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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

ATF lets Mexicans die to make the case

These are not halcyon days for the unique American combination of extreme drug prohibition and extreme firearms permissiveness. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is enduring its biggest scandal since Waco, over an anti-drug operation very inappropriately titled “Fast and Furious.” In a nutshell, ATF agents watched carefully as people in Arizona bought massive quantities of legal weapons (notably AK-47 assault rifles), knowing they’d be smuggled across the border to Mexico for use by the vicious cartels who compete to satisfy America’s insatiable desire for illegal drugs.

That’s not the plan gone wrong, either. That’s the plan as it was designed.

At deadline, acting ATF director Kenneth Melson was facing calls to resign — but sources told The Washington Post he believed he’d done nothing wrong. If that’s true, he doesn’t just need a new job. He needs to be institutionalized and studied by top medical minds.

The idea behind Fast and Furious was to go after bigger fish than the so-called “straw purchasers” in Arizona. Whenever guns seized at crime scenes in Mexico were traced back to Arizona, the ATF reckoned it would help them go after leading figures in the cartels as well.

Nobody seems entirely clear how the U.S. would go about prosecuting a Mexican drug lord. But anyone who’s not a sociopath will notice a much larger flaw in this plan: It relies on Mexicans dying in great numbers.

Even if the ATF could assure itself that only cartoonishly evil drug warriors would get mowed down by the guns in question, it would still be downright ghoulish. But it’s never just those people, in any war. In a single week in March, at least seven children were murdered in Acapulco, including a four-year-old girl and two- and six-year-old boys. The next month, in San Luis Potosi, about 400 kilometres northwest of Mexico City, gunmen executed an entire family in its apartment — including a 22-month-old girl.

“They use [children] as a vehicle to send a message,” Juan Martin Perez, director of the Child Rights Network in Mexico, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Decapitations and hanging bodies from bridges send a message. Killing children is an extension of this trend.” He estimated that over four years, about a thousand children had been killed in the drug war.

Fast and Furious was a violation of ATF procedure, which is never to deliberately let a fraudulently obtained gun “walk” — i.e., escape surveillance — once it has been detected. Unfortunately, this was of no concern to the higher-ups on the chain of command (who later claimed the policy only applied to guns provided by ATF agents themselves).

ATF agent John Dodson testified before a Congressional investigation that one supervisor, David Voth, would become “jovial, if not … giddy” whenever one of the Fast and Furious guns was recovered in Mexico.

Rank-and-file agents, however, were acutely aware of the deadly potential of their inaction. ATF agent Peter Forcelli told the investigation that every time there was a high-profile shooting — he cited the attempted murder of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson in January, and the murder of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer Jaime Zapata by drug gangsters in Mexico a month later — he and his colleagues held their breath.

“As early as June of last year I predicted to some of my peers in the office that we would be sitting right where we are today in this room,” ATF special agent Larry Alt told Congressional investigators. “Someone was going to die.”

Many people died. But the only one who really seemed to matter was U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, who was gunned down along the Mexican border on Jan. 16, 2010. Two Fast and Furious guns were recovered at the scene. And the whistleblowers finally started blowing.

The final tally? Some 2,000 guns deliberately allowed to cross the border. Unknown numbers of murders committed with them. And a few convictions for the sad sack Arizonans who bought the guns — most of whom were already known to the ATF before the operation began.

Fast and Furious didn’t create this problem, and getting rid of it won’t solve it. The U.S. Government Accountability Office determined that between 2004 and 2008, 87% of guns seized in Mexico came from north of the border — nearly half from Arizona and Texas, home of incredibly permissive gun laws. Those simply have to change. Even a simple requirement to report purchases of multiple assault rifles could make a huge difference.

But all signs suggest they won’t change. When a member of the House Oversight Committee broached the subject at hearings in Washington last week, chair Darrell Issa, a California Republican, dismissed her: “We’re not here to talk about proposed gun legislation.”

Up here in Canada, Team Gun Control can wail and remonstrate to their heart’s content about how utterly essential the long-gun registry is to our well-being, but if it goes away — which it may, finally, soon — nothing much will change and they’ll quickly get over it. Team Freedom, meanwhile, can cherry-pick statistics showing gun control leads to more crime, not less, and argue for Arizona-style laissez-faire in sure knowledge they’ll never have to live with the consequences. Drug policy is cocktail party conversation.

It’s Mexicans, ironically enough, who have to live with the grimmest consequences of American and Canadian drug laws, and American gun laws. And that’s only slightly less true now that Fast and Furious is history. Sociopathic is the only word for it.

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