A year ago, Carlos Canino testified before a U.S. House committee in Washington, D.C., about Operation Fast and Furious, passionately criticizing Arizona-based ATF agents for their actions.
Now he's one of them.
Canino has moved from an attaché post at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City to a position heading the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Tucson office. For Canino, who watched the reports of gun seizures from Arizona piling up in Mexico during 2009 and 2010, it is a chance to make amends for ATF's past mistakes here.
"I requested to come here because the American people lost its trust in ATF in Phoenix," Canino said in an interview in Tucson Friday. "I want to be on the ground floor to get the trust back."
The Tucson office is a branch of the bureau's field office in Phoenix, which oversees ATF operations in Arizona and New Mexico. Canino came in as part of an overhaul of the Phoenix division's leadership after Operation Fast and Furious became a public scandal last year.
A 23-year veteran of the agency, 47-year-old Canino became known to the nation on July 26, 2011, when he lambasted the ATF Phoenix office's performance in Fast and Furious, even as the supervisor of the operation sat nearby and tried to defend it.
"Everybody's saying this case was so big. It was complicated," Canino testified that day. "Firearms-trafficking cases are not complicated. The reason this was was so big is because we didn't do anything, plain and simple," to stop the traffickers.
"Nobody got stopped!" he said later, his voice rising. "How can you let somebody buy 730 guns? At what point are you going to stop him?"
Canino, a Puerto Rico native who grew up in the Boston area, answered more questions from the Star Friday.
Q: How do you restore people's trust in the ATF here in Arizona?
A: Just getting back to basics. One of the good things here is we have good agents. We have good supervisors. We have good senior leadership here. Our guys are hungry. They want to go out and do the job.
Q: Do you think you need to make big arrests of high-ranking gun traffickers?
A: You know, I've played sports all my life. If you're looking to hit a home run, you're going to strike out every time. You've just got to go out there, make contact and keep swinging. You're going to hit your home runs.
Because we're a small agency, obviously we have to be focused on the worst of the worst. We can't afford to throw a wide net because we just don't have the resources. We have to use intel-based policing to find who the worst of the worst are and target and go after them.
Q: As a result of Operation Fast and Furious, are agents quicker now to stop straw purchases and other gun crimes?
A: One of the tools that's been taken away from us here is … progressing with the investigation because we cannot afford to have a guy come out of a gun store or gun show with a trunk full of guns, get on I-10 or get on I-19 and we lose him, and those guns make it to Mexico.
If we've got to rip a load of guns, and just seize the guns and let the guy go - and the guns don't make it to the street but we don't have enough to arrest the guy - then that's what we have to do.
Q: In the Fast and Furious investigation, one explanation that's been given is that agents were prohibited from seizing weapons or making arrests because federal prosecutors said there was not probable cause in the purchase and immediate transfer of weapons. Does that point of view still hold in Arizona?
A: The U.S. Congress gives me the authority to arrest people, not the U.S. Attorney's Office. I can arrest whoever I want to arrest, and I present the case to the U.S. Attorney's Office. It's up to them if they want to prosecute or not.
Q: Is there any way to estimate the scale of the flow of guns from here in Southern Arizona to Mexico?
A: People say there's 2,000 guns a day going across (from the United States to Mexico). How do they come to that figure? There is no baseline for that. It's illegal to have a federal gun registry, so we don't know.
So, when these people say 2,000 guns a day - or say, 10,000 - you don't know. It's impossible. That's frustrating to me. It's amazing to me what some people don't know about the gun laws.
Q: What are some of the other things people don't know?
A: Until just recently on the multiple purchase, people who bought two or more handguns in a five-day period, they (licensed dealers) had to fill out a form and notify ATF. For rifles, you didn't have to do that. You could go into a gun store and buy 100 AK-47 variants. The only way we would know about that is when it turned up at a crime scene and we start tracing and find out that some guy bought a hundred of these a month and a half ago.
Now with this demand letter (a new requirement for licensed dealers to report multiple purchases of high-powered rifles made over a five-day period in the four border states) that's helping out, frankly. Now we can get on these guys a lot faster. If somebody comes in and orders or buys multiple guns, we know about it right away. We can say, "Hey, not for nothing, but you're a 19-year-old female on public assistance. Where did you get $28,000 to buy all these guns?"
Q: Have you been surprised at the widespread fallout from Operation Fast and Furious?
A: All I can say is, I'm eagerly awaiting the findings of the Office of Inspector General. We've already implemented changes. We have instituted an aggressive training program to ensure that this never happens again.
Contact reporter Tim Steller at 807-8427 or email@example.com