Car­tels smug­gling guns into Mex­ico from deep within U.S.

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY TOR­REY MEEKS

EL PASO, Texas | U.S. au­thor­i­ties say that as at­ten­tion in­creases on gun­run­ning be­tween Mex­ico and the United States along the bor­der, the il­le­gal trade is em­a­nat­ing from deeper in the United States.

“We’re find­ing guns aren’t just com­ing from [the] south­west bor­der,” said William McMa­hon, deputy as­sis­tant di­rec­tor for field op­er­a­tions at the Bureau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives (ATF). “We’re see­ing hot spots far­ther north and east, too.”

In 2007, guns re­cov­ered in Mex­ico were traced back to states in­clud­ing Florida, Ge­or­gia, South Carolina and Wash­ing­ton state, he said. Car­tels are us­ing long-es­tab­lished drug-smug­gling routes that ex­tend deep into the United States to se­cure and move weapons south, Mr. McMa­hon said.

Still, “the ma­jor­ity are from the state of Texas” and other bor­der states, said Tom Crow­ley, ATF spe­cial agent and spokesman at the Dal­las field divi­sion.

U.S. of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that 90 per­cent to 95 per­cent of guns smug­gled into Mex­ico come from the United States, and ATF of­fi­cials say more than 7,700 weapons re­cov­ered in Mex­ico last year were traced to U.S. gun sell­ers.

The Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates that 2,000 firearms are smug­gled into the coun­try from the United States ev­ery day.

Gen­er­ally, drug traf­fick­ers don’t move cash and drugs to­gether, Mr. McMa­hon said. Cash is a bulky com­mod­ity that takes greater re­sources to move, so drugs are fre­quently traded for caches of weapons, he said.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illi­nois Demo­crat, told a Se­nate hear­ing March 18 that the U.S. and Mex­ico are con­nected by what he de­scr ibed as an “iron river of guns.”

The Wash­ing­ton Times re­ported last month that se­nior U.S. de­fense of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that the Mex­i­can drug car­tels to­gether field more than 100,000 foot sol­diers. The narco-armies are equipped with light weapons, mostly ri­fles and pis­tols ob­tained through the il­le­gal gun trade.

Fire­fights be­tween car­tel mem­bers and Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment troops of­ten re­sem­ble guer­rilla warstyle en­gage­ments. While heav­ier ar­ma­ments such as frag­men­ta­tion grenades and gre­nade launch­ers — shipped pri­mar­ily by sea or through the por­ous Mex­ico-Gu­atemala bor­der — are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly com­mon­place, the United States is still the prime source for firearms, ATF of­fi­cials say.

The trade per­sists de­spite en­force­ment ef­forts.

ATF has tripled its staff along the bor­der un­der Project Gunrunner, in­sti­tuted in 2006 to help stem the flow of firearms from the U.S. to Mex­ico. Cur­rently, about 200 ATF agents po­lice more than 6,500 li­censed firearms dealers in the bor­der states.

“The agents here are work­ing 24/7,” Mr. Crow­ley said.

Firearms make their way into the hands of smug­glers from “straw man” pur­chasers, he said. A straw man is some­one with a clean record who buys firearms from gun shops or gun shows with money fur­nished by crim­i­nals. The straw man then hands over the weapons, which are smug­gled into Mex­ico.

Straw-man pur­chasers have no stan­dard pro­file, Mr. Crow­ley said, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for firearms dealers to iden­tify such in­di­vid­u­als.

“They could be any­body. We have men, women, older peo­ple. It runs the gamut,” he said.

Emer­son Gates, gun­smith at Custom Car­tridge Co. in Las Cruces, N.M., 30 miles from the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der, said gun dealers are “the last line of de­fense” against the il­le­gal firearms trade.

Though a buyer might con­form to fed­eral guide­lines, the dealer has the fi­nal say. If the buyer raises sus­pi­cion, for any rea­son, it’s the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the firearm sales­man to re­ject the sale.

“Some­times, we do this with what’s known as an in-store de­lay,” Mr. Gates said. “Other times, we sim­ply refuse.”

A com­mon straw-man pur­chase sce­nario might in­volve a young woman who clearly has no in­ter­est in firearms, ac­com­pa­nied by a man of “un­sa­vory” ap­pear­ance, Mr. Gates said. She’s buy­ing the firear m, but the money is com­ing out of his pocket.

“We in­form them at that time that we can­not sell to them un­der th­ese cir­cum­stances, be­cause it would be a felony for them and a felony for us,” Mr. Gates said. “And I’m ex­tremely al­ler­gic to fed- eral prison.”

Firearms dealers are oc­ca­sion­ally in­dicted for work­ing di­rectly with drug car­tels. That was the case of a Phoenix-based owner of X-Cal­iber guns, Ge­orge Ik­na­dosian, who pro­vided hun­dreds of AK47 as­sault ri­fles to the Si­naloa car­tel, pros­e­cu­tors say.

How­ever, Mr. Gates said that was the ex­cep­tion rather than the rule.

“Gen­er­ally speak­ing, we work in fairly close con­cert with the ATF,” he said. “We don’t want to see il­le­gal firearms or am­mu­ni­tion go­ing to Mex­ico.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TOS

Above, Ri­cardo Na­jera, spokesman for Mex­ico’s At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Of­fice, speaks in front of posters of­fer­ing cash re­wards for the cap­ture of wanted drug king­pins at a news con­fer­ence on March 23. Be­low, Army of­fi­cers look at weapons seized dur­ing op­er­a­tions against drug traf­fick­ing gangs at a mil­i­tar y base in Reynosa, on Mex­ico’s north­east­ern bor­der with the U.S., on March 17.

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