By Michael ColemanJournal Washington Bureau
A botched Justice Department plot to send guns into Mexico and trace them to drug cartels has some members of Congress, including Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico, suggesting Attorney General Eric Holder should resign.
“For our government to allow all these weapons to cross the border – to encourage it or maybe even set it up – that, to me, goes beyond a harebrained scheme,” Pearce told the Journal. “It’s dangerous.”
The controversial gun operation – dubbed “Operation Fast and Furious” and carried out by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives starting in 2009 – allowed firearms to illegally flow from border states south to Mexico with the intention of tracking the weapons to criminals.
Pearce, a Republican whose 2nd Congressional District includes New Mexico’s border with Mexico, said that if Holder knew about and authorized Fast and Furious, he should resign.
The family of ICE agent Jaime Zapata questions whether ATF-tracked guns are linked to his death.(AP Photo)
“It’s been mishandled, and the agency and Mr. Holder should be completely accountable to the American public to explain and get this thing out to the American public,” Pearce said.
It is unclear if any of the Fast and Furious guns are connected to a criminal gunrunning case that resulted in the March arrest of the former mayor and police chief of Columbus, N.M.
Federal prosecutors have already obtained several guilty pleas in the Columbus case. Daryl Fields, a spokesman for the Justice Department in Texas, told the Journal he could “neither confirm nor deny” that the Columbus guns are connected to Fast and Furious.
What is certain, based on ATF testimony to Congress, is that ATF’s Phoenix Field Division let so-called “straw buyers,” walk away with illegally purchased guns bound for Mexico.
ATF planned to use surveillance to follow the Phoenix operation guns with the hope that agents could identify other members of a trafficking network and build a large, complex conspiracy case. Instead, ATF lost track of more than 1,400 of the guns, and others turned up at crime scenes, including that of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s murder on Dec. 14.
A gun smuggled into Mexico from the U.S. was also used in the Feb. 15 murder of Jamie Zapata, an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Zapata’s family is questioning whether that gun was also a part of the Fast and Furious operation.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who is chairman of the House Oversight Committee, have been looking for explanations from the Justice Department. So far, they haven’t been satisfied with the answers.
The congressional inquiry is expected to pick up steam today as the House Oversight Committee questions Carlos Canino, the ATF’s acting attaché to Mexico; and William Newell, the former ATF special agent in charge of the Phoenix Field Division.
In a July 18 letter to Holder, Issa and Grassley said the Justice Department “has treated the Fast and Furious inquiry merely as a public relations problem, rather than a legitimate topic in need of congressional oversight and corrective action.”
“This should not be a public relations project,” the letter said. “It should be a mutual effort to understand how and why the department allowed American guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels with deadly consequences.”
In addition to Pearce, other members of Congress who have suggested Holder resign include Reps. Darrell West, R-Fla., and Blake Farenthold, R- Texas.
Holder has said he didn’t learn of the Fast and Furious operation – named after a popular action movie about muscle cars – until this spring.
Meanwhile, Ronald Weich, an assistant attorney general, wro te to Grassley and Issa this month defending the agency’s cooperation in the probe. Weich wrote that the Justice Department would “reject entirely” any suggestion that it has tried to hamper the congressional inquiry.
“To date, hundreds of thousands of pages of documents have been reviewed for responsiveness and over 2000 pages of documents have been either produced to the committee or made available for review and productions of more material are occurring on a near-daily basis,” Weich wrote.
Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat who sits on the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, told the Journal “it appears to me there were serious flaws in the (Fast and Furious) investigation.” However, Udall stopped short of calling for Holder or other Justice Department officials to lose their jobs.
“This is being looked into , and I think it’s good it’s being looked into,” Udall said. “Let’s let the investigations run their course, find out what the facts are, and then based on the facts, see where we go from there.”
Although Fields, the Justice Department spokesman in Texas, said he could “neither confirm nor deny” that any of the guns in the Fast and Furious case stemmed from purchases made in New Mexico, an 84-count indictment in the Columbus case sounds a lot like the Phoenix case.
The indictment released by U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales alleges that from January 2010 to March 2011, the Columbus defendants joined in a conspiracy to buy firearms in the U.S. for illegal export to Mexico.
During that time, the defendants allegedly acquired about 200 firearms from Chaparral Guns in Chaparral, a rural community that abuts the Texas state line and straddles the boundary between Otero and Doña Ana counties. Chaparral Guns is owned by defendant Ian Garland, 50, of Chaparral, who is charged with conspiracy, making false statements and firearms smuggling.
The defendants bought or acquired firearms from Chaparral Guns by falsely claiming they were the actual purchasers, when they were acting as “straw purchasers” buying the firearms on behalf of others, the indictment alleges.
The indictment doesn’t say who in Mexico acquired the weapons. Twelve firearms previously bought by the defendants were later discovered in Mexico and traced back to the accused, the indictment says.