Fast and Furious Is One Among Many Similar Drug-War Warts

Turf Wars, Agency Budgets and Case Stats Trump Lives in the Era of Prohibition

Ever since ATF’s Fast and Furious gun-running operation was catapulted into the national spotlight in early 2011, the focus has been on the politics influencing the police work and the manipulations behind intelligence operations, with little to no attention paid to the dysfunction of the drug-war bureaucracy.

A report released by the US Government Accountability Office in June 2009, some three months before Operation Fast and Furious was even launched, underscores that dysfunction in succinct detail. Advance copies of that report were provided at the time to “the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and State and to the Office of National Drug Control Policy,” GAO documents state.

In that now two-and-a-half-year-old report is a blistering indictment of operations, obviously already in existence prior to June 2009 and Fast and Furious, that utilized a strategy similar to that employed in Fast and Furious — which allowed criminals to “walk” thousands of guns into Mexico under the watch of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (better known as ATF). The supposed goal: identify and bring to justice the higher-ups in Mexico’s arms trafficking organizations.

Here are the money graphs from the GAO report:

Some officials we met with from ATF and ICE [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] — the two primary agencies combating arms trafficking to Mexico — noted the agencies have worked well together on various efforts to address the issue; however, we found ATF and ICE have not consistently coordinated their efforts to combat arms trafficking.

… The agencies have not coordinated and collaborated on some covert operations, potentially compromising the effectiveness of these efforts.

… ICE officials stated that … ATF had conducted “controlled delivery” covert operations [carried out under US law enforcement surveillance] in an attempt to identify organizations receiving illicit weapons in Mexico, without coordinating with ICE. The ICE officials said ATF did not notify them of their operations, including pre-clearing the controlled export of the weapons [allowing them to "walk" across the border], which could have put ATF’s operation in conflict with ICE, CBP [US Customs and Border Protection], or Mexican government law enforcement and raised the risk that weapons smuggled to Mexico as part of the [ATF covert] operations would end up in the wrong hands and be used in crime.

Well, in fact, that is precisely what happened with Fast and Furious, and likely for the same reasons, based on the GAO report findings, in prior similar ATF operations. And this was all reported publicly by GAO months in advance of the launch of Fast and Furious, yet no one in Washington’s leadership circles brought it into the public spotlight via the forum of a Congressional investigation until earlier this year — and after thousands of additional Mexican citizens had been murdered in the drug war and a US Border Patrol agent killed in Arizona.

The nation’s federal gun-law enforcer, ATF, in conjunction with a task force composed of several other federal agencies, allowed nearly 2,000 weapons to be smuggled into Mexico via Fast and Furious. These “controlled deliveries” of deadly weapons were put into the clutches of criminal organizations so that ATF could later trace the trail of those guns to the kingpins of Mexico’s criminal organizations. That evidence would, in theory, lead to some major convictions in US courts and plenty of positive press for the drug war — to be trumpeted in the US mainstream media. All that makes for big career boosts for the US attorneys and law enforcement brass who get to stand in front of the cameras and take credit for helping to "win" the drug war.

The problem, of course, is that in the wake of Fast and Furious, many people, many innocent Mexican citizens, were mowed down by the bullets fired by those smuggled guns — which could have, and should have, been intercepted by ATF agents long before they ever crossed the border.

The hidden truth of Fast and Furious, the part that doesn’t make mainstream media headlines, is that such boneheaded plans are nothing new as far as the drug war goes and the dysfunction it has spawned within and between US law enforcement agencies. In fact, in recent months, it has come to light, due to the Congressional and media focus now on Fast and Furious, that covert gun-walking operations similar to Fast and Furious also were undertaken by ATF during the George W. Bush Administration, under code names such as “Wide Receiver.”

 So this seems to be a quite bipartisan affair.

Team Effort

In the case of Fast and Furious, and undoubtedly in prior similar “covert” US law enforcement operations, multiple agencies were involved in targeting drug-war perps, Mexican “cartels,” through a joint task-force structure that makes ample use of informants and cooperating sources (themselves criminals) who take every opportunity to play one side against the other for their personal benefit. That’s how the drug war is waged, day in and day out, decade after decade.

