Two men were sentenced Monday for their roles in the U.S. government's botched Operation Fast and Furious, in which agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives smuggled weapons to Mexican cartels in an effort to track illegal guns and dismantle their networks.
The investigation into Operation Fast and Furious quickly unraveled after illegally purchased weapons turned up at the scene of a fatal Border Patrol agent shooting.
Jacob Anthony Montelongo was sentenced in federal court in Phoenix to nearly 3 1/2 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy and dealing guns without a license. Sean Christopher Steward received a nine-year sentence for conspiracy and making false statements to authorities.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, Steward and Montelongo were among so-called straw buyers who illegally purchased weapons for traffickers and Mexican drug cartels in a wide-ranging Phoenix-based gun trafficking ring.
In Operation Fast and Furious, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives used a controversial tactic called gun-walking, where instead of intercepting all weapons believed to be purchased illegally almost immediately, they wanted to track the guns back to high-level arms traffickers who had long eluded prosecution, in an effort to dismantle their networks.
But federal agents lost track of many of the guns purchased at Arizona shops before they ended up in Mexico, where many of them have been recovered at crime scenes. The operation ultimately identified more than 2,000 illicitly purchased weapons, and some 1,400 of them have yet to be found.
Two guns in Operation Fast and Furious were found on the U.S. side of the border at the scene of the 2010 fatal shooting of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
Five men have since been charged in Terry's death. One pleaded guilty last month and faces life in prison. Three others remain fugitives.
In his guilty plea, Manuel Osorio-Arellanes admitted he was part of a rip-off crew that sneaked into the United States from Mexico about a week before Terry's death. He said they stashed guns and food supplies on the U.S. side of the border, aiming to rob marijuana smugglers and undocumented immigrants.
Operation Fast and Furious has led to widespread congressional criticism. President Barack Obama has invoked executive privilege in the case, and Attorney General Eric Holder has been found to be in contempt of Congress.
Twenty people were initially indicted in the overall weapons case, including Montelongo and Steward, who authorities say were among the most prolific of the straw buyers. They were accused of illegally purchasing hundreds of firearms sold to criminals in Mexico, including associates of major Mexican drug cartels.
Steward is accused of paying more than $176,000 provided by the leader of a gun trafficking organization to purchase nearly 290 weapons, including high-powered rifles. Authorities say Montelongo illegally bought and assisted in the purchase of 109 firearms.
Steward's attorney, Diego Rodriguez, said he plans to appeal his client's sentence. Montelongo's attorney did not return telephone calls or emails seeking comment.
Reporting by The Associated Press.