Records: Feds Have A History Of Gun Walking Programs

October 26, 2011

TUCSON, Ariz. -- “Operation Fast and Furious” was not the first gun walking program taken up by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) bureau in Arizona. There was another secret federal program that allowed guns to be smuggled into Mexico under the Bush Administration in 2006 and 2007.

And in spite of claims to the contrary, federal court records reveal that the original program – called “Operation Wide Receiver” – was known to federal officials in the U.S. Department of Justice. In fact, criminal cases that emerged from that program were prosecuted by lawyers from Washington D.C. working for the Justice Department.

The operation started at a gun show in Tucson. Young men – acting as “straw buyers” – bought parts for AR-15 semi-automatic rifles and then smuggled them across the border into Sonora and Tijuana for criminals in Mexico. Some of the weapons were trafficked inside the gas tanks of vehicles. Other shipments were mailed to San Diego and driven across the border from there.

Mike Detty is a licensed broker who worked the gun show where he met a young man interested in his weapons back in 2006.

Photo courtesy ATF
An AR-15 rifle, which was the among the weapons smuggled into Mexico during "Operation Wide Receiver."

“The amount that he bought was unusual, but then he asked if I would have more,” Detty said. “I told him I’d have another 20 parts coming later in the month and he said he would take them all."

That’s when Detty became a paid informant for the ATF. And not only for the ATF. Federal informants also worked with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, who built cases off their information.

Over the next several years, Detty worked with ATF’s chief supervisor in Tucson.

“And at that time, he told me: ‘Mike I think we’ve got a really good chance of taking out a powerful cartel. Will you help us?’" Detty said. “And I said, yeah.”

Wide Receiver was the predecessor to the now notorious Fast and Furious gun walking operation. In fact, it’s hard to know when one ended and the other began.

In Wide Receiver, the plan was to allow cartel gun buyers to cross into Mexico and notify Mexican law enforcement once they crossed the border. But court records show that the group of buyers was allowed to make straw purchases and smuggle the guns into Mexico for well over one year.

Consider the plea agreement for Carlos Celaya, one of the young men from Caborca. On Feb. 11, 2007, the ATF recorded Celaya saying the guns he was buying were going to Mexico. Two months later, April 11, 2007, Celaya is recorded again, this time saying the guns were being stashed in hidden compartments. Conversations like these were recorded from early 2006 to late 2007; each time, the guns were still being trafficked across the border and nobody was being arrested.

Some of Detty’s buyers were young tough guys from the Mexican state of Sonora looking for weapons to traffic back home to Caborca. Others included Candy, an exotic dancer who bought AK-47 parts for her boyfriend, a Tijuana trafficker.

In a surveillance recording, she can be heard squealing delightedly when Detty produced two of the specific guns she had requested.

In one case, the traffickers used a “Mailboxes Etc.” to ship the guns to San Diego.

The owner of the franchise grew suspicious and opened one of the packages, revealing the components for an AR-15 rifle that are regulated by the ATF.

Detty said the ATF was pushing him to keep sales like this going.

“I was just kind of a pawn in this game” Detty said. “Why they needed to keep allowing sales to continue to these people, I’m not sure.”

Only nine people were ever charged in Operation Wide Receiver.

Photo courtesy U.S. Border Patrol.
Slain Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

In one 2006 sale, the Feds targeted the group of young men who had gone to Detty at the gun show. One of those men was Ismael Betancourt, who pleaded guilty this summer. He admitted to buying AR-15 components for others and admitted to shipping them to San Diego.

Laura Udall is Betancourt’s attorney. She said she’s heard of drugs and money passed into the hands of criminals. But before taking Betancourt’s case, the veteran defense attorney said she had never heard of a case involving guns.

“The gun part is certainly new to me,” Udall said. “They do it with any other type of crime, especially drug crimes, all the time.”

Paul Charlton was the U.S. Attorney for Arizona during Operation Wide Receiver. He confirms the existence of a gun walking operation, but said he never knew what it was called.

“But what I do recall is ATF talking with us about an operation in which they would surveil weapons from Tucson – including using aerial surveillance,” Charlton said. “And then upon the weapons arriving at the border, turn the investigation over to Mexican law enforcement for interception there.”

Charlton is now a private attorney. He has been hired by the parents of slain Border Patrol agent Brian Terry to investigate whether there is a case against the ATF.

Two guns from Wide Receiver’s successor, Fast and Furious, turned up at the scene where the agent died last winter.

Detty’s account of his involvement with Wide Receiver was corroborated by senior ATF officials in Phoenix. Further, his company is listed as the seller in some of the indictments stemming from Wide Receiver. The Justice Department in Washington isn’t answering questions about its involvement in the operation.

But court records indicate Washington was fully aware of the project. Up until now, the Justice Department has said that gun walking schemes were locally directed by its officials in Phoenix, not Washington D.C.

Bill Newell, the ATF chief in Phoenix, was reassigned this past summer after Fast and Furious surfaced. Dennis Burke, the U.S. Attorney in Arizona, quit as a result of the scandal.

But in fact, in October 2010, the Justice Department quietly brought in a special prosecutor from Washington to handle the Wide Receiver cases in federal court in Tucson. Udall, the defense attorney, believes the prosecutor, Laura Gwinn, knew the ATF allowed the guns to move south.

“She has to have known. She’s talked to all the agents. She has to know,” Udall said. “Again, she didn’t do anything wrong by not telling me, because they didn’t do anything illegal. They do it all the time.”

The defense attorney concluded: “It’s just more immoral, I suppose. And dangerous.”

Earlier this month, Congressman Darrell Issa issued a subpoena to Attorney General Eric Holder, ordering him to appear before a congressional committee. So far, Holder has said the first time he had ever heard of ATF’s gun walking operations was this past spring.