The Fast and the Fake


Mexico and the United States have always had trouble keeping their border safe in terms of trafficking; drugs, people, weapons and more. In an attempt to diminish illegal trafficking of weapons that commonly ended up in the hands of organized crime organizations, the Fast and Furious Operation was born. From 2009 till 2011 the Phoenix Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), allowed illegal gun sales in hopes of tracking the sellers and purchasers, who potentially could have been connected to Mexican drug cartels. However, the name Fast and Furious was given by the media later on. The complete tactic started since 2006 known as Operation Wide Receiver and eventually, with the change of administration from George W. Bush to Obama’s, it evolved to Project Gunrunner.

The difference between the Operation Wide Receiver and Project Gunrunner was the range and the objective. Operation Wide Receiver focused solemnly on allowing suspects to walk away with illegally purchased guns and to wait and watch, in hope that law enforcement could identify other members of a trafficking network. Meanwhile, Project Gunrunner took things further with four key components: the expansion of gun tracing in Mexico, international coordination, domestic activities, and intelligence. This shift in strategy was known and authorized at the highest levels of the Justice Department. Notwithstanding, these tactics are considered a failure since both only contributed to worsening the weapon trafficking situation within the Mexico-U.S. border.  

Many factors added to the lack of success and accuracy of the Fast and Furious Operation. For starters, the weapons were left purposely in the hands of criminals. Secondly, of all the guns that were allowed to go around, agents lost track of most, having them end up in dangerous and unexpected situations. In third place, the United States Administration displayed an attitude of superiority towards working with the Mexican government, not wanting to truly share their information and cooperate. Consequently, these factors generated lack of trust and communication about the issue till today. In 2020, Foreign Affairs Ministry, led by Marcelo Ebrard issued and official press release asking once again for the U.S. authorities to share all the files about the operation; they are still waiting for an answer. Finally, in fifth place, and certainly one of the most influential components, was the lack of accountability. Within the ATF a high level of corruption was made evident after the operation was cancelled. At the end of the day, nobody wanted to take responsibility for the chain of inappropriate decisions that were implemented. 

For the purpose of this analysis the focus will be on the first cause: the process of how the weapons were left in the hands of criminals without a thorough strategy. The plan mainly started out of desperation: people who purchased guns for the cartels only got probation for lying on an official federal form asseverating it was for themselves. So, the idea was that, to bring down the flow of U.S. guns to Mexican drug cartels, agents would follow the paths of guns from illegal buyers known as straw purchasers through middlemen, and into the hierarchy of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel. Nonetheless, in simpler terms, this meant that the ATF intentionally supplied the Sinaloa cartel with guns, and not just any kind of guns, new ones that were the best the American gun market could offer.

It is estimated that during the investigation of the Fast and Furious Operation almost 2,000 firearms were illegally purchased amounting for $1.5 million; weapons which were put on the streets. Therefore, the most important inquiry surfaced:  how to keep track of all the guns. It was an impossible task which led to chaos, violence and a lot of people getting hurt. To be precise, straw purchasers bought 2,020 weapons. Out of all: 227 were claimed in Mexico, 363 in the United States, but 1,430 remain unaccounted for. Curious enough, most of the guns that did appear were not found due to a tracing process, how it should have been, but were reported in crime scenes in both Mexico and the United States. Including an incident that happened on December of 2010 in Arizona. During a gunbattle a U.S. Border Patrol known as Brian A. Terry was killed with one of those guns. 

Supposedly, both the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona and Main Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C., closely checked, monitored, and administered the activities of the ATF. Although, when the guns surfaced as the cause of illegal actions like the killing of the American police officer only 14 employees of ATF and the Justice Department were made responsible for management failures in the malfunctioning operation. Furthermore, the inspector in charge decided to refer the 14 employees for disciplinary action but did not pursued any type of criminal sanction.  

In conclusion, the ATF never achieved its goal of dismantling the Sinaloa drug cartel; it did not even come close. All tactics only ended up in the indictments of 20 straw purchasers. From 2004 to 2008 the Mexican Attorney General’s office reported an estimate of 30,000 firearms that were smuggled through the border. Fast-forward almost 20 years later, evidence demonstrates that every year more than 200,000 firearms are trafficked through the border. Once again proving, that this operation was a mistake that could have been prevented, because guns on the streets will never have another use rather than killing and causing violence.

Martha Garcia
Martha Garcia
Martha Garcia Torres Landa has a bachelor's degree in International Relations at the Tecnologico de Monterrey University in Queretaro, Mexico. During her undergraduate degree she has specialized in conflict and peace studies. Likewise, she has taken several creative writing courses and workshops in both Mexican universities and abroad. Her research interests include feminism, social activism, World History and Human Rights.


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