The DEA, ICE, FBI and ATF were part of such a task force in Fast and Furious. Each agency had its own objectives and targets, and its own turf to protect and advance — creating the dynamics for the dysfunction.

Here’s how it works – or doesn’t work.

From a Sept. 27, 2011, letter drafted by U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa and U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley and directed to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.:

The main target of Operation Fast and Furious from its inception … was Manuel Celis-Acosta.

… FBI personnel in its Las Cruces, New Mexico, office apparently knew that the subject of a separate DEA investigation was ordering weapons from Acosta in January 2010. Yet around the same time, the subject of that [DEA] investigation received more than $3,500 in official law enforcement funds as payment for illegal narcotics. That subject – apparently the financier for Acosta’s firearms trafficking ring – later began cooperating with the FBI and may have received additional payments as a confidential informant (CI#1).

… According to confidential sources, over a two-year period CI#1 had contacted several DEA agents, including Juarez, Mexico Resident Agent in Charge Jim Roberts, and passed information to these agents about Mexican drug cartels. If the information we have obtained is accurate, DEA had knowledge of CI#1’s activities going back to at least early 2009 [some six months before the launch of Fast and Furious].

… [Due to] the apparent failure to share information about the source (CI#1), ATF was allegedly unaware that DEA and FBI knew CI#1 was ordering weapons from Acosta, the target of Operation Fast and Furious.

This failure to share vital information may have extended the use of gun walking [allowing weapons to flow into Mexico, resulting in as yet not tallied bloodshed] during Operation Fast and Furious, which sought to identify the higher-ups, like CI#1, who were paying for the weapons.…

The same type of turf-war inspired dysfunction played out in another case well-documented by Narco News over the years, the House of Death — in which an ICE, informant (a former Mexican cop and drug trafficker) was allowed to play a direct role in at least dozen murders in Juarez, Mexico, all as part of an effort to target higher-ups in a Mexican drug cartel. In that case, ICE, DEA and FBI were all part of a task force working different angles on that same Juarez drug cartel through an operation codenamed Skyhigh.

Narco News, through a Freedom of Information Act request, obtained part of an official US government report that featured testimony provided by Sandalio Gonzalez, the DEA commander in El Paso, Texas, who blew the whistle on the bloody House of Death operation — which, in addition to the torture/murders of 11 Mexican citizens and a legal US resident, nearly led to the assassination of a DEA agent and his family.

From the testimony, part of an internal ICE/DEA investigation involving dozens of interviews with US prosecutors and law enforcers that to this day remains buried inside the US law-enforcement bureaucracy:

Pertaining to Operation Skyhigh: SAC Gonzalez was aware that it was an ongoing multi-agency operation including DEA, FBI, ICE, USAO [the US Attorney’s Office] and Mexican Authorities targeting elements of the [Vicente Carrillo Fuentes] VCF organization in [Juarez] Mexico.

… Over the years there has been some concern from US Law Enforcement Agencies regarding the sharing of information with Mexican Authorities. SAC [Special Agent in Charge] Gonzalez stated that he stressed that DEA would not share another agency’s information with Mexican Agencies without permission from the agency providing the information. SAC Gonzalez stated that FBI and ICE did not want certain information [concerning Skyhigh] passed to the Mexican Authorities.

… Pertaining to the OCDETF [Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force] meeting of August 25, 2003: SAC Gonzalez attended this meeting. …. [He] stated that this was a contentious meeting because the FBI was going off on their own and not advising the other agencies of enforcement actions in Spain. In particular, ICE Associate SAC … had a heated discussion with the FBI Supervisor regarding their plan to arrest a mutual VCF-related target in Spain without notifying the other agencies involved with the investigation.

… SAC Gonzalez advised that he had concerns with the … USAO [US Attorney’s Office] “lack of trust” and that it had a negative effect on this investigation. … According to SAC Gonzalez he was advised that AUSA [the Assistant US Attorney] did not trust DEA ARD [name redacted].

