A cache of assault weapons lost in the ATF's gun-trafficking surveillance operation in Phoenix turned up in El Paso, where it was being stored for shipment to Mexico, according to new internal agency emails and federal court records.
Forty firearms along with ammunition magazines and ballistic vests were discovered in Texas in January 2010 during the early stages of the program, meaning the firearms vanished soon after the program began.
Under the program, dubbed Fast and Furious, agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the Phoenix field office allowed licensed firearm dealers to sell weapons to illegal "straw" buyers in the hope that the agents could track the weapons and arrest Mexican drug cartel leaders.
Instead, more than 2,000 weapons were trafficked along the U.S.-Mexico border, and many were used in violent crimes in Mexico. In addition, two AK-47 semi-automatics involved in the program were recovered after a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed south of Tucson, and two others were found after a violent confrontation with state police officers in Maricopa, Ariz.
The El Paso case is the first example of Fast and Furious weapons turning up on this side of the border outside the Phoenix area.
According to an ATF document, Sean Christopher Steward bought the 40 AK-47-type assault rifles on Dec. 24, 2009, from the Lone Wolf Trading Co. gun store in Glendale, a suburb of Phoenix. The cache was part of 290 firearms ultimately acquired by Steward, a convicted drug felon, during the Fast and Furious operation.
Last January, he and 19 others were indicted in the only criminal case to arise out of Fast and Furious.
According to ATF emails and a federal court affidavit, El Paso police officers tracking alleged drug smuggling from Mexico followed a dark blue Volkswagen Jetta as it backed into a garage at a residence on Jan. 13, 2010. The driver was identified as Alberto Sandoval. Police later searched the vehicle and found the weapons and other devices.
According to an email from ATF Special Agent Oscar B. Flores in El Paso, Sandoval told authorities that he was paid $1,000 "to store the firearms at his residence until they could be transported to the Republic of Mexico" by an unknown third party.
More emails discussing Sandoval's arrest and the recovery of the weapons were sent to Washington headquarters and Kenneth Melson, then the ATF acting director, and William J. Hoover, the assistant director.
Sandoval was indicted and pleaded guilty to weapons charges in May 2010 in U.S. District Court in El Paso. He was sentenced to 61/2 years in prison.