Fast & Furious Case Study

An analysis of what happened during the Fast and Furious gun running operation.

Fast and Furious: The Perfect Storm of Idiocy
Regina Burgess
Spring Arbor University

Case Study: Fast and Furious: The Perfect Storm of Idiocy
      On December 15, 2010 Brian Terry, a U. S. Border Patrol agent, was killed in the line of duty, and weapons sold to Jamie Avila, Jr. January, 2010 were found at the scene. Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) officials lit the fuse in 2006 to this tragedy when they enacted a tactical operation called Gunrunner to allow arms to be sold to alleged weapons runners and smugglers in Arizona with the purpose of interdiction to halt gunrunning activities. Guns were sold to suspected straw purchasers and allowed to walk across the border so that the gunrunners could be prosecuted. When approached with the plan, one gun dealer expressed concern saying it was “outside of the standard way he did business” (Levine, 2012, para. 6). The case is complicated in so many different facets; I will only discuss the aspect of withholding crucial information from Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) officials in Mexico.  Ultimately, the gunwalking and the withholding of this vital information from ATF personnel in Mexico jeopardized the safety of the personnel and United States’ relations with Mexico.
      According to findings of the congressional committee investigating Operation Fast and Furious, in the fall of 2009 ATF officials headed by Attaché Darren Gil, noticed a marked increase in guns recovered from crime scenes in Mexico which traced back to the ATF Phoenix field division. Entirely unaware of the operation, Deputy Attaché Carlos Canino was stunned at the number of Phoenix guns appearing at Mexican violent crime scenes. Gil called the Phoenix office numerous times and was never briefed on the operation by ATF in Phoenix nor from ATF headquarters in Washington, D.C.
      The congressional investigation committee found that ATF and Department of Justice (DOJ) senior officials kept not only their own personnel in Mexico, but also Mexican government officials in the dark about the operation. Information from three fronts was deliberately withheld: the tracing process, in the field, and the executive level. ATF has a suspect gun database in which they enter serial numbers of purchased guns to give agents a quick notice of guns in the system. In the tracing process, the Phoenix case agent Hope MacAllister entered more than 1,900 guns into the suspect gun database, and asked the National Tracing Center to delay the traces for guns recovered in Mexico after Gil began notifying the Phoenix office of the spike in recoveries. These holds on traces kept the ATF office and police in Mexico unaware of the origin of recovered guns. 
      ATF's Office of Strategic Information and Intelligence (OSII) in Washington, D.C. attempted to gather the fragments of information and make sense of the abundance of recovered guns in order to report up the chain of command. OSII held the first briefing on Fast and Furious on December 8, 2009 with all senior ATF officials attending. In testimony, ATF Deputy Assistant Director of OSII Steve Martin told the congressional investigation committee he tossed out several ways to track the guns with GPS or surveillance in Mexico with no response from executive staff.
      ATF Mexico Attaché Darren Gil testified he believed after 500 guns seized the field teams should have collected enough information to make some arrests. Testimony revealed DOJ was holding out for more information. Gil was deeply frustrated to be told they were afraid he and his staff would tell government officials of Mexico about the operation and then it would be leaked to the cartels. The more Gil and Dan Kumor, Gil’s boss, complained the more the ATF and DOJ senior executives praised the investigation, and the more Gil and Kumor were assured the operation would be shut down "soon" (The Department of Justice’s operation fast and furious: Fueling cartel violence, 2012, p. 32).
      Gil and his staff received complaints from the Mexican government about the Spanish E-Trace returning no information or results delayed responses; Mexico's government officials were not receiving trace information on recovered guns. This put a lot of pressure on the Mexico ATF officials by the Government of Mexico. The tracing procedures were supposed to help the interdiction process, but the Mexican officials were losing faith in the system and ATF was losing credibility. Operation Fast and Furious kept guns flowing into Mexico and arguably, unknown to Gil’s staff, was a contributor to violence in Mexico.
      Gil did not know the operation’s name until January, 2011, and he retired from the ATF never knowing the guns were being walked across the Mexican border. Deputy Attaché Carlos Canino did not find out until April, 2011; he thought the operation was going to result in numerous arrests and would be shut down in the fall of 2010, long before Brian Terry's murder according to testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee  (The Department of Justice’s operation fast and furious: Fueling cartel violence, 2012).
      Gil told congressional investigators he could not believe the ATF would let guns walk, “it was inconceivable. I didn’t want to believe it. It just – it would never happen. Everybody knows the consequences on the other end….The term ‘guns walking’ didn't exist in my vocabulary” (The Department of Justice’s operation fast and furious: Fueling cartel violence, 2012, p. 50). Deputy Attaché Carlos Canino had the same feelings. When asked if this was a normal way to conduct an investigation he said, “No. That was… in 21 years as an ATF agent… teach[ing] surveillance techniques…teach[ing] agents how to conduct field operations, never in my wildest dreams ever would I have thought that this was a technique…. It just, it is inconceivable to me…what these guys did was basically grab the ATF rule book on trafficking and threw it out the window. This is indefensible…. The ATF does not do this….it is just the perfect storm of idiocy” (The Department of Justice’s operation fast and furious: Fueling cartel violence, 2012, p. 49-50).
