TUCSON, Ariz. -- Newly released documents show that allowing guns to walk into Mexico was widely known outside of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), the agency accused of allowing the weapons to head south across the border. And now a retired federal law enforcement official says some of those outside government agencies interfered with ATF’s plans by stopping some of the shipments.
The issue came to the forefront again when Attorney General Eric Holder testified before Congress for the sixth time in a year late last week. He once again said that he did not know that ATF was allowing guns to be smuggled into Mexico.
Holder told the House Oversight Committee on Thursday that Department of Justice investigators are still trying to find out whom in the agency made the decision to allow guns to cross into Mexico.
“Not only did I not authorize those tactics, when I found out about them, I told the field and everybody in the United States Department of Justice that those tactics had to stop,” Holder said in response to questions. “That they were not acceptable and that gun walking was to stop."
The plan was known as Operation Fast and Furious. Cartel gun buyers were being tracked by the ATF as they purchased the weapons in Phoenix and smuggled them across the border. Guns were found in Ciudád Juárez, Tijuana, even the border beach town of Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), federal records show.
Congressional lawmakers critical of the Justice Department released documents on Feb. 2 that revealed the ATF had enough evidence as early as 2009 to arrest the gun buyers. The memos show that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Phoenix had wiretaps on the straw buyers and shared that with the ATF. But no arrests were made at that time; the Congressional report concludes that the ATF wanted to build their own case instead of sharing the arrests with the DEA.
Ultimately, guns from those straw buyers were found a year later in Southern Arizona where U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was shot and killed in December 2010.
Tony Coulson was the DEA official in charge of Tucson at the time. He says the problems ran even deeper than that.
"In 2009, 2010, I became aware that ATF was walking guns into Mexico,” Coulson said. “I also learned that Homeland Security Investigations, then ICE, actually interceded on more than one occasion where they seized weapons at the ports of entry when they were heading southbound contrary to ATF’s plans."
There was serious friction, Coulson claims, between ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the ATF in Phoenix. When Coulson took the gun walking to his bosses in Phoenix, he was told the lead law enforcement official in Arizona – U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke – was already aware of it.
Burke has since resigned, as a result of the public scandal resulting from Operation Fast and Furious.
Coulson also claims politics played a role in how Fast and Furious unfolded. The ATF officials who supervised the gun walking out of Phoenix were telling the news media as early as 2008 that 90 percent of the guns seized in Mexico came from the U.S. In other words, the same agency that was waging a public battle against gun smuggling was facilitating gun walking at the same time.
"Among federal law enforcement, that became somewhat of a joke,” Coulson said. “We all knew that was whatever weapons the Mexican government decided to follow or trace back to the U.S. And never took into account the weapons that come in from Central America, from other countries around the world.”
That 90 percent statistic was widely reported, but it was inflated. ATF officials quietly refuted those numbers. Later, they told auditors they were based on only a small portion of the guns seized in Mexico.