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U.S. bid to stem flow of weapons to Mexico cartels misfires

A  U.S. program aimed at intercepting the flow of  weapons to Mexico’s drug cartels is misfiring due to bureaucratic turf battles and a failure to share critical intelligence , according to a Justice Department report obtained by  NBC News.
Image: Arms captured in Mexico
A masked soldier stands guard over what Mexican authorities described as one of the biggest seizures of weapons bound for drug cartels in this Nov. 7, 2008, photo. Some 288 assault rifles, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, numerous grenades and several .50-caliber rifles were in the stockpile. Gregory Bull / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

A major Justice Department program aimed at intercepting the flow of U.S. weapons to Mexico’s drug cartels is misfiring due to bureaucratic turf battles and a failure to share critical intelligence about illegal firearms purchases, according to an internal department report.

The draft report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General, obtained by NBC News, is a scathing indictment of Project Gunrunner, a law enforcement initiative run by the department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The report also seems to counter statements made by ATF's own officials.

On Friday, Deputy Director Kenneth Melson touted the program's success when he announced that a temporary surge of agents in Arizona under the program had led to seizures of 1,300 illegal weapons and 71,000 rounds of ammunition destined for Mexico’s cartels. Thanks to $37.5 million in new funding from Congress, Melson announced that ATF was expanding Gunrunner to target illegal gun traffickers in seven additional cities.

'Significant weaknesses'
The inspector general’s report concludes there are “significant weaknesses” to Gunrunner that “undermine its effectiveness.” In particular, the report found that ATF was failing to share intelligence about illegal gun trafficking with other U.S. law enforcement agencies, particularly the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

ATF and ICE “do not work effectively” together, “rarely conduct joint investigations” or even notify each other about what cases they are working on — despite a high level Justice directive last year that they do so, the report states. The result is that intelligence about gun trafficking activities that could potentially lead to arrests and smuggling prosecutions at the borders never gets passed along, it said.

The report comes amid mounting evidence that the illegal trafficking of U.S. weapons across the southwest border is growing at an alarming rate.

Mexican president Felipe Calderon and other Mexican officials have repeatedly complained that the U.S.'s failure to crackdown on the illegal weapons flow, much of it stemming from gun stores along the southwest border, fuels the drug-related violence that is estimated to have killed 30,000 people in the past four years.  But critics say President Barack Obama and Congress have balked at taking tougher measures, such as banning the sale of semi-automatic assault rifles, for fear of clashing with the gun lobby.

One recently released study by the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego found that out of 75,000 firearms confiscated by Mexican authorities in the last three years, 60,000 of them — or 80 percent — had come from the U.S. The most common weapons were semi-automatic assault rifles — a Romanian made version of the AK-47 and versions of the Bushmaster AR-15.

'The system ... is broken'
The resistance to sharing information about weapons trafficking even applies within ATF itself, the inspector general’s report found.

As part of Gunrunner, the organization has been trying to beef up a small and undermanned Mexico City office, which it says is backlogged with 200 requests from Mexican officials for information about the U.S. origin of guns seized in that country and the individuals suspected of buying them. But ATF officials in Mexico complained to the inspector general’s investigators that they get little help from their counterparts at Southwest border field divisions at ATF.

“The Southwest border field divisions don’t talk to each other,” one ATF official in Mexico City is quoted as saying in the report. “There is no exchange of information. Right now, the system (to exchange information) is broken.”

The report identifies multiple other problems with Gunrunner, including a lack of effective cooperation with Mexican law enforcement officials and the distribution of “stale” leads about illegal gun buying that are of little use to investigators. The report also faults a timid investigative strategy by ATF that concentrates on low level “straw purchasers” of illegal firearms rather than high level weapons trafficking organizations.

About 70 percent of Gunrunner cases involve low level single defendants, most of whom are hired to buy small numbers of firearms at U.S. gun stores, the report states. ATF agents in one field division “told us they felt discouraged from conducting complex conspiracy cases” involving higher level gun traffickers. Asked for an explanation, the ATF official in charge of that field division “acknowledged that he preferred his agents to initiate cases that could be completed within one month rather than involve surveillance, wiretaps and other investigative methods typical of complex conspiracy cases,” the report states.

An ATF spokesman in Washington said the agency was not prepared to respond to the criticisms in the report, saying the document was only a “working draft.” One senior ATF official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that many of the problems identified in the report stem from a lack of funding from Congress and weak U.S. gun laws, including the absence of a specific statute making weapons trafficking a federal crime.

Rather than tightening U.S. gun laws, Congress is now considering a bill — the ATF “Reform and Modernization Act,” backed by the National Rifle Association — that would weaken ATF’s ability to regulate rogue firearms dealers who either look the other way or are complicit when straw buyers working for the cartels purchase weapons, the official said.

The report may end up focusing attention on what critics, especially gun control groups, charge has been a major shortcoming of the Obama administration: the president's failure to nominate a director for ATF, despite having been in office more than 18 months, apparently because of concerns that any candidate would rile the ever potent gun lobby.

Deputy Director Melson has been serving as the de facto chief of ATF since last year, but current and former agency officials have complained that the absence of a presidentially nominated director has left the agency with little clout within the administration and unable to make major decisions that could make it more effective in cracking down on the illegal weapons trade.