Firearm recovered from Rancho del Sol and traced by ATF

Weapons linked to the controversial US anti-gun trafficking operation “Fast and Furious” were found last spring at the scene of a bloody clash between Mexican police and a group of alleged cartel gunmen that left 43 dead, according to documents obtained exclusively by InSight Crime.

The previously unpublished documents, obtained through a freedom of information request, show how US and Mexican authorities traced weapons from the shootout in Michoacán to the now infamous operation, which saw US authorities allow thousands of firearms to cross into Mexico in a failed attempt to trace them to arms dealers.

The clash took place on May 22, 2015, at a farm known as Rancho El Sol, near the border between the western states of Michoacán and Jalisco. According to the Mexican government, a group of gunmen from the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation (CJNG) fired on a convoy of federal police. The police then chased the men back to Rancho El Sol, where they waged a three-hour battle that killed one police officer and 42 presumed CJNG members.

The lopsided death toll, however, raised suspicions. Family members of the slain suspects accused the soldiers and police of carrying out a “massacre." And in August, the prominent Mexican journalist Carlos Loret de Mola wrote that an ongoing government investigation had uncovered evidence suggesting that the security forces had committed extrajudicial killings. 

According to Loret, many of the bodies of the suspected CJNG members had point-blank gunshot wounds in the back of their heads, while others showed signs of tampering. Some of the weapons found among the dead appeared to have been planted.

SEE ALSO: InSight Crime's Profile of CJNG

The documents obtained by InSight Crime show that Mexican authorities reported recovering 42 firearms, one .50 caliber rifle and one antitank rocket at the scene of the bloodbath.

The Mexican federal police submitted the weapons for tracing to the agency that ran Fast and Furious, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tabaco and Firearms (ATF), which determined that two of the firearms were “related” to the operation, though “it is unclear if the [Fast and Furious] guns were used during this event.”

US laws prohibit the ATF from publicly disclosing most details about the weapons it traces, and the documents obtained by InSight Crime are heavily redacted, making it difficult to determine how the guns ended up at Rancho El Sol.

The Mexican Attorney General’s office, which is handling the probe of the incident, did not respond to a request for comment.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Arms Trafficking

The discovery of firearms linked to Fast and Furious at Rancho El Sol has not previously been publicly reported. But this is not the first time authorities have recovered weapons connected to the operation at a high-profile crime scene. And it’s unlikely to be the last.

Fast and Furious began in 2009 when agents working at the ATF’s Phoenix field office were instructed to let suspected gun traffickers “walk” with weapons destined for Mexican crime groups.

In theory, rather than arresting the suspected gunrunners, ATF agents would monitor them in order to obtain more information on illicit arms trafficking networks that would lead them to higher-level players. In reality, the agency lost track of as many as 2,000 of the guns that “walked.”

ATF agents involved in the operation told Fortune magazine in 2012 that they never purposefully allowed guns to be illegally trafficked. Rather, they said, their attempts to take down suspected traffickers were stymied by agency higher-ups and prosecutors unwilling to pursue cases made difficult by loose US gun laws.  

Fast and Furious developed into a scandal, sparking congressional investigations and internal inquiries after it was revealed that weapons that had “walked” were recovered at the scene of the December 2010 murder of US Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.

Since then, weapons tied to Fast and Furious have continued to appear at numerous crime scenes in Mexico and the United States and have been traced as far as Colombia. In January, for instance, authorities found a .50 caliber rifle linked to Fast and Furious among a cache of arms seized at the hideout of the recently captured drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

InSight Crime Analysis

Fast and Furious has been widely criticized for allowing dangerous weapons to fall into the hands of some of Mexico’s most violent criminal groups. But experts consulted by InSight Crime said the botched operation also highlights larger problems associated with gun trafficking.

Stopping gun trafficking is not a priority for either the US or Mexican governments, said Sarah Kinosian, a security expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Kinosian added that the discovery of weapons connected to Fast and Furious at the scene of the bloody battle at Rancho El Sol serves as a reminder that weapons from the United States have long fueled high levels of violence in Mexico

“We’re literally arming both sides of the conflict,” she said, referring to the billions of dollars' worth of US arms purchased by the Mexican government in recent years and the estimates that the majority of illegal guns used by Mexican crime groups come from the United States.

Kinosian described Fast and Furious as “a dangerous gamble,” and said that even if the operation had worked out as planned, it would not have addressed “the root of the problem, which is the extremely lax US gun laws that are allowing [illicit arms trafficking] to happen.”

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the US-Mexico Border

Alejandro Hope, who served in Mexico’s civilian intelligence agency during the time Fast and Furious was underway, pointed out that the ATF has a smaller budget than most other federal law enforcement agencies, and speculated that Fast and Furious may have been an effort to boost the ATF’s reputation by scoring high-profile arrests.

“They were very, very keen on carrying out these sting operations,” Hope said. “It was a good idea, very poorly performed.”

In response to a request for comment from InSight Crime, an ATF spokesperson said the agency “has accepted responsibility for the mistakes made in the Fast and Furious investigation” and has “taken appropriate and decisive action to ensure that these errors will not be repeated.”

The spokesperson did not specify what steps ATF has taken to track down and recover weapons tied to the operation, but did acknowledge that “firearms related to the Fast and Furious investigation will likely continue to be recovered at future crime scenes.”