Members of Congress want to see whether White Gun, like Fast and Furious, lost track of firearms that ended up with Mexican criminals.
Dennis K. Burke, the former U.S. attorney in Phoenix, said convictions in the ATF's White Gun operation “put a stop to a well-financed criminal conspiracy to acquire massive destructive firepower.” (Matt York, Associated Press / March 4, 2011)
Reporting from Washington
Hope A. MacAllister wanted access to police and military vaults for American weapons recovered by Mexican authorities in raids and at crime scenes. She especially was interested in firearms from another ATF investigation, code-named White Gun, that she was running.
Now members of Congress who have spent months scrutinizing the Fast and Furious debacle are seeking to determine whether White Gun was another weapons investigation gone wrong.
"Apparently guns got away again," said one source close to the investigation, led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). "How many got into Mexico, who knows?"
Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives declined to comment on whether any firearms were lost in White Gun. But unlike Fast and Furious, they vigorously defended the previously unreported White Gun operation as a well-managed investigation that produced three arrests and convictions.
The three men "were looking to acquire military-grade weapons for a drug cartel," said an ATF official, who asked for anonymity because the case involves an undercover operation. "This was a classic example of bad guys showing up at a location to get the weapons they desire but getting arrested by law enforcement instead."
In Fast and Furious, more than 1,700 firearms were lost after agents allowed illegal gun purchases in U.S. gun shops in hopes of tracking the weapons into Mexico. In White Gun, the ATF ran a traditional sting operation with undercover agents and confidential informants trying to snare suspects working for the Sinaloa drug cartel.
According to internal ATF documents, including debriefing summaries and border task force overviews, White Gun and Fast and Furious both began in fall 2009, and the same ATF officials ran both cases.
MacAllister was the lead agent. Her supervisor, David J. Voth, was head of the ATF's Group VII field office in Phoenix. His boss was William D. Newell, then the special agent in charge in Phoenix.
According to documents that the ATF sent to the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces, an umbrella group of U.S. agencies that seeks to disrupt major drug trafficking and money laundering, White Gun targeted nine leaders of the Sinaloa cartel. The list included Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, who heads the cartel and is Mexico's most wanted drug suspect.
In ATF reports, MacAllister wrote that U.S. intelligence showed cartel members were setting up military-type training camps in the Sierra de Durango mountains, near Guzman's northern Mexico hide-out, and wanted to bolster their arsenal with grenade launchers and .50-caliber machine guns.
The agents focused first on Vicente Fernando Guzman Patino, a cartel insider who was identified as one of their weapons purchasers and who often used code words and phrases, saying "57" for "OK," for instance.
In fall 2009, the ATF team sent an undercover agent posing as an arms dealer to Guzman Patino. Photos of weapons, including a Dragon Fire 120-millimeter heavy mortar, were emailed to his "Superman6950" Hotmail account.
According to the ATF documents, Guzman Patino told the undercover agent that "if he would bring them a tank, they would buy it." He boasted he had "$15 million to spend on firearms and not to worry about the money." He wanted "the biggest and most extravagant firearms available."
The two met again outside a Phoenix restaurant, and the undercover agent showed Guzman Patino five weapons in the trunk of his vehicle, including a Bushmaster rifle and a Ramo .50 heavy machine gun. The undercover agent said he could get that kind of firepower for the Sinaloans.
Just as Guzman Patino seemed ready to buy, according to the ATF records, the investigation into his activities abruptly ended. The documents do not explain why, and they don't indicate whether he obtained any weapons.
A second case involved cartel members who were seeking shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles and antitank rockets, according to the ATF records.
The same undercover agent met the pair in February 2010 at a Phoenix warehouse. David Diaz-Sosa and Jorge DeJesus-Casteneda brought 11 pounds of crystal methamphetamine to trade for weapons. The undercover agent showed them shoulder-launched missiles, rocket launchers and grenades before ATF agents moved in and arrested them.
Diaz-Sosa, 26, of Sinaloa, Mexico, pleaded guilty in April to gun and drug charges. DeJesus-Casteneda, 22, also of Sinaloa, pleaded guilty to drug charges. A third suspect, Emilia Palomino-Robles, 42, of Sonora, Mexico, pleaded guilty to delivering drugs as a partial payment for military-grade weaponry.
None of the three was included on the list of nine cartel leaders who were targeted in the operation.
The U.S. attorney in Phoenix at the time, Dennis K. Burke, who later resigned over Fast and Furious, called the White Gun convictions "a tremendous team effort that put a stop to a well-financed criminal conspiracy to acquire massive destructive firepower."
By that summer, MacAllister had gone to Mexico City to check the police and military vaults. The ATF documents don't detail what she found, but they note she discovered "weapons in military custody related to her current investigations."