By Richard A. Serrano, Tribune Washington Bureau –
WASHINGTON — A lawmaker and former federal prosecutor has drafted proposed new penalties for criminals who illegally purchase and smuggle firearms into Mexico, saying he hopes his measure will bring “something positive” out of the uproar over the Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation on the Southwest border.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said he will introduce legislation Thursday to create a two-year prison sentence for so-called “straw purchasers” who currently receive probation or very little jail time for acquiring weapons under false pretenses and then selling them to Mexican gun smugglers.
In the Fast and Furious operation run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Arizona, where hundreds of weapons ended up with Mexican drug cartels, only a handful of straw purchasers were charged. The operation was designed to track down large-scale weapons smugglers, and Schiff believes his legislation will force the purchasers to cooperate with federal law enforcement to avoid the two years in prison.
“If you can force them to cooperate, then you can roll them up and go for those higher in the smuggling chain,” he said in an interview. “Many thousands of guns migrate across the border and a huge percentage are used by drug traffickers. We have a mutually destructive trade with Mexico on the border; we send our guns there and they send their drugs here. It’s an epidemic of violence.”
Robert S. Mueller III, director of the FBI, told a House Appropriations subcommittee Wednesday federal agents are working more closely with their Mexican counterparts, even as “the escalating violence associated with drug trafficking in Mexico continues to be a significant issue.”
Mueller highlighted the recent indictment of 35 leaders of a Mexican gang on the border, with 10 of the Mexican nationals being charged in the March 2010 murders in Juarez, Mexico, of a U.S. consulate employee and her husband, and the husband of another consulate employee.
Federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI, including the ATF, as well as the U.S. Border Patrol, are expected to support Schiff’s measure. Republicans in the House, however, including those pushing the probe into Fast and Furious, have not yet weighed in on the proposal.