Border gun smuggling program lacks sharp focus

A federal campaign to stop the smuggling of high-powered guns to Mexico is too narrowly focused on small-time gun runners and not the larger organizations suspected of arming Mexico's increasingly violent drug cartels, the Justice Department's inspector general said Tuesday.

For the last six years, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives working on Operation Gunrunner have focused most of their efforts on one- and two-person cases at the behest of supervisors who urge them to close cases quickly and move on, the report said.

"Agents we interviewed told us that after investigating the lower- ranking members of a firearms trafficking ring, cases often close and are referred for prosecution," the report said. "These agents stated that they believe this practice limited their ability to pursue higher level cases and resulted in cases being opened and closed quickly, with less regard to the significance or outcome of the cases."

More than 80 percent of the 1,015 cases sent to federal prosecutors between 2004 and 2009 had one or two defendants, the report said.

Mexican drug cartels have turned increasingly to high-powered guns to fight each other and the Mexican government over lucrative drug and human smuggling from Mexico into the United States. More than 28,000 people have been killed across the country since President Felipe Calderon launched a nationwide offensive against the drug gangs shortly after taking office in 2006.

Authorities in both countries say guns smuggled from the U.S. — bought largely in Texas and Arizona — are the largest supply of weapons used by the cartels. The ATF does not release estimates of how many guns seized by Mexican authorities are traced back to the U.S. because the numbers have become too politicized.

Tuesday's report comes as U.S. officials are making a high-profile effort at the border to stop guns and cash from being smuggled to the cartels.

Southbound checkpoints along the Mexican border are now routine, though smuggled guns are rarely found. During a nine-month period in 2009 U.S. officials found only 93 guns being smuggled across border checkpoints.

The Justice Department inspector general also criticized ATF for not sharing strategic intelligence that could help other federal authorities target larger trafficking groups. The largest communication problem, the report said, exists between ATF, a Justice Department component, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a Homeland Security Department agency. Despite promises by ATF and ICE to work closely, the investigators found that information about ongoing gun smuggling cases is not routinely shared and criticized both agencies' information sharing.

The report also concluded that internal communication problems at ATF have hindered its own investigations.

Field agents complained that leads passed from one ATF group to another often were "not timely, well developed, or actionable," the report said.

Agreeing with the report's recommendations, ATF Deputy Director Kenneth Melson said in a written response that the agency recently refocused its gun trafficking strategy to focus more on Mexican drug cartels.

But Melson also pointed out program successes, like increased investigations of suspected traffickers and U.S. gun dealers. And he said the report did not fully address difficulties in border law enforcement that arise from "the differences between the Mexico and United States legal systems, the investigative capabilities and resources, and the culture and laws relating to firearms possession."



IG's report: