'Gunwalking'

On December 14th 2010 border patrol agent Brian Terry was shot and killed near the Arizona – Mexico border. The firearms used were later discovered to have been US weapons, purchased by weapon smugglers. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) allowed these, and many others, to be 'walked' across the border into the hands of drug cartels. A scandal thus emerged and has since become known as ‘Gunwalker’ by officials and the media.

In 2009 the DOJ and the ATF adopted a risky new strategy to combat gun trafficking, named ‘Operation Fast and Furious’.  Rather than focusing on seizing weapons from suspects as soon as possible, they instead focused on identifying members of trafficking networks, prioritizing this new focus even when it threatened to endanger innocent people. Suspects were allowed to walk away with illegally purchased guns while the DOJ and ATF watched. This month a report was released by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that sheds light on the scandal.

The Report found that Operation Fast and Furious contributed to increasing violence and deaths in Mexico. ATF officials were seemingly unconcerned over the deaths of Mexican law enforcement officers, soldiers and innocent civilians, viewing loss of life simply as inevitable collateral damage. Incredulously, ATF supervisor David Voth responded to skepticism by saying that ‘if you are going to make an omelette you need to scramble some eggs.’ ATF regarded the appearance of Fast and Furious guns at crime scenes with satisfaction, as their presence proved the connection between the straw purchasers under surveillance and Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTO’s). The report thus reveals the strategy to have been born of a callous disregard for human life.

The report discloses that many ATF special agents expressed concerns about the strategies employed during Fast and Furious. Allowing guns to ‘walk’ is contradictory to the training ATF agents are given and is an unprecedented tactic in fighting DTO’s.  Leadership refused to acknowledge the validity of their concerns however, instead telling them to ‘get with the programme’, as senior ATF officials had sanctioned the operation.

Furthermore, the report highlights the extent to which ATF and DOJ officials have gone to cover up the scandal.  When the Phoenix ATF Special Agent in Charge (SAC), William Newell, was asked if ATF allowed guns to walk, he replied ‘hell no!’ which agents find incredible, false and a source of much frustration.  The report says that ‘Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, DOJ continues to deny that operation Fast and Furious was ill-conceived and had deadly consequences.’ This year Senator Charles Grassey, DOJ’s Assistant Attorney General, wrote ‘ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico’. In the report ATF Agents reveal this to be a lie.

ATF never achieved the laudable goal of dismantling a drug cartel. In fact, they never even came close. Fast and Furious only achieved indictments of 20 straw purchasers (most of whom ATF knew to be straw purchasers before Fast and Furious even began). More than 2000 weapons were allowed to be delivered to Mexican narco-terrorist cartels and these are estimated to have been used in the shooting of over 250 Mexican law enforcement officers and unknown numbers of civilians on both sides of the border.

Military–style weapons are readily available for civilian purchase in the United States organizations. Under federal law, background checks are not required for sales by unlicensed sellers at US gun shows, making them a perfect point of purchase for traffickers. As well as highlighting this, senators Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein have called for the strengthening of current firearms laws and regulations to prevent such large numbers of US weapons crossing the border.

‘Gunwalking’ has been likened to the Iran-Contra affair and to Watergate in its depravity. The Committee report reveals duplicity, deceit and corruption on a huge scale and promises to persist in seeking documents and evidence to further expose the scandal.