The failed federal anti-gunrunning program known as Operation Fast and Furious got so out of control in November 2009, it appeared the U.S. government was single-handedly "arming for war" the Sinaloa Cartel, documents show, even as U.S. officials kept lying to fellow agents in Mexico about the volume of guns it helped send south of the border.
Those shocking allegations are revealed in the latest congressional report investigating the operation.
At one point, agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives say guns sold under the program took just 24 hours to travel from a gun store in Phoenix to a crime scene in Mexico. ATF agents there pleaded for help but were told nothing about Fast and Furious, which was intended to let guns "walk" in order to track them to higher-profile traffickers.
Meanwhile, the report claims the agents' superiors in Washington met every Tuesday, to review the latest sales figures and the number of guns recovered in Mexico.
"How long are you going to let this go on?" Steve Martin, an assistant director of intelligence operations asked the ATF top brass at meeting Jan. 5, 2010, according to a transcript of the meeting contained in the congressional report. None of the men responded and several quickly left the room, the transcript reveals.
By Feb. 27, 2010, Lanny Breuer, the head of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., was allegedly told that the ATF had successfully helped sell 1,026 weapons worth more than $650,000 to members of the Sinaloa cartel. The briefing included all top ATF officials, including the agents in charge in Los Angeles and Houston, as well as a half dozen top Justice Department attorneys.
"So there's no doubt after this briefing that guns in this case were being linked to the Sinaloa cartel?" a congressional investigator asked Martin during a July 2011 interview.
"I'd say yes." Martin replied.
"Very apparent to everyone in the room?” the investigator asked.
"That's correct," Martin said.
Meanwhile, ATF agents in Mexico were seeing a flood of weapons coming south. When asked, ATF brass told the resident ATF attaché in Mexico things were "under control."
"They were afraid I was going to brief the ambassador on it or brief the government of Mexico," said Darren Gil, former ATF attaché in Mexico.
For months, officials assured Gil that Fast and Furious was going to be "shut down," but it wasn't.
"We're getting hurt down here," Gil told ATF International Affairs Chief Daniel Kumor.
Kumor reportedly raised Gil's concerns and was told the case "was going great," and nothing happened until the death of Agent Brian Terry in December 2010.
Ironically, a year before, in December 2009, Southwest Border Czar Ray Rowley threatened to expose Operation Fast and Furious because of "the large number of guns that had already been trafficked" but ATF officials talked him out of it.
When the case was finally revealed in the press, Gil said, "never in my wildest dreams ever would I have thought of (gun walking) as an (investigative) technique. Never. Ever. It was just inconceivable to me."
"You don't lose guns. You don't walk guns. You don't let guns out of your sight."
Gil also testified at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Tuesday where one ATF supervisor left members of Congress exasperated.
William Newell, who was formerly in charge of the Phoenix office, insisted that guns don't walk despite the facts clearly showing they did, he knew it and approved it time and time again.
Newell said the purpose of the operation was to dismantle the entire Mexican cartel but agents testified they were not allowed to do that when they saw transfers of money and weren't permitted to follow the money.
Lawmakers repeatedly tried unsuccessfully to nail Newell down.
"I acknowledge we made some mistakes," Newell said when asked by committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa,R-Calif., whether he thought it was a good program.
"You were right on that," Issa said.
Under fierce questioning from other lawmakers, Newell said that taking out "just one straw purchaser" has "no effect on the larger investigation."
The precise number of casualties in Mexico isn't known, but ATF officials confirm the murder of Mario Gonzales Rodriguez, brother of the Chihuahua attorney general, with a Fast and Furious gun.
According to the report, the U.S. knew for eight months of the link between the ATF operation and his death, but refused to tell any Mexican officials. Finally the acting ATF attaché told the Mexican Attorney General Maricela Morales. Her reply, "Hijole," which translates into "Oh my."