US Attorney General Eric Holder

A review by the US Justice Department’s inspector general of the "Fast and Furious" arms trafficking scandal serves as a reminder of the fundamental difficulties that US and Mexico law enforcement face in building cases against gun trafficking cartels.

As expected, the inspector general's review blamed the shortcomings of the “Fast and Furious” anti-gun trafficking operation on field agents in Arizona, rather than officials in Washington DC. The report essentially cleared the leadership of the Justice Department, including US Attorney General Eric Holder, from any wrongdoing.

Operation Fast and Furious, which ran from 2009 to 2011, was intended to track the middlemen, or "straw buyers," who purchase weapons in the US on behalf of Mexican criminal organizations but ended with over 2,000 tracked weapons being lost. Two rifles which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) team allowed to be purchased by a straw buyer later ended up at the scene of the murder of US Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, eventually leading to a Congressional inquiry and a drawn out political battle between Holder and members of the Republican party.

InSight Crime Analysis

As the inspector general review acknowledges, the primary aim of the ATF team based in Arizona was to identify high-ranking members of the Tijuana and Sinaloa Cartels involved in trafficking firearms. Rather than arrest individual straw buyers and interdict weapons before they were transported to Mexico, the goal was to trace trafficking routes, identify stash houses, and develop a bigger picture of gun trafficking at the border.

As the review points out, one of the fundamental problems was that the ATF was given the mission of taking down a large-scale gun trafficking operation, but its field agents neither had the experience, nor the resources needed to conduct proper surveillance of the gun traffickers. Essentially, the ATF was given a mission of immense scope with one hand tied behind its back, then was blamed for when they lost track of the firearms.

Lost in all the political noise surrounding Fast and Furious is that the ATF’s broader goal was vital for Mexico’s security interests: identifying high-level gun traffickers rather than the small-scale buyers. That Fast and Furious ended so badly for everyone involved does not bode well for future US-based operations with similar goals.