A federal operation that allowed weapons from the U.S. to pass into the hands of suspected gun smugglers so they could be traced to the higher echelons of Mexican drug cartels has lost track of hundreds of firearms, many of which have been linked to crimes, including the fatal shooting of a Border Patrol agent in December.
The investigation, known as Operation Fast and Furious, was conducted even though U.S. authorities suspected that some of the weapons might be used in crimes, according to a variety of federal agents who voiced anguished objections to the operation.
Many of the weapons have spread across the most violence-torn states in Mexico, with at least 195 linked to some form of crime or law enforcement action, according to documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity and the Los Angeles Times.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which ran the operation, said that 1,765 guns were sold to suspected smugglers during a 15-month period of the investigation. Of those, 797 were recovered on both sides of the border, including 195 in Mexico after they were used in crimes, collected during arrests or intercepted through other law enforcement operations.
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John Dodson, an agent with the ATF who worked on Operation Fast and Furious, said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit research group based in Washington, that he was haunted by his participation in the investigation.
"With the number of guns we let walk, we'll never know how many people were killed, raped, robbed," he said. "There is nothing we can do to round up those guns. They are gone."
The ATF said agents took every possible precaution to assure that guns were recovered before crossing into Mexico.
Scot Thomasson, the ATF's public affairs chief in Washington, said the Fast and Furious strategy is under evaluation.
"It's always a good business practice to review any new strategy six or eight months after you've initiated it, to make sure it's working, that it's having the desired effect, and then make adjustments as you see fit to ensure it's successful," he said.
But enough concern has been raised that some Washington officials have begun to dig deeper into the details of the operation.
On Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder asked top officials at the Justice Department to consult the inspector general to determine if further investigation of the operation was needed.