US steadies its aim at gun trafficking into Mexico
Extra manpower is slated to be deployed to the border to pursue smuggling cases, but the huge scale of the problem dwarfs the government's response.
A young man is shopping at the Crossroads of the West Gun Show here, and there's plenty to choose from. The cavernous hall is packed with tables loaded with long guns and pistols, some barrels etched with names like El Capitán (The Captain) and El Supremo (The Best).Skip to next paragraph
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Eventually he makes a cellphone call, and a young woman soon joins him. At a table he'd visited earlier, he points to several semiautomatic rifles and walks away. She approaches the vendor, handing him $1,125, cash, for three AK-47s, and fills out the requisite paperwork.
Outside, with the rifles slung over her slight frame, she meets up with the same man. Both are unaware that federal agents are watching, having reason to suspect that he is using her as a "straw man" to buy some big-time firepower for drug cartels or gangs in Mexico.
When the feds swoop in, intercepting the weapons and the woman before she drives from the parking lot, they've ensured that a third individual waiting to receive the guns at a rendezvous point will never get them. But the agents from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) acknowledge that, despite their best efforts, thousands of such gun-show purchases eventually turn up south of the border, where drug cartels are locked in a violent, escalating battle with the forces of the new Calderón government.
"[President Felipe] Calderón has tightened the lid and turned up the heat," says William Newell, special agent in charge of the ATF's Phoenix division. "It is a war, and the guns and ammo [Mexico's drug lords] are using a lot of times are coming from the US."
To support Mr. Calderón's war against drug traffickers, the United States is starting to ramp up government-to-government assistance. Few figures are available about the scale of the effort, but US officials say it includes moves such as training for Mexican authorities on how to properly trace guns (including those with filed-off serial numbers) and greater cooperation on gun-smuggling investigations.
The ATF is also slated to get manpower reinforcements later this year. Of 100 new hires, 30 will be sent to states on the southern border to work on gun-smuggling investigations – a move that will more than double the number of agents currently dedicated to such cases, say bureau officials.
Still, the scale of the problem would seem to dwarf the new resources being devoted to combating it. Guns sneaked across the border each month number in the thousands, officials say, noting that it's as hard to give a precise figure for guns headed south as it is for drug shipments going north. There's evidence, too, that the weaponry flowing southward is becoming increasingly sophisticated – and lethal. Drug lords' new weapons of choice, says ATF's Mr. Newell, are AK-47s and AR-15s, a variant of the US military's M-16. "On the handgun side, [the drug lords] prefer 9-mm handguns [and] .38 super-caliber and .40 caliber pistols."
In the two years since the ATF launched Operation Gunrunner – a multiagency assault against gun smuggling – the bureau's four border divisions (in Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles) have boosted the number of gun-trafficking investigations.
"All our field divisions under Gunrunner have shown an increase in trafficking cases to Mexico," says Dewey Webb, special agent in charge of the Houston division. "Obviously we have to do our everyday stuff ..., but most of our groups are focusing on interdicting weapons going to Mexico."
Just last week, Mr. Webb's office and its Mexican counterpart confiscated five AK-47s from a suspect who they say had crossed into Mexico. The Houston area, Webb says, is one of the largest origination points for weapons flowing to the south.
But in a sign that border enforcement there is squeezing the illegal gun trade, traffickers are shifting their routes to Arizona and California.
That means the ATF in Phoenix is also zeroing in on gun stores and gun shows close to the border, to crack down on suspicious transactions like the one on July 7 at the Crossroads of the West Gun Show, says Newell, the division head.
In part, the ATF's presence at gun shows is educational. The bureau often sets up booths at shows to inform buyers and sellers how illicit purchases are made – and to remind the public that buying a gun for someone else is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.