So, it seems clear that these US law enforcement task force operations are not a picture of harmony, and that has consequences for both planning and implementation of any “covert” operation; typically not good consequences. With Fast and Furious, among the less-than-desirable consequences included the fact that ATF kept the Mexican government in the dark about the operation, according to Mexican officials, and, per the Issa/Grassley letter, DEA and FBI failed to share crucial information with ATF.

And so we have, in technical law-enforcement speak, what is known as a cluster-fock, which results all too often in needless harm — and in the case of Fast and Furious, collateral damage that easily rivals the blood spilled on a US Civil War battlefield. The GAO report also makes clear that Fast and Furious is not the lone “covert” law enforcement gun-walking operation where this dysfunctional dynamic has been at play.

 Paper Weights and Corpses

In late April 2009, Narco News interviewed Bill Newell, the Special Agent in Charge of the ATF field office in Phoenix that spearheaded the Fast and Furious operation. The interview was related to a separate story, not Fast and Furious, which was launched some four months later. At the time of the interview with Narco News, Newell, said “in Mexico, my badge is essentially a paperweight; we [ATF] simply do not have authority.”

In other words, Newell was conceding that ATF was powerless to enforce US laws, or even act as a law enforcement agency, inside Mexico, yet this same veteran cop later oversaw Fast and Furious, an operation that allowed thousands of guns to flow freely into Mexico with the supposed goal busting the criminal elements behind the smuggling, knowing full well ATF had no authority to do so inside Mexico — and yet ATF still decided to keep Mexican officials in the dark about the operation. It makes no sense, and yet it makes perfect sense within the context of the dysfunction that marks the US war on drugs. It’s the law enforcers who question the orders, who seek to expose the dysfunction, the whistleblowers, who get run over and destroyed in this drug war.

Newell, it seems, took the logical course in that sense. He was simply following orders, and maybe a few of those Fast and Furious guns would later show up at crime scenes in Mexico. The gun traces conducted by ATF after the fact, with Mexican law enforcement cooperation at that point, could then provide ammunition for upping the weapons-trafficking penalties against convicted smugglers set up by US law enforcement informants on the US side of the border.

Those stats would look good for his agency, its budget and ultimately his career. The bloodshed required to pad those stats, well, that’s just how it is in the drug war, in the callous calculations of drug-war bureaucrats and the prison-industrial-complex monsters they are helping to feed.

If you doubt it is that dark and devoid of conscience, take a look at Narco News’ past coverage of the dysfunctional drug war in the Borderline Security, Bogotá Connection and House of Death investigative series, where the pattern is documented over and over again, going back decades — and only now, in many cases, is it being “discovered” by the intrepid mainstream media. That is the case primarily because the bloodletting in Mexico has grown to such dimensions, more than 50,000 homicides over the past five years, that it can no longer be ignored by even the corporate media and its instant-gratification news agenda, or covered up by the PR spin of the law-enforcement bureaucracy — as it has been previously, administration after administration, since the drug war machine was booted up more than 40 years ago (and still counting).

But the long-term outlook for change is quite grim if the only hope for the nation’s democracy is to rely on the fickle, fleeting memory of mainstream-media careerists to serve as a check against the dysfunction. In fact, the mainstream media itself does far more to sustain than alleviate that dysfunction, because civil-service reform at the sausage-making level isn’t the stuff of sexy headlines or big TV ratings.

The truth of our system is that as each successive US president enters office and appoints his (maybe one day soon her) people to the political posts overseeing these huge law-enforcement bureaucracies, these new, temporary leaders each have a quite short window, often no more than a few years, to implement their strategies in line with the agenda priorities of the new president, and those priorities rarely involve substantive reform.

Meanwhile, the huge civil service workforce under these political appointees, including the career-path executives, often promoted because of their success in appeasing the dysfunctional drug-war monsters, have only to pay lip service to the new presidential directives, and to then wait it out while continuing to advance their prospects on the path that has served them well: allegiance to self, career and the perpetuation of their bureaucracy.

And then a new president comes into office, and with that person new political appointees with more short-term policy goals, and nothing fundamental ever changes — other than the brass nameplates on the doors of the bureaucracy, and on the headstones of the graves it leaves in its wake.

Stay tuned….

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