By Diana Washington Valdez
El Paso Times
More than 68 percent of the weapons recovered at Mexican crime scenes over a five-year period were traced to U.S. manufacturers or U.S. dealers who import firearms, according to statistics of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.Between 2007 and 2011, Mexican law enforcement submitted 99,691requests to the ATF for tracing, and 68,161 of those firearms were determined to come from U.S. makers or were legally imported into the United States by federally licensed firearms dealers.
The ATF said it was unable to determine the source of the rest of the firearms because of missing information about the guns themselves, where they came from and how they got into Mexico.
Mexican drug cartels have waged brutal battles over turf in several areas of Mexico, including in Juárez, where firearms were used in most of estimated 11,000 homicides that police reported between 2007 and the end of November.
This is a breakdown of total firearms recovered in Mexico and traced by ATF, and the number of weapons of unknown origin:
The "ATF Mexico" report does not include information on which, or if any, of the reported firearm recoveries were traced to the agency's Operation Fast and Furious, in which federal agents allowed guns purchased by straw buyers in the U.S. to be smuggled into Mexico in an attempt to identify and arrest high-level arms traffickers.
More than 1,000 of the 2,000 weapons connected to the Phoenix-based operation are unaccounted for, according to U.S. lawmakers, who investigated the botched ATF operation that began in late 2009.
The ATF shut down Fast and Furious after Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was fatally shot Dec. 14, 2010, in Arizona near the Mexican border. A rifle connected to the ATF operation was found in the vicinity of Terry's body.
Some of the weapons attributed to Operation Fast and Furious were smuggled across the border through El Paso, and they were found by Mexican law enforcement officers at crime scenes in Juárez and other places in the state of Chihuahua.
Recently, new allegations threaten the ATF with another scandal, prompting a U.S. senator to request an investigation.
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, who had initiated an investigation into Fast and Furious, said in a Dec. 19 letter to Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz that a former ATF official assigned to Phoenix might have purchased a gun that Mexican officials allegedly found at the scene of a November shootout between drug cartel operatives and Mexican soldiers in Sinaloa, Mexico.
Grassley's letter said the area of the shootout reported by Mexican officials appears to coincide with a firefight that killed several people in the same area.
"The gunfight claimed five lives, including a member of the Mexican military and a Sinaloa beauty queen, Maria Susana Flores Gamez," Grassley's letter said. His letter also said that the weapon allegedly obtained by the ATF official was purchased Jan. 7, 2010, but Grassley had no information on how it ended up in Mexico.
"This information's implications and its ability to undermine public confidence in the integrity of ATF operations cannot be overstated," Grassley's letter said. "Your (Horowitz's) office needs to work swiftly. There must be a thorough, independent, and public explanation of these circumstances as quickly as possible."
No one was available for comment late Wednesday at the ATF offices in Phoenix and Washington, D.C.
The ATF also reported statistics for firearm recoveries and tracings in the United States, including Texas.
Between Jan. 1, 2011, and Dec. 31, 2011, the ATF traced 15,058 firearm recoveries to Texas. The ATF said most of the tracings are for weapons found by U.S. law enforcement officers at crime scenes in Texas and in other states, but traced back to Texas sources.
The top three recovery cities in Texas were Houston, with 3,034 firearm recoveries; Dallas, with 2,463; and Corpus Christi, with 502. ATF figures for El Paso recoveries were not available.
"We use the ATF's tracing resources to investigate gun ownership, periodically, on a case-by-case basis," said Mike Baranyay, a detective with the El Paso Police Department. "Our investigators can also check whether a weapon is stolen through the NCIC (National Crime Information Center) system."
The ATF's National Tracing Center conducted 319,000 firearms tracings in 2011.
Tracing figures for 2012 will not be available until mid-2013 or later.