    This analysis is from the aspect of withholding vital information. Senior leadership believed allowing guns into Mexico’s drug cartels would facilitate proof of illegal activity and result in numerous arrests and convictions. Their values in this belief set aside the values of human life and society’s safety. The two departments’ senior leadership vacillated between interdiction of gunrunning at all costs and fear of the cartel learning of the operation Fast and Furious. Value of human life, after examining testimony, seemed inconsequential. Moral duty of never allowing a gun of any caliber out of sight or out of tracking distance was ingrained in all ATF agents through training, but senior leadership set this obligation aside in favor of catching gunrunners through straw purchases of guns which walked into Mexico fueling drug trafficking violence in cartel wars, and at least one assassination of a Mexican attorney, the brother of Mexico’s attorney general (Murphy, 2011)
      All ATF officials from the case agent including the acting director along with DOJ officials chose to set aside their duty to fellow ATF agents and officials, to the Government of Mexico and Mexican society in general by allowing the operation to continue long after more than 500 guns were recovered in Mexico.
    The guiding principle of these officials was a white-knuckled grip on their success of secrets without any regard toward fellow agents’ safety, therefore Aristotle would cry foul because there was no golden mean considered between catching bad guys and what those bad guys were doing with the guns. Kant would pound his gavel at the injustice of disloyalty to fellow ATF personnel and using them as means to an end (keeping secrets) rather than considering them as fragile lives within the crosshairs of cartel guns (The Department of Justice’s operation fast and furious: Fueling cartel violence, 2012). This was ultimately a violation of other care in the Agape model. Only after Border Patrol Brian Terry was murdered did Attorney General Eric Holder order a halt to the operation admitting it was a mistake.
     The congressional committee who investigated this case was stonewalled by not receiving all the information requested from the DOJ, namely Eric Holder the attorney general, and he was held in contempt on June 20, 2012 for failing to cooperate with the congressional investigation citing executive privilege as reason not to release the requested papers (Horowitz & O’Keefe, 2012). Therefore, loyalties lay with protecting senior leadership of both the ATF and the DOJ decisions. This is a conflict in duties. Self-interest overrode duty to the well being of professional colleagues and human life.
Judgment and Ramifications
    The decision to allow the operation to continue past the initial spike in numbers of recovered guns, and the selling of AK47s and Barrett 50 caliber guns to known straw purchasers without tracing or GPS devices led to the murder of Mexico’s attorney general’s brother (Murphy, 2011) and border patrolman Brian Terry. ATF whistleblowers have been shunned by their agency and their bosses (La Jeunesse, 2012). The total number of deaths and injuries may never be known (The Department of Justice’s operation fast and furious: Fueling cartel violence, 2012). The congressional committee found ATF allowed guns to walk. By withholding this critical information from its own personnel in Mexico, ATF jeopardized the lives of its agents, and relations between the U.S. and Mexico.
      There is no best solution to buffer the effects of this travesty. Total transparency concerning interdiction operations would not earn trust back. Not only did this decision result in an unchecked “river of iron” (The Department of Justice’s operation fast and furious: Fueling cartel violence, 2012, p. 28) across the border, but a flood of tears in both countries. Loss of life directly attributed to Fast and Furious leaves executive privilege a limp excuse to save senior leadership jobs. The ramifications of harm to relations with our neighbor, Mexico, are still unknown. As Carlos Canino stated in his testimony, “That is, I mean, this is the perfect storm of idiocy. That is the only way I could put it. This is, I mean, this is inconceivable to me. This is group think gone awry” (The Department of Justice’s operation fast and furious: Fueling cartel violence, 2012, p. 51). The loyalty and moral duty foundation violations toward fellow ATF agents who were unknowingly at great risk of being killed by cartel agents as well as the Mexican media reports that ATF officials were corrupt, exhibit a thought process of ethical violations which deeply stained the integrity of ATF. These violations inhibit trust for ATF leadership, and have spoiled the Mexican government’s trust for the workings of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico.


Horowitz, S., & O’Keefe, E. (2012, June 20). Fast and Furious: Eric Holder held in contempt. Washington Post. Retrieved from
Issa, D. E., & Grassley, C. E. (2012, July 26). The Department of Justice’s operation fast and furious: Fueling cartel violence. Joint staff report, 112th Congress. Retrieved from
La Jeunesse, W. (2012). Fast and furious whistleblower says he’s disappointed one year later. Retrieved from
Levine, M. (2012, June 25). Fast and furious documents: What do they show? Fox Retrieved from
Murphy, K. (2011, June 23). U.S. AK-47s Linked to Mexican attorney’s slaying. L.A. Times.  Retrieved from

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