Project Gunrunner is a project of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) intended to stem the flow of firearms into Mexico, in an attempt to deprive the Mexican drug cartels of weapons.
The primary tactic of Project Gunrunner is interdiction of straw purchasers and unlicensed dealers to prevent legal guns from entering the black market; between 2005 and 2008, 650 such cases involving 1,400 offenders and 12,000 firearms were referred for prosecution. However, other tactics ("gunwalking" and "controlled delivery") have led to controversy.
In early 2011, the project became controversial when it was revealed that Operation Wide Receiver (2006–2007) and Operation Fast and Furious (2009–2010) had allowed guns to "walk" into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
The ATF began Project Gunrunner as a pilot project in Laredo, Texas, in 2005 and expanded it as a national initiative in 2006. Project Gunrunner is also part of the Department of Justice’s broader Southwest Border Initiative, which seeks to reduce cross-border drug and firearms trafficking and the high level of violence associated with these activities on both sides of the border.
ATF had determined that the Mexican cartels had become the leading gun trafficking organizations operating in the southwest U.S. and is working in collaboration with other agencies and the Government of Mexico to expand the eTrace firearm tracing software system. eTrace provides web based access to ATF’s Firearms Tracing System to allow law enforcement both domestically and internationally the ability to trace firearms encountered in connection with a criminal investigation to the first recorded purchaser (who may have innocently sold the gun years ago). eTrace allows law enforcement to access their trace results directly (name and address of first purchaser) and offers the ability to generate statistical reports to analyze their trace data to estimate firearms trafficking trends or patterns.
ATF announced a goal to deploy eTrace software to all thirty-one states within the Republic of Mexico. As part of eTrace expansion, ATF continues to provide training to Mexican and Central American countries to ensure that the technology is utilized to a greater extent. Colombia and Mexico were provided with their own in-country tracing centers with full access to ATF firearm registration records. In Colombia, a joint ATF-CNP Center for Anti-Explosives Information and Firearms Tracing (CIARA) opened on December 6, 2006.
In Mexico, The National Center for Information, Analysis and Planning in order to Fight Crime (CENAPI) was established in 2003. ATF states these are models for planned future tracing centers throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean Basin. In December, 2009, ATF announced deployment of a Spanish version of eTrace to Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica.
A planned second phase will release the software to all Spanish-speaking countries with agreements with ATF. In June 2011 Congress opened an investigation into Project Gunrunner against the ATF, as some ATF agents have come forward stating that top heads in ATF and the Department of Justice instructed the agents to encourage gun stores in the U.S. to sell assault-style weapons to Mexican firearm traffickers.
In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $40 million to state and local law enforcement agencies. This money was primarily slated for competitive grants to provide assistance and equipment to local law enforcement along the southern border; and, in high-intensity drug trafficking areas, to combat criminal narcotics activity stemming from the southern border. $10 million of the money was to be transferred to the BATF for Project Gunrunner to hire personnel and open facilities in 6 new locations. The use of "stimulus" money to fund Project Gunrunner is controversial, given the ATF Phoenix Field Division's reported initiative of allowing known criminals to purchase guns in an effort to gain intelligence on the cartels (Operation Fast and Furious).
In addition, the FY 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act provided ATF with an additional 5 million for Project Gunrunner.
Along with a number of Caribbean police forces, many countries use eTrace software: Mexico, Colombia, Suriname, Tobago, Guyana, Canada, Germany, Bahama, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Barbados, Anguilla, Antigua, Barbuda, Aruba, Curaçao, Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent, Grenadines, St. Lucia, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, St. Kitts, Nevis, Britain, Australia, Japan, and Belgium.
These countries have access to American gun owner identities and information (first purchaser only) as a result of traces of recovered firearms contained in the database. In GAO Report 09-709, ATF reports the National Tracing Center, “conducts the gun traces, and returns information on their findings to the submitting party”.
ATF has commissioned approximately 100 special agents and 25 industry operations investigators to the initiative, and is increasing its intelligence activities with other EPIC law enforcement partners stationed at the border, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Texas Department of Public Safety. ATF also works closely with these agencies’ task forces which operate along the Southwest border, sharing intelligence, and conducting joint investigations.
