This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Congress and the media have understandably focused on the missteps of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the "Fast and Furious" sting operation that allowed suspected "straw buyers" to purchase weapons and transport them to Mexico in order to build cases against drug cartels.
However, the covert operation was terminated abruptly after its possible connection to the tragic death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was revealed. Unfortunately, most of the recent criticism about the operation seems to be serving as a means to attack Attorney General Eric Holder and destroy the ATF, rather than to hold those behind Fast and Furious accountable.
The focus should be on the real public safety problem underlying this controversy: keeping arms from the Mexican drug cartels and protecting the security of the United States. However, many of the roadblocks faced by ATF and the Department of Justice are not being built by international criminals, but by Congress.
We are two Southwestern law enforcement officials, one a Republican and one a Democrat, and both gun owners who have faced border-related crimes on a daily basis over the past decade. We are very concerned about what is happening in Mexico, a critical U.S. ally which must be freed from the clutches of transnational criminal organizations.
We have worked closely with ATF and the Justice Department in our common fight against violent crime and appreciate that Holder has sought more resources for border law enforcement.
Gun sales along the border are exploding because it is illegal to privately possess most firearms in Mexico. Organized criminals are using high-power, military-grade weapons which pose a serious threat to the rule of law in Mexico. These weapons played a major role in the slaughter of 40,000 people there in the past five years. About 95 percent of weapons recovered from murders in Mexico were traced to the U.S. We warned that these weapons would be used against officials in our country.
Right now the ATF needs support to stop "straw buyers," those who are paid to make illegal gun purchases for gun traffickers or cartels. U.S. state attorneys general have been meeting and collaborating for years with Mexican state attorneys general on border security and have been cross-training law enforcement and prosecutors. We have asked them to attack the flood of drugs and people being smuggled into the U.S. and they have pleaded with us to stem the flow of guns smuggled into Mexico. Mexican President Felipe Calderon gave this same urgent message to President Obama and Congress.
ATF has also been invaluable by providing evidence to state authorities. For example:
• Arizona arrested and incarcerated two individuals who were conspiring to smuggle powerful .50-caliber guns to Mexican cartels. These weapons, loaded with armor-piercing rounds, would threaten Mexican army armored personnel carriers or helicopters.
• An 11-month ATF investigation led state authorities to X-Caliber Guns, a Phoenix gun store which provided nearly 1,000 firearms seized at crime scenes in Mexico, including guns used to assassinate a top Sonora police official. Even though the straw buyers testified to getting paid anonymously and being coached by the store owner to falsify forms to purchase weapons, a judge ruled in favor of the defendant.
Congress adds to the problem by putting severe restrictions on ATF; limiting its jurisdiction, forbidding the release of illegal gun trafficking statistics and failing to adequately fund the agency. Holder's Oct. 7 letter to Congress correctly stated that "the agency's ability to stem the flow of guns from the United States into Mexico is severely impaired by a lack of effective law enforcement tools ... [and] current penalties for illegal straw purchases are inadequate to deter such activity or to induce cooperation with law enforcement authorities."
Dedicated ATF agents are soldiering on in the face of hostile fire. We should stop disparaging these men and women on the front lines during this time of stress and scrutiny. Our nation's commitment to help Mexico in the fight against the cartels is more critical today than ever. Division, doubt and brinksmanship only discourage our Mexican allies and embolden our mutual enemies.
It would be tragic if the furor over Fast and Furious causes our country to abandon Mexico to the cartels. The cartels are our enemy, not the ATF or Department of Justice. We need to provide the men and women fighting this critical battle with the tools they need.
Mark Shurtleff is Utah attorney general; Terry Goddard is former Arizona attorney general.