A federal operation that allowed weapons from the U.S. to pass into the hands of suspected gun smugglers so they could be traced to the higher echelons of Mexican drug cartels has lost track of hundreds of firearms, many of which have been linked to crimes, including the fatal shooting of a Border Patrol agent in December.
The investigation, known as Operation Fast and Furious, was conducted even though U.S. authorities suspected that some of the weapons might be used in crimes, according to a variety of federal agents who voiced anguished objections to the operation.
Many of the weapons have spread across the most violence-torn states in Mexico, with at least 195 linked to some form of crime or law enforcement action, according to documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity and The Times.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which ran the operation, said that 1,765 guns were sold to suspected smugglers during a 15-month period of the investigation. Of those, 797 were recovered on both sides of the border, including 195 in Mexico after they were used in crimes, collected during arrests or intercepted through other law enforcement operations.
John Dodson, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who worked on Operation Fast and Furious, said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit research group based in Washington, that he was still haunted by his participation in the investigation.
"With the number of guns we let walk, we'll never know how many people were killed, raped, robbed," he said. "There is nothing we can do to round up those guns. They are gone."
The ATF said agents took every possible precaution to assure that guns were recovered before crossing into Mexico.
Scot L. Thomasson, the ATF's public affairs chief in Washington, said the Fast and Furious strategy is still under evaluation.
"It's always a good business practice to review any new strategy six or eight months after you've initiated it, to make sure it's working, that it's having the desired effect, and then make adjustments as you see fit to ensure it's successful," he said.
But enough concern has been raised that some Washington officials have begun to dig deeper into the details of the operation.
On Thursday, as President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon met in Washington to discuss the increasing problems with drug and gun smuggling, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. asked top officials at the Justice Department to consult the inspector general to determine if further investigation of the operation was needed.
U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, initiated an inquiry to determine whether guns traveled to Mexico through inadvertence or deliberate policy on the part of U.S. law enforcement.
"We still don't have the documents we've asked for. Maybe we will get the documents. But right now it's stonewalling," Grassley said in an interview Thursday.
"Too many government agencies always want the big case," he said. "They keep these gun-running sales moving along, even when they have people within the agency that say something bad's going to happen. They had plenty of warnings … and the prophets turned out to be right."
Much of what is now known about the case has only surfaced in the last few months following the December shooting death in Arizona of Customs and Border Protection Agent Brian Terry.
But the investigation was underway more than a year earlier, when Mexican customs agents in the small border town of Naco stopped a passenger car traveling from the U.S. that was carrying a surprising cargo: 41 AK-47s, a .50-caliber rifle, 40 semiautomatic gun magazines, a telescopic rifle sight and three knives.
At least three guns found that day were traced through their serial numbers to a gun shop in Glendale, Ariz., which then led to a Phoenix man, Jaime Avila, who had purchased four weapons there.
Over the course of the next year, federal agents watched Avila and several associates buy more heavy-duty weapons, which investigators were convinced were intended for Mexican drug cartels.
Despite their suspicions, the ATF allowed Avila to continue.
It was part of a new strategy embarked upon after the agency had found it increasingly difficult to build cases against "straw buyers," who purchased weapons for the cartels.
The buyers were working for increasingly complex trafficking organizations in which guns were passed among several legal owners in many locations in the U.S. before being transferred to Mexico.
As a result, the ATF decided to go after not just the buyers, but the organizations, Thomasson said.
"That was the shift in strategy. We recognized we were facing a far more sophisticated trafficking organization. We recognized the organization was a lot deeper in bodies, and we recognized that unless we went after the head of the organization, the person ordering the guns, ordering the violence, we were going to have little to no success in stemming the violence down there," he said.
It was an attempt to apply the tactics of a narcotics investigation, in which small-scale drug buyers are allowed to operate under surveillance in the hope of catching their more powerful cartel counterparts.
But several veteran agents were outraged at the shift, saying that there is a big difference between tracking drugs and tracking guns. They saw the change as a violation of a sacred ATF policy: Make the big case or don't make the big case, but don't let the guns go.
"We're not talking about bags of dope. We're not letting the guy walk away with a stolen flat-screen TV. We're talking about guns. Our job is to keep guns off the street and out of criminals' hands and prevent them from being used in violent situations," said Jay Dobyns, an ATF agent in Phoenix who was not part of the Fast and Furious team but who has watched it unfold.
Dodson, the ATF agent who did work on the operation, was transferred last fall to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. He said a supervisor justified the strategy by saying, "If you're going to make an omelet, you've got to scramble some eggs."
"I took it to mean that whatever crimes these guns were going to be involved in, those were the eggs, those were acceptable," Dodson said.
One agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added: "We voiced our concerns quite vocally to the point of yelling, screaming. We were overridden."
The dissent prompted a harsh e-mail last March from the ATF's group supervisor in charge of the day-to-day operations, David J. Voth, warning agents to stay on board.
"Whether you care or not, people of rank and authority at HQ are paying close attention to this case, and they also believe we … are doing what they envisioned the Southwest Border Groups doing," he wrote.
"I will be damned if this case is going to suffer due to petty arguing, rumors or other adolescent behavior," he added. "This is the pinnacle of domestic U.S. law enforcement techniques. …Maybe the Maricopa County Jail is hiring detention officers and you can get paid $30,000 (instead of $100,000) to serve lunch to inmates all day."
But even Voth became worried about the number of guns moving to Mexico — 359 last March alone, according to an e-mail he sent to the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix.
The risks of Operation Fast and Furious became apparent on Dec. 14, when Terry was killed in a shootout with bandits near Rio Rico, Ariz.
To the horror of federal authorities, two guns whose serial numbers matched guns purchased by Avila the previous January were found at the scene. Avila was promptly arrested.
Two months after the shooting, Sen. Grassley sent a query to the Justice Department, asking for more detail on Terry's death.
In response, the department denied that any guns had been allowed to enter Mexico as part of an investigation.
"The allegation … that ATF 'sanctioned' or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico — is false," Assistant Atty. Gen. Ronald Welch wrote. "ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico."
The department said that Project Gunrunner, the umbrella operation across the Southwest border of which Operation Fast and Furious was a part, has resulted in the seizure of more than 10,000 firearms and 1.1 million rounds of ammunition destined for Mexico since 2006.
But Grassley produced documents provided by ATF agents in Phoenix and elsewhere that showed that weapons bought by straw purchasers who were under surveillance were finding their way to Mexico, in addition to the two guns found at the scene of Terry's shooting.
Avila and 33 others were indicted in January on charges of acting as straw purchasers of weapons, along with related drug and money laundering charges. As a result of detailed spadework, ATF and Justice Department officials say, those cases now include strong evidence against suspected recipients of the contraband weapons.
No one, however, has been charged with shooting Terry. ATF officials said there was no evidence showing the two Fast and Furious guns found at the scene were used to kill the agent.
On Thursday, the Justice Department declined again in a letter to Grassley to release internal communications about the sale of the weapons to Avila and a 30-page memo the ATF's special agent in charge, William D. Newell, reportedly wrote to ATF headquarters after Terry's death.
Welch said any such documents, if they exist, cannot be released while they are part of an ongoing investigation.
Terry's mother, Josephine, said she had received no answer as to how the two guns from Arizona came to be at the same place her son died.
"They don't tell us nothing. They say they don't want to mess up their investigation. I'm disappointed. I'm really disappointed," she said. "As devoted as my son was to the government, I think they just want him to go away. They just want to forget that this even happened."
John Solomon, David Heath and Gordon Witkin of the Center for Public Integrity joined in the investigation that produced this report.