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Trying to fix ties with Mexico after gun sting

By Jeremy Pelofsky

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will have to work to restore frayed ties with Mexico after a bungled operation allowed guns to illegally cross the border to violent Mexican drug cartels, a top U.S. official said on Wednesday.

The acting head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, B. Todd Jones, also unveiled more reshuffling of senior agency personnel after the botched program known as "Fast and Furious."

The operation has become a major headache for the Obama administration and is now subject to probes in the U.S. Congress and by the Justice Department inspector general.

The program, which had been designed to crack down on the flow of weapons to violent drugs, has soured ties with Mexico because some 2,000 guns may have illegally crossed the border, largely because of a failure to fully track them.

The guns were sold to suspected gun traffickers and some weapons have been found at crime scenes. The program started in late 2009 and ran through 2010.

"We're going to work on rebuilding that trust and we know we have work to do," Jones said during his first talk with reporters after becoming acting ATF director five weeks ago.

He said the ATF's attache in the U.S. embassy in Mexico has moved to the Phoenix office where "Fast and Furious" originated to try to restore trust with the southern neighbor, but that they would have to do more.

Jones, the top federal prosecutor in Minnesota, was named to also serve as acting ATF director in August, replacing Kenneth Melson who was removed in the fallout from the failed sting operation.

Jones also spoke of further personnel changes, including moving the agency deputy director William Hoover to run the ATF's Washington field office. The new deputy director will be Thomas Brandon who had been assigned to run the Phoenix office after the previous agent in charge was removed when details of "Fast and Furious" emerged.

Two guns that were sold in the program were discovered at the scene of a shootout with illegal immigrants where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed. It is not known if the agent was shot by those guns.

Jones said the ATF had conducted a similar operation in 2006, during the Bush administration, in which guns were allowed to be illegally trafficked across the border, a program dubbed "Wide Receiver."

Congressional Republicans have been investigating the "Fast and Furious" program, focusing on who in the Obama administration knew about it when and who approved it.

(Editing by Howard Goller)

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