Stolen in full from The Gun Guys
(New York Times: Soldiers guarded a display of weapons seized in an operation against the Gulf cartel, which operates in Mexico City. Mexico is desperate for the United States to do more to stop the steady flow of weapons over the border. In the last six months, federal agents have begun stopping cars they have reason to believe are carrying guns into Mexico).
HOUSTON — John Phillip Hernandez, a 24-year-old unemployed machinist who lived with his parents, walked into a giant sporting goods store here in July 2006, and plunked $2,600 in cash on a glass display counter. A few minutes later, Mr. Hernandez walked out with three military-style rifles. One of those rifles was recovered seven months later in Acapulco, Mexico, where it had been used by drug cartel gunmen to attack the offices of the Guerrero State attorney general, court documents say. Four police officers and three secretaries were killed. Although Mr. Hernandez was arrested last year as part of a gun-smuggling ring, most of the 22 others in the ring are still at large.
Before their operation was discovered, the smugglers had transported what court documents described as at least 339 high-powered weapons to Mexico over a year and a half, federal agents said. “There is no telling how long that group was operating before we caught on to them,” said J. Dewey Webb, the agent in charge of the Houston division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Noting there are about 1,500 licensed gun dealers in the Houston area, Mr. Webb added, “You can come to Houston and go to a different gun store every day for several months and never alert any one.”
The case highlights a major obstacle facing the United States as it tries to meet a demand from Mexico to curb the flow of arms from the states to drug cartels. The federal system for tracking gun sales, crafted over the years to avoid infringements on Second Amendment rights, makes it difficult to spot suspicious trends quickly and to identify people buying for smugglers, law enforcement officials say. As a result, in some states along the Southwest border where firearms are lightly regulated, gun smugglers can evade detection for months or years. In Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, dealers can sell an unlimited number of rifles to anyone with a driver’s license and a clean criminal record without reporting the sales to the government. At gun shows in these states, there is even less regulation. Private sellers, unlike licensed dealers, are not obligated to record the buyer’s name, much less report the sale to the A.T.F. Mexican officials have repeatedly asked the United States to clamp down on the flow of weapons and are likely to bring it up again with President Obama when he visits Mexico on Thursday. Sending straw buyers into American stores, cartels have stocked up on semiautomatic AK-47 and AR-15 rifles, converting some to machine guns, investigators in both countries say. They have also bought .50 caliber rifles capable of stopping a car and Belgian pistols able to fire rifle rounds that will penetrate body armor.
It’s not just the sheer numbers of arms flowing into Mexico, but how powerful these weapons are: .50 caliber sniper rifles, assault rifles, cop-killer bullets that can penetrate bullet proof vests. The U.S. is simply looking the other way as whole arsenals head south, while drugs head north. And yet, the gun lobby’s shill, Wayne LaPierre, tries to assert that U.S. guns aren’t being trafficked into Mexico.
LaPierre dips into a bizarre conspiracy theory to purposefully mislead and distort the issue.
Federal agents say about 90 percent of the 12,000 pistols and rifles the Mexican authorities recovered from drug dealers last year and asked to be traced came from dealers in the United States, most of them in Texas and Arizona. The Mexican foreign minister, Patricia Espinosa, in talking with reporters recently, accused the United States of violating its international treaty obligations by allowing guns to flow into the hands of organized crime groups in Mexico. But law enforcement officials on this side of the border say the legal hurdles to making cases against smugglers remain high. “Guns are legal to possess in this country,” said William J. Hoover, the assistant director for operations of the federal firearms agency. “If you stop me between the dealer and the border, I am still legal, because I can possess those guns.” To be sure, the A.T.F. and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have stepped up their efforts to stop smuggling over the last two years.
Last year, some 200 indictments were handed up against straw buyers and gun smugglers, breaking up at least a dozen trafficking rings. In the last six months, federal agents have also begun stopping more cars they have reason to believe are carrying guns before they cross into Mexico, seizing about 1,000 weapons. A review of cases over the last two years shows a pattern: the drug cartels hire people in need of cash with no criminal records to buy guns from legal sources, often just one or two at a time. Once the smugglers have amassed a cache of weapons, they drive them across the border in small batches, stuffed inside spare tires, fastened to undercarriages with zip ties or bubble-wrapped and tucked into vehicle panels.
In some cases, the drug traffickers and gun smugglers are linked. On a recent evening in Reynosa, a border town, a Mexican army patrol found an abandoned farmhouse that had been used by drug traffickers. Hidden deep in the brush outside was a plastic barrel filled with guns. The authorities believe that the traffickers were taking drugs to the United States and using the money to return with guns. The cartels also employ spies to keep track of the sporadic efforts of the Mexican military to search cars, law enforcement authorities say. Because there is no computerized national gun registry, agents say, tracking guns relies on a paper trail. Agents must contact the manufacturer or importer with a make and a serial number and work their way down the supply chain by telephone or on foot.
At the retail level, records of gun sales remain in the hands of the dealers. Agents can request to see them only if a gun is recovered in a crime or during periodic audits. By law, those audits can be done only once a year, and, in practice, most dealers face such a review once every three to six years, because auditors are stretched thin. The record keeping is not always perfect. In trying to track guns confiscated in Mexico last year, agents found that one in five of the guns could not be traced because the dealers had no record of the sale or had gone out of business and the records had been lost. Even when the original legal buyer is located, a gun owner in many states, can legally say “I lost it” or “I sold it to someone I do not know.” Dealers are not obligated to tell the authorities about multiple sales of rifles like the AK-47, as they must do with pistols.
If that doesn’t make the case that the U.S. needs more stringent gun laws then we don’t know what will.
In Texas and Arizona, where most of the guns recovered in Mexico come from, there is even less regulation on private sales. Individuals may sell guns at gun shows or even through classified advertisements without running a criminal background check or even recording the buyer’s name. “If you wanted to create a system that is basically legal but designed to facilitate gun trafficking, you couldn’t have a better system than you have here,” said Tom Diaz, a researcher with the Violence Policy Center in Washington……. Some local law enforcement officials argue that the A.T.F., which has about 2,500 special agents watching 78,000 gun dealers nationwide, is overwhelmed. “The gun issue is the single one thing we can address, and we are not seeing it,” said Victor Rodriguez, the chief of police in McAllen, Tex., a border town that has 19 gun dealers….. On May 18, 2008, a man bought two military-style rifles from him at a gun show on the Arizona State Fairgrounds. Two days later, the man showed up at the dealer’s home with a friend and bought eight more rifles for more than $5,000 in cash. “When somebody walks in and says, ‘I need eight of these,’ it becomes apparent what’s happening,” the dealer said. Despite the dealer’s help, members of the ring managed to smuggle at least 112 weapons, bought at a half dozen locations, into Mexico before they were arrested in February, A.T.F. agents said.
But much of the smuggling is not so obvious, dealers said. In Brownsville, for instance, one convicted smuggler, Emmanuel Ramirez, recruited 10 people with no criminal records, including young women, then sent them into big-box sporting goods stores to buy two pistols each. Although federal agents say licensed dealers are the source of most guns going to Mexico, some come from private sellers at gun shows, where even noncitizens can buy guns.
Dozens of shows are held each year across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. At a recent show in Pharr, Tex., another border town, a college freshman with a wispy beard arrived with two AR-15 rifles strapped to his body, spidery black guns designed for combat, tricked out with features that soldiers prize: collapsible stocks, pistol grips, extra long magazines. The student, who asked to be identified only as Shane, was asking $1,900 for one of his rifles. As for paper work, he wanted only a handwritten receipt with the buyer’s name and address. He was not worried, he said, about the gun’s falling into the hands of drug cartels in Mexico. “They are going to get their guns either way,” he said. “The only thing that a ban is going to stop is good people being able to get a gun.”