US agent's killing in Mexico highlights menace of cross-border gun trade

One of three guns fired in the Feb. 15 killing in Mexico of Immigration and Customs Special Agent Jaime Zapata was traced to a Texas weapons dealer.

A gun sold in Texas was used during last month's slaying of a US special agent in Mexico, officials said Tuesday, a revelation that is shifting scrutiny in the case away from Mexico's weak rule of law to America's gun laws.

One of three guns fired in the Feb. 15 killing of Immigration and Customs (ICE) agent Jaime Zapata was traced to a man arrested Monday in Lancaster, Texas, the US Justice Department said in a statement Tuesday. The attack was the most high-profile killing of a US agent in Mexico in 25 years.

"It illustrates this interaction and interdependence between what happens in Mexico and what happens in the United States,” Undersecretary for North America Julian Ventura told reporters Tuesday in a briefing about President Felipe Calderón’s trip Thursday to the White House in which he is expected to discuss the case with President Obama.

The discovery seems to underscore what Mexico has been complaining about for years: that American gun shops are the candy store for ruthless drug traffickers. Mexican cartels get more American guns from Texas than from any other state, many through straw purchases, US officials have said.

Records in the case show the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) tracked the Romarm-Cugir model Draco 7.62 pistol to Otilio Osorio, who was arrested Monday along with his brother, Ranferi, for possessing firearms with obliterated serial numbers. Court affidavits filed by ATF agents, and obtained by the Monitor, identify the Texas gun shop that sold the weapon and say an ATF informant within the Zetas gang apparently bought guns from the Osorio brothers.

The irony that the gun used in Mr. Zapata’s shooting came from his own state – he’s from Brownsville – was not lost on Mexican officials or local newspapers.

“The US is suffering firsthand what Mexicans suffer every day as a consequence … of a system of firearms distribution that – protected by supposed civil liberties – covers up a black market that supplies pistols and rifles to the drug cartels,” read an editorial Tuesday in Mexican daily El Universal.

The killing came five weeks after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona with a gun obtained in a state with some of the least restrictive gun laws nationwide, and also amid continued debate over whether the ATF should be allowed to track multiple purchases of some semiautomatic rifles in border states. Earlier this year Congress denied federal funding for the program requested by the ATF.

Mexican and US officials say about 90 percent of guns seized from cartels come from the US. Recent independent reports question that figure, saying it is 90 percent of only the small number of guns for which Mexico requests ATF tracking, and not all guns seized.

The Feb. 15 highway shooting in the north-central state of San Luis Potosi also wounded ICE agent Victor Avila, who is recovering. Mexico has since arrested about a dozen suspects from the Zetas gang, who claim that they mistakenly thought the agents' dark SUV was the vehicle of a rival group.

The attack occurred just as ICE started its largest raid on drug gangs with connections to traffickers – primarily those in Mexico – netting close to 700 suspects during the past two weeks.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

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