In the annals of misguided and bungled government investigations, Operation Fast and Furious holds a special marker.
This is not the popular action movie franchise by the same name. But agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives did name their failed program, back when it was conceived in 2009, after the movie.
Fast and Furious was a botched federal effort to track U.S.-purchased guns trafficked to Mexican drug cartels. Agents would watch as straw buyers, people who make purchases on behalf of someone else, made legal gun buys in the U.S. Then they tracked the guns as they were passed along to middlemen, who then passed them along to those who would use the guns for criminal purposes.
The accusation was that the agents were knowingly letting the guns make their way from legal to illegal hands. The ATF didn’t want the little guys, the straw buyers; it wanted the bigger fish. It wanted the cartels.
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Problem is, the ATF lost the trail. The guns went missing, more than 2,000 of them.
That is, until they weren’t missing anymore. Guns later tracked through the program began showing up at gruesome murder scenes in Mexico and eventually on the U.S. side of the border.
Finally, this fiasco got shut down when the inevitable occurred; a high-profile murder in December 2010. U.S. border patrol agent Brian Terry was murdered in a shootout with Mexican “rip-off” crews, bandits who rob drug and human smugglers as they make their way along the U.S./Mexican border.
The bullet that killed Terry was too damaged for ballistics to establish which gun it was fired from, but two semiautomatic weapons, their serial numbers tracked to Fast and Furious sales, were left at the scene.
This week, the hunt for Terry’s killers moved forward a step. Mexican marines captured a fugitive, Heraclio Osorio-Arellanes, on Wednesday. He’s now being held awaiting extradition to the U.S. Five other men have already been prosecuted. One man believed to have been at the scene of Terry’s death is still at large.
Terry’s family never learned the full truth of what happened to their beloved son and brother, nor have they been fully compensated for his loss. In interviews, they have expressed hope that the new administration will uncover more of what they want to hear.
There was a protracted investigation by the House Oversight Committee into the shooting, and heads did roll. At one point, then-Attorney General Eric Holder was found in contempt for refusing to produce documents subpoenaed by the committee. And because the investigation quickly became more about embarrassing the Obama administration than garnering larger truths, it stalled.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) all but ensured the investigation would falter when he called for it. No testimony was allowed to comment on gun-control laws or legislation. The investigation did not delve into the underlying issue of illegal gun purchases or to how easily drug cartels can acquire weapons in the U.S. The gains were to be political, not practical. Nothing uncovered in the investigation would help the ATF work more efficiently.
In the ensuing years, gun laws have gotten looser in the U.S. Ideas on how to better track who buys guns or how to prevent them from being resold to criminals, largely don’t make it to the halls of Congress.
Early on, the scandal behind Fast and Furious began to unravel as tipsters began talking to bloggers who pumped the fear that the program was really a plot by the Obama administration to build a case for banning semiautomatic weapons.
One of Terry’s alleged killers is still on the loose. This sad story is not complete.