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Guns from U.S. equip drug cartels

Licensed weapons dealers abound at the border. 'Straw buyers' aid traffickers, and the ATF is stretched.

August 10, 2008|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

SIERRA VISTA, ARIZ. — High-powered automatic weapons and ammunition are flowing virtually unchecked from border states into Mexico, fueling a war among drug traffickers, the army and police that has left thousands dead, according to U.S. and Mexican officials.

The munitions are hidden under trucks and stashed in the trunks of cars, or concealed under the clothing of people who brazenly walk across the international bridges. They are showing up in seizures and in the aftermath of shootouts between the cartels and police in Mexico.

More than 90% of guns seized at the border or after raids and shootings in Mexico have been traced to the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Last year, 2,455 weapons traces requested by Mexico showed that guns had been purchased in the United States, according to the ATF. Texas, Arizona and California accounted for 1,805 of those traced weapons.

No one is sure how many U.S.-purchased guns have made their way into Mexico, but U.S. authorities estimate the number in the thousands.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, August 29, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 111 words Type of Material: Correction
Weapons smuggling: An article in Section A on Aug. 10 about guns being smuggled into Mexico and used by narcotics traffickers said that "high-powered automatic weapons and ammunition are flowing virtually unchecked from border states into Mexico." The guns purchased in the U.S. are semiautomatic or conventional firearms. It also stated that Mexicans cannot legally own firearms. Mexicans can own some types of firearms, but most high-caliber and advanced weapons such as those being smuggled in are restricted to the military and law enforcement. Also, the name of a suspect arrested in May was misstated as Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman. The suspect was Guzman's cousin, Alfonso Gutierrez Loera. Guzman remains at large.

The body count, meanwhile, is rising. Since a military-led crackdown on narcotics traffickers began 18 months ago, more than 4,000 people in Mexico have died in drug-related violence, including 450 police officers, soldiers and prosecutors, as well as innocent bystanders, cartel members and corrupt officials, according to Mexican authorities.

Tom Mangan, a senior ATF special agent in Arizona, compared the flow to reverse osmosis. "Just like the drugs that head north," firearms move south, he said. "The cartels are outfitting an army."

More than 6,700 licensed gun dealers have set up shop within a short drive of the 2,000-mile border, from the Gulf Coast of Texas to San Diego -- which amounts to more than three dealers for every mile of border territory. Law enforcement has come to call the region an "iron river of guns."

And while U.S. political leaders and presidential candidates have focused rhetoric, money and time on stemming the northward flow of drugs and illegal immigrants, far less has been said and done about arms flowing south, largely from states with liberal gun laws, into a nation where only police and the military can legally own a firearm.

Mexican authorities have been pressing the United States to do more to help a border force they describe as overwhelmed and often intimidated.

"Just guarantee me that arms won't enter Mexico," Mexico's public-safety chief, Genaro Garcia Luna, told a radio interviewer recently. Stop the flow of guns from the United States, he said, "and the gasoline for the crimes that we have will run out."

'Straw buyers'

Both sides blame "straw buyers" who purchase weapons for traffickers at small gun shops and large gun shows.

Adan Rodriguez, 35, a struggling carpet-layer from the Dallas area, told gun dealers he was a private security officer and bought more than 100 assault rifles, 9-mm handguns and other high-powered weapons at multiple shops over several months, according to court records.

But authorities say drug traffickers were giving him stacks of cash to buy the guns, with marijuana laced in between the bills. He earned $30 to $40 a gun, according to court records.

"The temptation got over me," Rodriguez told a federal judge in Dallas, who sentenced him in 2006 to 5 1/2 years in prison.

Last August, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents in Roma, Texas, came upon a 1999 Freightliner tractor-trailer with a hidden stash of weapons, including a rifle, four shotguns, a handgun and 8,024 rounds of live ammunition with 10 magazines. The driver was questioned, and that investigation continues.

In February, five men, including a father and his two sons, were arrested just outside Roma and charged with selling as many as 60 guns, silencers and other weapons. The serial numbers on some of the weapons were shaved off, government evidence shows -- a sign to agents that the firearms were destined for Mexican gangs.

More recently, the ATF seized 13 AK-47 rifles Aug. 1 from an alleged straw purchaser in Phoenix, according to Mangan. The guns were to be delivered to the Tijuana cartel via Southern California, Mangan said.

Despite the arrests, smugglers appear to have the upper hand, U.S. and Mexican law enforcement sources say. Just 100 U.S. firearms agents and 35 inspectors patrol the vast border region for gun smugglers, compared with 16,000 Border Patrol agents, most of them working the Southwest border.

Elias Bazan, a supervisory agent with the ATF in Laredo, Texas, has a staff of just six agents at one of the grittiest stretches along the Rio Grande.

"I don't have an analyst," he said. "I don't have an administrative assistant. I don't have an inspector. One major case can soak up my entire office. And we have major cases all the time."

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