WASHINGTON (Reuters) - At least 122 firearms from a botched U.S. undercover operation have been found at crime scenes in Mexico or intercepted en route to drug cartels there, a Republican congressional report issued on Tuesday said.
Mexican authorities found AK-47 assault rifles, powerful .50 caliber rifles and other weapons as early as November 2009 that were later linked to the U.S. sting operation to trace weapons crossing the border to Mexico, the report said.
Guns from the program, dubbed "Operation Fast and Furious," were also found at the scene of the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in the border state of Arizona last December. It is unclear if they were the weapons responsible for his death.
U.S. authorities set up the undercover operation in 2009 to try to track guns bought in Phoenix on behalf of Mexican drug cartels, but many of the weapons were never traced after they left the hands of the initial buyer.
The sting has become an embarrassment for the Obama administration and its Justice Department, rather than a victory in stemming the illegal flow of weapons to Mexico.
It has also hurt ties with Mexico, which has been battling the cartels in a war in which tens of thousands have died.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and federal prosecutors had hoped the sting would help them track gun buyers reselling weapons to cartels. But U.S. ATF agents did not see many of the purchases or follow many of the guns after the initial purchaser re-sold them.
At least 122 firearms bought by suspected gun traffickers were found at Mexican crime scenes or caught going to the cartels in 48 separate instances, according to the report done for the House of Representatives Oversight Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee senior Republican Charles Grassley.
Of the 2,000 weapons sold to the suspected gun traffickers, just over half remain unaccounted for, the report added. The ATF was unaware of most of the gun sales when they occurred, according to the Justice Department, which oversees it.
"Given the vast amount of 'Operation Fast and Furious' weapons possibly still in the hands of cartel members, law enforcement officials should expect more seizures and recoveries at crime scenes," the congressional report said.
The Justice Department's internal watchdog is also conducting its own investigation of the sting.
The department said it could only confirm 96 guns recovered in Mexico that were tied to suspects being tracked in the operation, but it said that ATF did not have complete information on how many were recovered at crime scenes there.
Some 274 weapons were recovered in the United States and, so far, about a dozen were found at crime scenes, according to details given to Grassley and obtained by Reuters.
LAWMAKERS SLAM FAILURE TO FOLLOW UP
During a nearly five-hour hearing, members of the House oversight panel grilled ATF officials who ran the operation and slammed them for allowing weapons to go across the border without being fully tracked, a charge they denied.
"It seems like you knowingly allowed these weapons to get out of your control, knowingly, to someone you knew was trafficking into Mexico," said Republican Darrell Issa, the House panel's chairman. "You saw the results, you allowed it continue and now you're telling us we don't let guns walk."
ATF officials acknowledged making mistakes but the head of the Phoenix office at the time, William Newell, insisted the sting did not let weapons freely go to Mexico and the goal was to take down the network supplying the drug cartels.
"It is my opinion that we did not let guns walk," he said.
"You're entitled to your opinion, not to your facts," Issa quickly retorted.
ATF officials said that arresting initial gun buyers, known as straw buyers, would do little to take out the network. Authorities tried to track the guns but Newell acknowledged that "not in every instance" were they able to do so.
"If we pick off these one or two straw purchasers, they get replaced in a day, and we have even more guns going into Mexico," said Bill McMahon, head of the ATF's operations in the western United States at the time of the operation.
In a closed-door interview with the House panel, the acting ATF deputy director William Hoover said he sought to shut down the sting operation as early as March 2010 but acknowledged that he should have made more efforts to do so.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)