Astute gun owners will recall the Obama administration’s Operation Fast and Furious scandal. Under that operation, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Agents would allow suspected illegal purchases of firearms by gun traffickers to take place and then track the guns with the purported goal of uncovering the workings of a larger criminal organization. In some cases, concerned FFLs were instructed by ATF to go forward with suspicious transactions. Rather than interdicting these firearms, ATF permitted the guns to flow into Mexico.
On December 14, 2010, Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was shot to death in a gunfight with armed criminals near the Mexican border. Following the incident, firearms used by the criminals were traced to Operation Fast and Furious.
More than a decade later, ATF is now facing questions about another alleged ATF-linked Mexico firearm trafficking scheme. On October 18, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter to ATF Director Steven Dettelbach demanding answers about whistleblower allegations of illegal gun smuggling by a former ATF employee.
Citing ATF’s own documents, Sen. Grassley outlined a case involving “an ATF employee working in Mexico who allegedly admitted to illegally trafficking firearms from the U.S. into Mexico for years.”
Summarizing the allegations, the letter noted that a foreign national described as an “ATF Investigator” who was assigned to the ATF office in Tijuana, Mexico “admitted to engaging in trafficking numerous firearms for multiple years.” The alleged trafficker “ordered various firearms parts from the internet and retail stores in the U.S. to traffic into Mexico.” An ATF memo reportedly showed that the ATF employee would bring the trafficked goods to another person who “would complete the AR rifles in Mexico to further sell and traffic the firearms to others in Mexico.” The letter also alleges that the ATF employee trafficked firearms to a Mexican “state judicial official.”
Grassley challenged ATF’s investigation, or lack thereof, into the serious allegations against its employee, writing,
according to the ATF memo and whistleblower disclosures, ATF did not investigate whether [alleged trafficker] had ties to Mexican cartels, whether [his alleged accomplice in Mexico] was connected to the cartel, the full extent of [alleged trafficker’s] trafficking network, whether he had co-conspirators both in the U.S. and Mexico, or if other ATF employees were complicit or involved in his criminal activity. Whistleblower disclosures indicate that [alleged trafficker] used his ATF issued devices and diplomatic vehicle to conduct some or all of his firearm trafficking into the U.S. because his diplomatic plates would not subject him to searches at the U.S. and Mexico borders.
Moreover, Grassley questioned the mild treatment of the alleged trafficker when ATF discovered his conduct.
Despite [alleged trafficker] admitting to illegally trafficking firearms while employed by the ATF, the ATF’s memo downplays [alleged trafficker’s] criminal activity by treating it as a Human Resources administrative matter. For example, the memo provides that the consequence for admitting to engaging in this activity merely was that “[alleged trafficker] was placed on administrative leave on March 14, 2017.” The memo further states that “following an administrative investigation, on April 10, 2017, his employment at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana ended.” According to allegations, the ATF terminated [alleged trafficker] “without cause” and ultimately paid him a severance package after the termination.
Another point of interest is that the alleged trafficking plot was uncovered with the help of a tip from a firearms dealer. The letter noted the existence of an ATF memo “that included information about the ATF’s interrogation and discovery of [alleged trafficker] illegally trafficking firearms into Mexico.” The missive went on to note, “According to the ATF memo, the ATF received a tip from a firearms dealer about suspicious purchases made by [alleged trafficker].”
In recent years, Biden’s ATF has waged a war on Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs or gun dealers). On June 23, 2021, the “Biden-Harris administration” announced a “zero tolerance” policy for what it termed “rogue gun dealers.” The announcement made clear that “[a]bsent extraordinary circumstances that would need to be justified to the Director, ATF will seek to revoke the licenses of dealers the first time that they violate federal law,” even in a handful of trivial instances. There were more than four times as many license revocations in fiscal year 2023 than in 2021.
In an August 18 item on the Biden crackdown, the Wall Street Journal explained how the administration’s approach could diminish the type of cooperation that helped crack the Mexico case. The Journal reported that Biden’s effort prompted some law-enforcement veterans to “say it risks alienating some of the government’s most valuable sources in combating gun violence.” Retired ATF Deputy Assistant Director Peter Forcelli explained, “The gun dealers were our first line of defense against gun trafficking… Why are we now beating an ally into submission?”
Ineffectual Mexican officials and domestic gun control advocates have attempted to shift blame for Mexico’s violent crime problem from that country’s violent criminals and woeful governance to law-abiding Americans who exercise their Second Amendment rights. Both Operation Fast and Furious and ATF’s more recent firearm trafficking episode suggest that holding government more accountable, both in Mexico and at home, would be a more fruitful and just endeavor.