1. Florida Politics

Before Fast & Furious, Florida had Operation Castaway

A sensational election-season report into the botched Operation Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation has cast new light on a simultaneous Florida firearms investigation linked to violence in Colombia, Honduras and Puerto Rico.

Called Operation Castaway, the Florida case has received far less attention than Fast and Furious. The latter became an embarrassing distraction for President Barack Obama's administration when it was implicated in the death of a federal agent and Mexico massacres, according to federal documents and a new cross-border investigative report by the Spanish-language network Univision.

Two Justice Department officials resigned and a dozen more face possible disciplinary action after the September release of a scathing 512-page inspector general's report that detailed the "seriously flawed" Fast and Furious case in which Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents allowed AK 47-style firearms and other weapons to cross the border into Mexico.

The report never mentions the lesser-known Operation Castaway, and federal agents have pointed out numerous substantive differences with Fast and Furious.

But the Florida man imprisoned in Operation Castaway, Hugh Crumpler III, says in court papers and in the Univision reports that the cases are alike because agents allowed guns to get into the hands of bad guys from Miami to Tampa to Jacksonville.

"There was no difference between Operation Fast and Furious and Operation Castaway," Crumpler wrote last week in a federal court filing that seeks an early release from his 30-month prison sentence.

Federal agents in Operation Castaway said they intercepted nearly all the weapons he sold and tried to keep them in the country while Crumpler was under investigation. Crumpler's customers were linked to gangs or cartels from Puerto Rico to Honduras, which is now one of the world's most violent countries.

By contrast, Fast and Furious was designed to allow guns — about 2,000 — to leave the country. Crumpler admitted he dealt about 1,000 firearms, including the notorious Fabrique Nationale Herstal semiautomatic handguns nicknamed cop-killing matapolicias by cartel thugs who prize their armor-piercing capabilities.

"At no point during Operation Castaway did U.S. law enforcement officials allow illegally purchased firearms to be shipped to Honduras," William Daniels, a spokesman for the Middle District of Florida's U.S. Attorney's Office said in a written statement.

"Specific knowledge about weapons exported by this criminal group to Honduras was developed over the course of the investigation, after the weapons had already been shipped," he said. "U.S. authorities had no prior knowledge of these shipments."

The court records clearly show that five guns linked to Castaway made it to crime scenes — including a murder — in Colombia and Puerto Rico. The records don't indicate whether those guns made it out of the country before or after ATF acknowledged investigating Crumpler on Aug. 29, 2009, about two years after he admittedly first began dealing weapons. Crumpler was arrested in late January 2010.

During the five months ATF monitored Crumpler, he was observed making "apparent" firearms transactions from Orlando to Little Havana. The buyers were not immediately arrested and the records don't show what happened to them or the weapons, if there were any.

Crumpler met most of the buyers at gun shows in Florida, a hot spot for arming the hemisphere because of the state's gun-loving culture and Florida's position as a gateway to Latin America.

"I was the pawn of the government in an unconstitutional operation," Crumpler said in one court filing.

"I was allowed to perform illegal activities after I should have been contacted by the ATF," he said. "This was done so that the Obama Administration could enact stricter gun laws based on crimes and evidence in which they participated and created."

To support his case, Crumpler attached copies of conservative media reports, some of which suggested Obama wanted to limit gun rights by way of the Fast and Furious investigation. Many glossed over the fact that Fast and Furious was based on a Bush-era program, Operation Wide Receiver, that let guns be "walked" across the border starting in 2006.

Crumpler echoed the anti-Obama gun paranoia, which has picked up again as the Nov. 6 election draws near, at the beginning of the investigation when he told an undercover agent that he would sell a gun with no paperwork so that "Obama won't know you have it."

The court file does indicate discomfort by ATF officials with liberal firearms laws that can allow weapons to be sold at gun shows with no traceable paperwork.

A self-described "Lone Ranger" and decorated Vietnam war veteran, Crumpler said in court documents that he began selling weapons almost as a hobby and then began to rely on the cash as sales "started to explode." He said he didn't know that the buyers were linked to drug cartels.

ATF hopped on Crumpler's trail when it noticed he had been making frequent, large purchases from a federal firearms dealer, who had to report the transactions to ATF.

About the same time, in October 2009, a separate group of agents in the Phoenix, Ariz., office launched Fast and Furious.

ATF and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona "broke from the traditional approach of confronting suspected straw purchasers," the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General's report said.

Univision broadcast a report Sept. 30 that it had identified 57 never-before-reported Fast and Furious weapons used in two separate massacres in Juarez.

The Republican-led House had pushed through two measures holding Attorney General Eric Holder in civil and criminal contempt for failing to turn over certain Fast and Furious documents. The inspector general's report indicated Holder had no involvement in Fast and Furious and that it appeared to be peculiar to federal officials in Arizona.

The ATF holds up Operation Castaway as a success. As for the five weapons linked to Crumpler, the ATF told Univision that the agency "found out about the weapons when they had already been shipped."

However, a review of Crumpler's plea agreement shows that on four occasions in January 2010, agents observed him making "apparent" firearms transactions from Orlando to Miami. The buyers were never stopped in those cases, the records show.

An ATF spokesman, Drew Wade, said he couldn't comment on details of those transactions because of public-records limitations and because the agency doesn't disclose law-enforcement techniques.

In the cases where Crumpler made sales to suspected foreign nationals and illegal immigrants, ATF got local authorities to make traffic stops that led to the seizure of those weapons. That happened twice at the Miami Gun Show, once involving a British national from Barbados and another time involving a man named Jesus Puentes. A Colombian native, he was later sentenced in the case and said the weapons he purchased were bound for Venezuela.

After agents stopped Crumpler on Jan. 26, 2010, he helped ATF agents in Orlando seize 26 more firearms bound for Honduras.

When agents caught Crumpler, they told him he was selling to cartel go-betweens.

Crumpler knew that the guns were going overseas and that he was probably breaking the law. His wife told him as much, he admitted in court records.

"It didn't start out what it turned into," he said. "I wanted someone to catch me."