Weapons purchased during the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ controversial “Fast and Furious” undercover investigation, which included the sale to “straw buyers” of hundreds of AK-47 assault rifles, have turned up at a dozen violent crime scenes across the Southwest, the Justice Department told a Senate committee.
In a letter to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Justice Department confirmed that the illegally purchased weapons recently were found at the sites of at least 11 violent crimes.
The department did not specifically identify any of the locations, but congressional sources and others said the weapons were located at crime sites in Arizona and Texas. More than 40 weapons, the sources said, were recovered near El Paso, Texas, alone, all of which were traced back to the Fast and Furious operation.
The 11 sites are in addition to the Arizona desert location just north of the border where U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian A. Terry was killed Dec. 15 in a firefight involving Mexican gunmen. Terry, 40, was among four Border Patrol agents attempting to arrest bandits who prey on illegal immigrants when he was fatally wounded about 10 miles north of the Arizona-Mexico border near Rio Rico, 60 miles south of Tucson, Ariz.
Two AK-47 assault rifles found at the scene of the Terry killing were traced by ATF to the Lone Wolf Trading Co. in Glendale, Ariz. They were among three AK-47 variant Romanian WASR-10 assault rifles purchased on Jan. 9, 2010, by Jaime Avila Jr., a suspected straw buyer and one of the Fast and Furious targets.
ATF agents arrested Mr. Avila the same day Terry was killed. Simultaneously, the agency shut down the Fast and Furious operation. Fourteen suspected straw buyers were arrested in Arizona when the ATF undercover investigation was brought to a close. Together, they had purchased 659 AK-47 assault rifles or variants.
In its July 22 letter, the department said that based on information known to ATF, 274 firearms were recovered in the U.S. after the suspects in the Fast and Furious operation were identified. The letter also said that 96 firearms were recovered in Mexico after the suspects had been identified.
More than 1,000 of the guns are still at large, Justice said.
Asked how many guns from all the suspects in the Fast and Furious operation had not been recovered, the department wrote that “the total number of firearms purchased by all of the suspects [indicted and unindicted] after they were entered in this investigation that have not yet been recovered and traced in Mexico or the U.S. is one thousand forty-eight [1,048].”
“We are advised that ATF was not aware of the majority of these purchases at the time they actually occurred,” the department wrote.
The department, in the letter, also reminded the committee that the Fast and Furious operation is under investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General, and declined to answer many questions submitted to it by the committee because of the ongoing probe.
In the letter, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, Justice Department officials did note that ATF Acting Director Kenneth E. Melson “likely became aware” of the Fast and Furious investigation as early as December 2009, a month after the program began. Mr. Melson has said he did not know of the program until after January 2011.
“ATF advises that they do not have information on the exact date that Acting Director Melson first learned of Operation Fast and Furious,” the Justice Department letter said. “According to ATF, however, Acting Director Melson likely became aware on or about December 9, 2009, as part of a briefing following a seizure of weapons in Douglas, Ariz.
“Further, we have produced and made available to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee documents that are responsive to this question,” the letter said.
The Justice Department also acknowledged in the letter that while ATF did not have complete information on the Fast and Furious weapons, it was the department’s understanding that the agency was “aware of 11 instances where a recovered firearm associated with this case was recovered in connection with a crime of violence in the United States.”
The department said ATF generally learned about recoveries of the firearms by other law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and Mexico through tracing.
• Jerry Seper can be reached at email@example.com.
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