican drug cartels smuggle high-powered weaponry across the border, with deadly consequences for U.S. law enforcers. Mexican leaders have warned for years that lax U.S. enforcement of gun smuggling was fueling border-area violence, but they should be particularly disturbed to learn that, in some cases, weapons were being deliberately allowed to flow southward.
CBS News reported last week about Project Gunrunner, an operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to track how weapons purchased in U.S. gun stores reached Mexican drug gangs. Had Gunrunner been a limited, tightly focused study, it might have provided useful intelligence to shut down major gun-smuggling operations. Instead, it went badly awry.
As CBS reported, nervous gun shop owners in Arizona phoned ATF, warning repeatedly that suspicious buyers were acquiring arsenals of AK-47s and .50-calibre rifles. Later, ATF’s own agents complained when senior-level officials pressed ahead with Project Gunrunner. One agent estimated 2,500 guns crossed the border into Mexico.
On Dec. 14, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered in Arizona. The serial numbers of two AK-47 assault rifles found at the scene were traced to a smuggler under ATF surveillance.
In North Texas, at the same time, ATF agents were conducting another Project Gunrunner surveillance operation involving brothers Otilio and Ranferi Osorio. ATF and Drug Enforcement Administration officials organized the November undercover transfer of about 40 weapons believed to be destined for a Mexican drug cartel. When Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Jaime Zapata was gunned down Feb. 15 in Mexico, ballistics tests and a partial serial number linked one weapon used in the shooting to Otilio Osorio. He was not arrested until Monday.
ATF Dallas division spokesman Tom Crowley said that at no time did weapons in the North Texas operation “walk into Mexico.” All 40 guns were seized in Laredo, he said.
Still, the fact that Osorio and others known to have smuggling connections remained free adds to our concern about Project Gunrunner.
As President Barack Obama and his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderón, made clear Thursday in Washington, cooperation is growing between the two nations to curtail gun smuggling. Both sides understand the deadly consequences when American guns reach murderous Mexican drug gangs.
ATF’s enthusiasm in expanding the fight is laudable. Its tactics, however, need radical revision. There’s no telling how many people died from Project Gunrunner weapons. ATF must provide a full accounting of the operation and explain what, exactly, were the benefits reaped from a program that appears to have directly fed Mexico’s gun violence and may well have contributed to two American law enforcement deaths.