Mexican federal police stand next to seized weapons, including AR-15 and AK-47 rifles, during a presentation of members of the Zetas criminal organization and drug gang in May. (Jorge Dan Lopez / Reuters)
Reporting from Washington
What embassy officials did not know was that at least some of the weapons they were noticing were guns that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had allowed straw purchasers to buy as part of a sting operation, dubbed Fast and Furious. Ultimately, ATF lost track of an estimated 1,700 guns as they flowed into Mexico.
Nearly 200 were later recovered at crime scenes in Mexico. And two AK-47s from Fast and Furious were recovered in December at the scene of a fatal shooting of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona, an incident that brought the attention of a U.S. senator who had been told by rank-and-file ATF agents that the operation had failed.
The embassy cable, written in July 2010, is further evidence that officials at the ATF were keeping other parts of the government in the dark about Fast and Furious. It also indicates that some officials with considerable knowledge of the drug trade and violence in Mexico disagreed with the basic premise on which Fast and Furious was based.
The goal of embassy officials in sending the cable was to refute what they saw as a myth: that the Mexican drug cartels were running major gun-smuggling operations in the United States.
Embassy officials had queried the ATF field office in Phoenix, where Fast and Furious originated, and had been told that agents considered the large cartels their main targets to stop weapons trafficking, according to a government official close to the investigation of the ill-fated program.
"The ATF was doing Fast and Furious to take down the cartel kingpins," the official said. "The embassy wanted a different direction. It shows that there was very little communication between the two." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.
The cable advised the ATF to instead concentrate on arresting individual Mexican traffickers living legally in the U.S., and not the large cartels. The six-page document, labeled Sensitive But Unclassified, was obtained by The Times’ Washington bureau.
While the cartels "are the largest consumer of illegal firearms in Mexico," the cable stressed, "they are not the primary trafficking agents of weapons going south from the United States."
"This was a shout-out from the embassy in Mexico," said the government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. "The embassy knew something was awry when all these guns started showing up down there. But they were kept in the dark. They didn’t understand why the guns kept getting through and ending up at so many Mexican homicides."
The cable was sent to the State Department in Washington, and copied to some 50 officials, including then-U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual and Darren D. Gil, then the ATF attaché in Mexico City.
The document may be discussed on Tuesday when Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, questions six ATF officials. The cable was sent to two of them — Gil and Carlos Canino, the ATF’s acting attaché in Mexico.
On the Senate side, Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) is seeking answers about Fast and Furious. The Justice Department's inspector general also is investigating.
At ATF and Justice Department headquarters, officials declined to discuss specifics about Fast and Furious, also citing the investigations.
The cable debunked the ATF's assertion that the Rio Grande has become a virtual "Iron River" of weapons with the cartels seizing control over gun smuggling. "Rather," the memo said, "it appears there may be thousands of small streams."
It did note "the sheer magnitude" of weaponry going south, saying Mexican security forces had seized 83,466 weapons since the start of President Felipe Calderon's administration in Mexico in December 2006. At the time of the cable, some 25,000 people had been killed in the escalating Mexican violence.
Embassy officials were feeling pressure from the Mexican government to stop the guns. To that end, the cable said, "our best efforts have not produced massive seizures of weapons on the U.S. side of the border."
To make their point for arresting small traffickers, the embassy highlighted cases in California and Las Vegas.
Fifty-four firearms were recovered at a Mexican customs checkpoint in March 2009, eight months before Fast and Furious was launched. The ATF traced the weapons to a licensed dealer in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Twelve Mexican citizens legally in the U.S. were identified as trafficking those weapons plus 442 more over the last four years.
"The case demonstrates general trends in arms trafficking, including the lack of a single large seizure, but rather multiple small shipments over a long period of time," the cable said.
They next cited a cache of semi-automatic weapons recovered by Mexican authorities in May 2010 from the Zetas cartel, and then traced by the ATF to a purchase in Las Vegas only 39 days earlier.
Taking down the small operators, the embassy said, was the best approach.
"If we cannot prosecute straw purchasers and traffickers in the United States, and put them in jail with serious sentences, then the trafficking will continue," they advised. "There is too much money to be made, and it will not stop until there is a tough price to be paid in U.S. jails."