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BROOKLYN, New York — Operation Fast and Furious is among the most epic boondoggles in the history of federal law enforcement, which probably explains why federal prosecutors don’t want jurors in the trial of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to hear anything about it.
Fast and Furious was intended as a sting operation by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms to bust gun-runners and straw purchasers along the border. But it ultimately led to American firearms being sent to Mexican cartels and later linked to murders, including the fatal shootings of a Border Patrol agent in 2010 and an ICE agent in 2011.
Altogether, the ATF lost track of about 2,000 weapons, some of which ended up in the hands of El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel. Most notably, after El Chapo was captured following a shootout in the city of Los Mochis in 2016, a Barrett .50-caliber rifle linked to Fast and Furious was found inside the drug lord’s hideout. An ATF agent told VICE News in 2016 that the agency knew “when, and where, as well as who purchased the gun," which is so powerful it can "down helicopters, destroy commercial aircraft, and blast through rail cars."
So on Friday federal prosecutors in El Chapo’s trial in Brooklyn, which is entering its fifth week, filed a motion that asks Judge Brian Cogan to make “questions or evidence” about Fast and Furious “completely off limits” to the defense. The government cited “negative reporting on the operation” and argued that mentioning it would “distract and confuse the jury.”
The ATF launched the ill-fated operation in 2009 with the mission to “identify, investigate, and eliminate the sources of illegally trafficked firearms, and the networks that transport them,” by following guns after they were smuggled into Mexico. As one ATF official would later tell congressional investigators, the directive led to "a perfect storm of idiocy." ATF agents watched as weapons were illegally purchased only to have them vanish into the hands of cartel gunmen.
El Chapo’s prosecutors requested a ban on Fast and Furious mentions despite the fact they intend “to introduce at trial seized weapons that had been identified by ATF agents within the scope of the Operation.” They said that evidence will only include weapons that were “intercepted in the United States before they could be smuggled to Mexico.”
There are several known seizures involving Fast and Furious weapons and the Sinaloa cartel, including a 2009 case where Mexican authorities intercepted a .50-caliber rifle and 41 AK-47s that were purchased in Arizona under the auspices of the operation. Another 2009 seizure in the border city of Mexicali netted 42 guns and nearly $3 million in cash.
Cogan previously denied a request by the government to limit references to the operation, saying he would address the issue when it came up during the trial. One of El Chapo’s lawyers, Eduardo Balarezo, already snuck in one mention when prosecutors called an expert witness who had written an article titled “What if Fast and Furious was Investigated as a Money Laundering Crime?”
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Balarezo got as far as asking the witness, “You talk about that case, Fast and Furious. What is that?” before a prosecutor spoke up with an objection, which the judge sustained. Cogan has consistently erred on the side of secrecy; he has blocked testimony about alleged corruption by Mexico’s president and limited efforts by the defense to put the war on drugs on trial instead of El Chapo.
An open discussion about Fast and Furious would certainly raise uncomfortable questions for the government. An attorney for Sinaloa cartel scion Vicente Zambada-Niebla previously sought to connect the operation to a secret deal that the DEA allegedly struck with El Chapo and Zambada-Niebla’s father, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.
The lawyer claimed in a 2011 court filing that the DEA gave the cartel leaders “carte blanche” to smuggle drugs into the U.S. in exchange for providing information “which helped Mexican and United States authorities capture or kill thousands of rival cartel members.” The suggestion from Zambada-Niebla was that the U.S. government was using Fast and Furious to arm the Sinaloa cartel so that it could wipe out groups like Los Zetas.
Zambada-Niebla was arrested by Mexican authorities in 2009. After his extradition to Chicago, court filings and an investigation by Mexican newspaper El Universal revealed that he had met in Mexico City with DEA representatives hours before he was taken into custody. The Justice Department acknowledged that the rendezvous occurred and that it was facilitated by a Sinaloa cartel lawyer turned informant, but it has steadfastly denied that Zambada-Niebla was promised immunity.
Zambada-Niebla eventually pleaded guilty to drug trafficking conspiracy charges and entered into a cooperation agreement with the government. He’s expected to be called to testify against El Chapo, but if prosecutors have their way, he won’t have to face any questions about Fast and Furious, and neither will any other witnesses in the case.
In this Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011 picture, Bill Newell, special agent in charge of ATF Phoenix, speaks behind a cache of seized weapons in Phoenix. The ATF is under fire over a Phoenix-based gun-trafficking investigation called "Fast and Furious," in which agents allowed hundreds of guns into the hands of straw purchasers in hopes of making a bigger case. (AP Photo/Matt York)