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.
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.”
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.”
Gun dealers also far outnumber agents. Here in tiny Sierra Vista, on a rise high enough to afford a view into Mexico, half a dozen dealers operate in stores along the town’s main thoroughfare, and they also sell and trade arms out of their homes.
Arizona is a wide-open state for gun lovers: A license lets you carry a gun openly on the street or concealed.
Saguaro Firearms is a small, crowded shop on East Fry Boulevard, a strip of fast-food restaurants and mini-malls. Across the street is Guns & Gear. Anyone with proper ID and a brief background check can leave with a firearm under his or her belt and reach Mexico in minutes.
The manager at Saguaro Firearms, who gave his name only as Greg, carries a “comfortable to shoot” silver Kahr P40 in a black holster on his right hip.
“I don’t believe all the hype” about all the guns getting into Mexico, he said, knifing open new boxes of ammunition.
He said that toll bridges, a fence and more border cops would not stop immigrants from flowing north or guns from flowing south. “Build a tower with an armed guard every 100 yards,” he suggested. “Maybe then.”
Washington and Mexico City are pledging cooperation to halt the weapons flow, but each capital wants more from the other. Washington is urging Mexican officials to be more vigilant at the border, and to thoroughly inspect and arrest crossers who carry weapons from the United States. Warning signs have been posted at the border, but few people pay heed.
William Hoover, the ATF’s assistant director for field operations, told Congress that his agency is working with Mexican law enforcement officials on an “eTrace” system to track guns found in Mexico. The process allows the United States to start criminal investigations against anyone in the country who has sent a weapon to Mexico.
Mexico wants the United States to tighten gun laws in border states. They also want more checks on “straw man” purchasers like Rodriguez.
Since weapons began heading south in bulk three to five years ago, U.S. agents have made some key arrests. Unfortunately, many of them came after the weapons had been used in cartel warfare in Mexico.
This spring the ATF arrested a dealer and two others from the X-Caliber Guns store in Phoenix, which allegedly dispatched hundreds of AK-47s and other long guns and pistols to Mexico. The shop has since shut down; the three have pleaded not guilty.
ATF intelligence has shown that some of the firearms sold from X-Caliber were used by cartel gunmen against Mexican police and the Mexican army.
Six guns were traced to alleged members of the Sinaloa Cartel, who were rounded up shortly after Mexican police captured alleged drug lord Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman in May. An assault rifle traced to X-Caliber also turned up in a cache found after eight federal policemen were killed and three others wounded in a gun battle in Culiacan, according to the ATF.
Gun shows have become particularly troublesome. There, traffickers have their pick of weapons: AK-47s, AR-15s and the FN 5.57-caliber pistol known as “asesino de policia,” or “cop killer.”
“You see the Sinaloan cowboys come in,” said Mangan, who browses the shows. “You see them with their ammunition belts and their ammunition boots. You can see the dollies being rolled outside to their cars.
“Why do they need the high-powered guns? Because the Mexican military is armed too, and they need to pierce that armor.”
Sometimes it’s the ammunition that tips agents off. In November 2006, an agent in street clothes was talking to a dealer at Kirkpatrick’s Guns & Ammo, less than a mile from the border in Laredo, Texas. He spotted two men repackaging more than 12,000 rounds of ammunition they had just purchased.
An investigation later led to the arrest of Carlos Alberto Osorio-Castrejon and Ramon Uresti-Careaga, both Mexican citizens in the United States illegally.
Osorio pleaded guilty to being an illegal immigrant in possession of ammunition and was given 10 months in prison. Uresti was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to 15 months in prison.
The ammunition, the judge told Uresti and the court, “was going to somebody in Mexico involved in some illegal activity -- drug trafficking, alien smuggling perhaps. Or something else.”
Just up the road from Kirkpatrick’s, past the taquerias and the Mexican insurance offices, there is yet another gun shop.
“Call me Rocky,” said the man who runs Border Sporting Goods. He advertises “What We Don’t Have, We Can Get.” He sells guns and ammunition and reloading and hunting equipment. He personally owns more than 100 firearms.
He blamed Mexico for the gun trafficking. “It is not doing enough to stop it,” he said. “They are a crooked country.” He said U.S. gun laws were too easily broken. “A crook could care less how many laws you have.”
He maintained that most gun dealers were honest and vigilant and report suspicious activity. And he called it unfair to make gun stores responsible for what their customers do: “That’s like holding a car manufacturer liable for traffic accidents.”
The dealers here in Sierra Vista said they reported any customer they did not feel comfortable about.
Mike Benton runs Guns & Gear, which is easy to find on East Fry Boulevard; a U.S. flag out front marks the spot. He said two men claiming to be American citizens recently purchased four or five long guns.
“They had the necessary documents, and an instant FBI check was approved,” Benton said. Still, he thought it unusual and notified authorities. “I never heard back,” he said.
Shop owners heard back when they called about Adan Rodriguez. At 335 pounds, Rodriguez was easy to remember after he started showing up at shops in Mesquite, Texas, outside Dallas.
Over a series of months, Rodriguez purchased 112 assault-class rifles, 9-mm Beretta pistols, revolvers and high- caliber rifles, court records show.
The dealers alerted the ATF’s Dallas office, and Tom Crowley, a special agent there, said that an undercover officer and hidden video camera were planted.
Seduced by money
Arrested, Rodriguez complained that he was making just $1,400 a month laying carpet and had lost his job. He said that his mother was disabled and that he had hoped to marry soon.
Then a friend of a friend introduced him to “Kati” and “Cesar,” and they convinced him to do a little side work for some Mexican clients.
Kati and Cesar provided Rodriguez with cash amounts of up to $12,000, often in thousand-dollar stacks. Sometimes they sent an older Latino man, “Jefe,” (“Boss”) to deliver the money for guns.
When he bought the weapons, he took them to safe houses in Dallas.
At the time of his arrest, Rodriguez told the agents, he was being pushed to buy hand grenades and a rocket launcher too.
One of the Berettas was used in a shootout in Reynosa, Mexico, that left a cartel member dead and injured two Mexican federal agents.
In a handwritten letter to The Times from his prison cell in Seagoville, Texas, Rodriguez described how he got in deeper and deeper with the cartels.
“It started out by selling one of my personal guns, and things went on [from] there,” he said. “It was an easy way to make some money.”
Rodriguez hesitated to write more: “I worry about my safety and my family’s safety.”
The cartels, as he knows, are well-armed.