InSight: Counting the Dead in Arizona Gunrunning Case

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The internal divisions caused by the recent death of a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the hands of suspected Mexican criminal gang members using U.S.-bought assault rifles are breaking into public view but seem to reflect only one side of the outrage.

A CBS investigative report quotes numerous agents who sought anonymity to express their disgust at the strategy of letting the U.S.-bought weapons “walk” during a 15-month period to allow for intelligence gathering.

The indictments in the case came in January, but not before as many as 2,500 weapons “walked,” most of them straight to the hands of Mexican drug cartels who were busy making 2010 the bloodiest since Mexico’s government began a concerted campaign to break them.

However, what’s clearly worse for the U.S. agents – and at least one U.S. legislator who wrote two letters to the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) inquiring about the case – and what causes their outrage is that several of these weapons are tied to the mid-December ambush of a CBP special unit on the Arizona-Mexican border, in which Agent Brian Terry was killed.

“We were fully aware the guns would probably be moved across the border to drug cartels where they could be used to kill,” one agent told CBS.

Yet they still “walked.”

There are reasons for this, both political and legal. The burden of proof needed to prosecute these so-called “straw buyers” of the guns and the middlemen who employ them and often move the weapons across the border to Mexico, is high.

Recent cases – such as the X Caliber case chronicled in InSight’s joint project with Frontline, the Center for Public Integrity and the Investigative Reporting Workshop, which was thrown out of an Arizona court – show that agents walk a tricky, political and emotionally charged line when they investigate gun dealers and purveyors. The judge in the X Caliber case, for instance, would not allow the Arizona state prosecutors who brought the case to court to talk about violence in Mexico.

Still, the outrage in the U.S., while warranted, seems ironic when viewed from the Mexican side. For years, Mexican authorities have been asking the United States to do more to stem the violence that has led to the deaths of over 35,000 of its citizens, including hundreds of policemen, judges, and politicians.

In response, the U.S. began “Project Gunrunner,” which, among other things, stationed hundreds new agents along the border. But instead of stopping the weapons, the agents watched.

“This is crazy, somebody is gonna to get killed,” one of the agents said amidst the investigation.

Of course, this agent was not referring to the over 15,000 who were being killed throughout 2010 in Mexico.

“You feel like ****,” another agent said, in reference to the one dead U.S. agent.

Imagine what Mexico feels like.

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