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US gun-tracing program in Mexican drug war comes under congressional fire

Allegations that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed US arms to flow to Mexican cartels are now facing congressional scrutiny, including questions about whether that may have contributed to the deaths of a US law enforcement officer and numerous Mexicans.

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In this 2008 file photo, a soldier stands guard during the presentation in Mexico City of captured arms, about 288 assault rifles, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, numerous grenades, and several .50-caliber rifles. The US State Department says firearms obtained in the US account for an estimated 95 percent of Mexico's drug-related killings.

Gregory Bull/AP

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Busting a major gunrunning ring on the New Mexico frontier – and netting a mayor, a police chief and a town councilor in the process – would normally be a huge feather in the cap of embattled federal agencies under pressure to stop cross-border arms smuggling and corruption.

But instead, the resolution of the so-called Columbus 11 case in the historic border village of Columbus, N.M., has taken on a muted tone, primarily because of its potentially critical role in the growing Operation Fast and Furious scandal.

Allegations that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) allowed US arms to flow to murderous Mexican cartels are now facing congressional scrutiny in Washington and have put Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama administration on the hot seat over the extent, if any, of their involvement in an operation that may have at least partially contributed to the deaths of a US law enforcement officer and numerous Mexicans.

This week, former Columbus Mayor Eddie Espinoza became the first of the Columbus 11 to plead guilty to charges that his group smuggled over 500 guns into Mexico, arming a deadly border war between competing cartels in nearby Palomas, Mexico. The details of the plea are unknown, since the deal was sealed.

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