Untangling Operation Fast And Furious

August 10, 2012

Photo by Michel Marizco
U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry on a training assignment. The photos were displayed at his memorial in Tucson after he was murdered in 2010.

TUCSON, Ariz. -- It’s summer’s rainy season here now on the southern edge of Arizona, where the state meets Mexico. A light rain is just beginning to fall down a dirt road in a place called Mesquite Seep, a spring that runs through Peck Canyon.

Down in that canyon, U.S. Border Patrol Brian Terry was shot in the back. He died at the scene.

Tom Mitchell owns the last home on this road. It sits like some lonely outpost overlooking Peck Canyon. He woke up that night to sirens and racing trucks outside.

“I walked out and talked to them, they said we had a shooting. I didn’t know it was a Border Patrol person. Found that out the next day,” he said.

Agent Terry was part of a five-man crew, a tactical Border Patrol unit called BORTAC. A group of Mexican bandits were hunting drug smugglers for their marijuana loads in the desert when they ran into the agents. The agents identified themselves, one shot at the bandits with a beanbag gun. The bandits opened fire. Terry was shot in the back, once. A bandit was hit. He survived. He was arrested.

The other four men ran off into the night.

Reward For Arrest

Federal criminal investigations are by nature a quiet affair. This one was even moreso. Suspects weren’t named, no details were released. Even court documents were obscured. A year and a half after Terry’s murder, the FBI finally identified the fugitives.

They haven’t given much information about where they think the fugitives are. But U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said law enforcement here has been working with the Mexican Army and federal police to arrest the men. She said they came close twice this year. The second attempt was made in June.

A month later, they put a bounty on the men for $250,000 each, or $1 million total.

“And if these arrests are made in Mexico, we will seek their extradition,” Duffy said.

Assuming the men managed to make it back to Mexico, that would have been a 12-mile run through the canyons and hills of southern Arizona, then across the border before they reached the outskirts of Nogales, Sonora. It would have been midnight or later on a Tuesday night. The streets would have been nearly deserted.

'A Soldier's Soldier'

Thousands attended Terry's memorial service in Tucson. And when they talk about him, Terry is described as a soldier’s soldier.

Border Patrol Tucson sector chief Rick Barlow eulogized his agent briefly the afternoon after he was killed.

“Agent Terry had a proud history of serving his country. Before Border Patrol, he served three years in United States Marine Corps.”

Friends say he carried a poem in his pack, One Warrior’s Creed. It begins: If today is to be the day, so be it.

And in the meantime, federal agents were beginning to learn just what had happened.

Guns At The Murder Scene

Along with the wounded man at the crime scene, the bandits left two AK-47 rifles behind. Those weapons had been purchased in Phoenix by a low-level gun buyer. Another federal agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, had allowed that illegal sale to go through.

As it turned out, the ATF and prosecutors had been allowing guns to walk for years. In an earlier gunwalking case, Operation Wide Receiver, an informant hired by the ATF wore a wire to record a crew of young men buying weapons from him:

The wire is scratchy, barely audible. Then: “‘Do you deliver these yourself?’ ‘Sometimes they come and get them. Yeah, that’s the hard part is getting them across.’”

Photo by Michel Marizco
ATF Agent Peter Forcelli holds up the barrel of a .50-caliber rifle the agency seized from a Mexico-bound smuggler. Forcelli was one of the whistleblowers who told Congress about ATF's gunwalking plan, Operation Fast and Furious.

Peter Forcelli is an ATF agent working in Phoenix. He came forward after Terry was killed.

“And now I’ll fast forward to Operation Fast and Furious itself. ATF agents assigned to the Phoenix field division with the concurrence of their chain of command walked guns,” he told a Congress subcommittee. He said his bosses were excited about the gunwalking idea.

The question is, just how high did that excitement go?

Congress Wants Answers

The ATF’s gunwalking plan raises some questions. Was the plan orchestrated by the Department of Justice in Washington? Did officials there know about it?

That’s the question at the heart of the current Congressional hearings where Attorney General Eric Holder was held in contempt. The hearings started with the taint of a scandal. More than a year later, the scandal is still there but now it’s taken on the air of something unrevealed.

On the one hand, the case is still being investigated by the Office of Inspector General (OIG). On the other hand, Congress wants answers now.

Tony Coulson ran the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Tucson office before he retired in 2010.

“Unfortunately, this hurt. And I don’t know if ATF will ever be able to recover from Fast and Furious,” he said.

Coulson revealed that other American agents had tried to stop the same guns ATF was allowing to slip into Mexico. In fact, some of those arguments took place right at the border.

“As long as this stretches out before the whole truth comes out, it’s just going to get worse and worse in terms of law enforcement’s credibility,” Coulson said.

'Beyond Embarrassing'

The official answer so far has been that Fast and Furious was strictly a Phoenix operation and that the agency’s officials in Phoenix created it because the the federal prosecutors in Arizona were turning down their cases. So the agents tried to build stronger cases by letting the sales go through and letting the guns turn up at crime scenes.

Photo by Michel Marizco
The U.S. Border Patrol honor guard plays Amazing Grace during the memorial ceremony for Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in 2011.

Another question that raises is about the Mexican government itself. How much did it know?

Carlos Canino was ATF’s attaché in Mexico City when it all began. He now heads the agency’s Tucson office.

He says not even he knew when he was working in Mexico, let alone the Mexican government.

“They’d tell you, 'hey wait a minute, so you guys knew these guys were trafficking guns but did nothing to stop it?'” Canino said. “I was asked by the Mexican attorney general herself. Beyond embarrassing. Number one, professionally embarrassing, two personally embarrassing because she is a personal friend. She is a great ally of the United States.”

He said Americans agents in Mexico started seeing a large number of guns from Phoenix turning up at crime scenes there.

“We were told they were working a significant firearms trafficking case and everything was under control. I still, every day when I think about it, I don’t know why they did this," Canino said.

Making Changes

The Justice Department has brought in a new federal prosecutor for Arizona. It’s brought in Canino to run Tucson and Canino’s boss, Thomas Atterbury. He says one of the concerns for the ATF is that the U.S. has no federal firearms trafficking statute.

America Abroad

This story was produced with America Abroad, public media's home for long-form reporting, analysis and dialogue about international affairs.

“Firearms are a legal commodity. It’s like buying refrigerators. Until they get in the wrong hands, firearms are legal. It’s not like a kilo of dope that’s always illegal. We walk a fine line with the Second Amendment and keeping guns out of the hands of some of the most dangerous, ruthless people in the world,” Atterbury said.

He hopes a new reporting rule implemented last year and approved by a federal judge will help. The reporting rule applies to the four border states -- California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Licensed dealers must now tell the ATF when someone tries to buy more than two long rifles in a week’s time.

Meanwhile, the OIG is due to release its findings at the end of this summer.