By early 2009, Project Gunrunner had resulted in approximately 650 cases by ATF, in which more than 1,400 defendants were referred for prosecution in federal and state courts and more than 12,000 firearms were involved.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), during FY 2007 and 2008, ATF conducted twelve eTrace training sessions for Mexican police (over 961 Mexican police officers) in several Mexican cities, including the same cities where corrupt police were disarmed and arrested: Mexico City, Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo, and Matamoros. Despite the GAO report, ATF claimed in October 2010 only about 20 people have been trained to use eTrace in Mexico. This discrepancy has not been explained. With the assistance of ATF’s Mexico City office and the Narcotics Affairs Section of the U.S. Department of State, ATF anticipated conducting numerous additional courses in these subject areas in 2009. According to Mexican government officials, corruption pervades all levels of Mexican law enforcement—federal, state, and local.
ATF reported they analyzed firearms seizures in Mexico from FY 2005-07 and identified the following weapons most commonly used by drug traffickers. However this conclusion is seriously flawed and not supported by ATF statistics, which only includes guns successfully traced and these are not necessarily connected to drug traffickers. The number of trace requests from Mexico has increased since FY 2006, but most seized guns in Mexico have not been traced as only guns originally from the United States are traced.
ATF Project Gunrunner has a stated official objective to stop the sale and export of guns from the United States into Mexico in order to deny Mexican drug cartels the firearms considered "tools of the trade". However, since 2006 under Operation Wide Receiver (2006-2007), Hernandez Case (2007), Medrano Case (2008) and Operation Fast and Furious (2009-2011), the Phoenix offices of ATF and USAO did the opposite by permitting, encouraging and facilitating 'straw purchase' firearm sales to traffickers, and allowing the guns to 'walk' and be transported to Mexico. A firearm linked to Operation Fast and Furious was used to kill US border agent Brian Terry and has generated considerable controversy.
Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-IA) initiated an investigation with a letter to ATF on 27 January 2011, and again on 31 January 2011. ATF responded through the Department of Justice by denying all allegations. Senator Grassley responded with specific documentation supporting the allegations in letters to U.S. Attorney General Holder on 9 Feb 2011 and 16 Feb 2011. ATF refused to answer specific questions in a formal briefing to Senator Grassley on 10 Feb 2011.
In October 2011, documents were released that indicated Justice Department officials were sent memos in regard to Operation Fast and Furious in 2010.
Indictments filed in federal court, documentation obtained by Senator Grassley, and statements of ATF agents obtained by Senator Grassley and CBS News, show that the ATF Phoenix Field Division allowed and facilitated the sale of over 2,500 firearms (AK-47 rifles, FN 5.7mm pistols, AK-47 pistols, and .50 caliber rifles) in 'straw man purchases' destined for Mexico. According to ATF agents, Mexican officials were not notified, and ATF agents operating in Mexico were instructed not to alert Mexican authorities about the operation. Under Fast and Furious, the ATF attache at the Mexico City Office (MCO) was not notified (unlike Wide Receiver and most other cases).
Some ATF agents and supervisors strongly objected, and gun dealers (who were cooperating with ATF) protested the sales, but were asked by ATF to complete the transactions to expose the supply chain and gather intelligence. However, there are accusations that the ATF was attempting to boost statistics to 'prove' that American guns are arming the Mexican drug cartels and to further budget and political objectives. It has been established that this operation violated long-established ATF policies and practices and that it is not a recognized investigative technique.
Many of these same guns are being recovered from crime scenes in Arizona and throughout Mexico. During Fast and Furious, ATF Phoenix did interdict 105 guns. However, at least 1,856 guns were allowed to walk. Other U.S. agencies, federal, state and local, recovered nearly 270 at crime scenes in the U.S. and 195 Fast and Furious origin guns were recovered by Mexican police at Mexican crime scenes. Two Fast and Furious guns were recovered at the crime scene of the murder of Customs and Border Protection Agent Brian Terry on December 14, 2010 which brought Fast and Furious to public attention. ATF has confiscated weapons of Uzis, Steyr AUGs, AK rifles, Barrett M82s, AR rifles, and Grenades that were founded around Mexico.
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In addition, the FY 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act provides ATF with an additional $5 million for Project Gunrunner
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About 20 people have been trained to use eTrace in Mexico.
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