WASHINGTON — The firearms dealer caught up in the Justice Department’s Fast and Furious scandal has won an early release from prison after a federal judge ruled that prosecutors overcharged him in alleging he sold high-powered weapons to smugglers working for a violent drug cartel in Mexico.
Ian Garland, who ran a gun shop near El Paso, Texas, was released Friday after a court hearing in Las Cruces, N.M., showed that he was given a longer sentence because the court was misinformed that some of the weapons he sold were fully automatic machine guns, rather than rifles and pistols. He had served half of his five-year sentence.
On Monday, Garland began serving a three-year probation.
In a series of telephone and email interviews, Garland said he plans to talk to the Mexican consulate in El Paso about how at least one of his firearms, a Draco semi-automatic pistol, was apparently used in a killing on the Mexican side of the border across from the town of Columbus, N.M. He said U.S. federal agents knew that weapon, and likely the other 192 he sold, were being smuggled into Mexico to arm a drug cartel.
Mexican government officials, Garland said, “want to know if I was told to keep selling the firearms. They want to know how long I was notified by the ATF and whether they were doing nothing about stopping the sales.”
Garland said agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives encouraged him to keep selling the weapons to a group of city officials in Columbus who were under investigation for smuggling the rifles and pistols to the cartels.
“I was told to keep selling. They went on and on about that,” Garland said. “They kept coming around and even interviewing me at my house.”
Agents in El Paso and New Mexico declined to discuss the matter.
Under Fast and Furious, launched out of the bureau’s Phoenix field office, which covers Arizona and New Mexico, agents allowed the illegal sale of some 200 firearms with the aim of tracking the guns to Mexican gang leaders. Almost all of the weapons made it into the cartel arsenals in Mexico. Many have been recovered at crime scenes there, and two were found after U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in southern Arizona.
Garland was arrested and jailed in March 2011. He pleaded guilty in July of that year to conspiracy and selling the weapons “while having reason to know that the firearms were illegally destined to persons in Mexico.”
But his lawyers won him a new sentencing hearing after discrepancies arose because some of the weapons were mislabeled as machine guns. Federal prosecutor Steven R. Spitzer acknowledged the discrepancy, but urged U.S. District Judge Robert C. Brack to keep Garland in prison because he had been “conspiring” with the smugglers in Columbus. Instead, the judge released him.
“My God, I won and got out,” Garland said. “I didn’t think I would win, but I did.”
But Garland said the scandal and his prison experience have cost him his marriage and home. He said that he believes if agents had followed through and shut down Fast and Furious at the Phoenix field office, “Brian Terry would still be alive.”
MORE NATIONAL COVERAGE: