Two more plead guilty in bungled gun-running sting

PHOENIX Mon Apr 16, 2012 7:49pm EDT

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PHOENIX (Reuters) - Another two men have pleaded guilty to charges of running high-powered rifles and other guns to Mexico from Arizona under the bungled "Fast and Furious" federal sting operation linked to the murder of a U.S. federal agent.

Jose Angel Polanco and Dejan Hercegovac pleaded guilty before Magistrate Judge Lawrence Anderson in Phoenix on Monday. They were among a ring of 20 defendants charged with buying and running high-powered firearms including Kalashnikov-type assault rifles and Barrett sniper rifles to the Mexican cartels.

Three other defendants pleaded guilty last week. The run of gun purchases were made in the Phoenix area from 2009 to 2010 when a botched U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives operation sought to determine how guns were being smuggled to Mexican drug cartels.

As many as 2,000 weapons were sold by gun dealers to people believed to be straw purchasers for the cartels, fewer than 600 of which had been recovered by January of this year.

Two of the weapons were found at the spot near the Arizona-Mexico border where U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed during a shootout with illegal immigrants in December 2010. It was not clear, however, if those guns fired the fatal shots.

Fast and Furious was run by the Phoenix field office of the ATF and the U.S. Attorney. Its goal was to try to track guns being smuggled from the initial purchaser to senior drug cartel members.

Polanco and Hercegovac pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to deal in firearms without a license, making false statements in acquiring a firearm and smuggling guns out of the United States. Upon sentencing on June 25, they face up to five years in prison.

President Barack Obama's administration has been criticized over Fast and Furious, which has been under investigation by the U.S. Congress.

Republicans have questioned who in the administration knew about and approved the operation and its tactics and when. They have issued subpoenas for documents and for witnesses to testify.

Terry's family, meanwhile, has filed a $25 million wrongful-death claim against the U.S. government, saying he was killed because federal investigators allowed guns to fall into the hands of violent criminals.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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