Pubdate: Sat, 19 May 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
Author: Tim Weiner and Ginger Thompson


MEXICO CITY, May 18 -- Though public attention focuses on the drugs
smuggled from Mexico to the north, officials here are increasingly
concerned by an ever more lethal flow of guns south from the United

The growing number of assault rifles and semiautomatic weapons showing
up in shootouts and assassinations has bolstered the arms caches of
Mexico's drug cartels, officials in both countries say. And they feed
one of the highest rates of gun homicide anywhere in the world.

This weekend, Attorney General John Ashcroft is coming here to meet with
the nation's top law enforcement officials, and the firearms issue is on
the agenda. High-level American and Mexican officials will meet here on
Tuesday to discuss the problem.

But such meetings have been going on for years with little result, save
a 1997 treaty, which the United States Senate has yet to approve, aimed
at reducing the illegal traffic. And when he was a senator, Mr. Ashcroft
consistently opposed stricter gun laws.

United States officials "had not put this issue at the same priority
level that they put the issue of drugs," said Adolfo Aguilar Zinser,
national security counselor to President Vicente Fox. But the arms are
being "used by people who are doing exactly those things that most
concern the United States, drug trafficking," Mr. Aguilar Zinser said.

Mexico has strict if poorly enforced gun laws and strong criminal
syndicates. In contrast, the United States has perhaps 200 million
firearms, 103,718 federally licensed dealers and some of the world's
least stringent firearms statutes. Most of the guns in Mexico were
bought in the United States, then smuggled across the border, and
officials of both governments say little can be done to stop that

"This is a large problem," said Gary Thomas, chief of the firearms
division at the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
It is magnified, he said, by the increasing number of high-powered
semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles entering the country. "These
firearms are utilized more by the narcotraffickers and organized crime
groups," he said.

The profit margin in gun-running rivals that of cocaine; the potential
penalties do not.

A $125 handgun sold in San Diego sells for three times that sum in
Tijuana, 18 miles away, and $500 or more farther south. And violations
of some United States gun laws -- for example, falsifying gun-sale
records -- are mere misdemeanors that rarely lead to long prison terms.

One Mexican federal police officer, Alfonso Cuellar Guevara, made more
than $100,000 in less than two years buying 231 handguns from Texas gun
shops and smuggling them to Mexico City. He received an 18-month federal
sentence in Texas. Had he smuggled $100,000 worth of cocaine into the
United States, he would have faced at least 15 years in prison.

No one knows the precise number of weapons illegally imported from the
United States to Mexico, although it is assumed to total hundreds of
thousands over the last decade. Mexican officials believe that guns from
the United States account for 80 percent of the weapons in this country.

The border states of California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, with a
total of 12,706 licensed firearms dealers at gun shops and pawnbrokers,
are thought to be among the big sources. Mr. Thomas said Florida was
also emerging as a major provider of weapons sent by air and sea.

Typically, the weapons are smuggled in small shipments, hidden in secret
compartments in car doors or washing machines, stashed in stolen
automobiles, sent as checked luggage on commercial flights -- or, most
commonly, carried over the border in a car trunk or a suitcase.

Mexican officials call that last kind of smuggling "ant traffic." The
ants, they say, can be members of sophisticated criminal organizations
or migrants making a little extra cash. "When there are thousands of
people crossing the border each day, there are only a certain number
that can be stopped and searched," said Nicolas Suarez Valenzuela,
intelligence coordinator for the Federal Preventive Police. "And
usually, it's a very small number."

"There is always some new way of smuggling guns into the country," he
added. "We have found guns in boxes of powdered milk. We have found guns
in marmalade."

Not long ago, United States Customs officials in California seized two
cargo containers of weaponry abandoned by the United States military
after the fall of Saigon in 1975, headed to Mexico from Vietnam.

The smaller-caliber handguns from the United States go mostly to common
criminals and ordinary citizens, but they are increasing the violence of
everyday life in Mexico, law enforcement officials in both countries
say. Mexico's rate of gun homicide -- about 10 murders for every 100,000
people, compared with 6.3 per 100,000 in the United States -- is
surpassed only by Colombia, South Africa and possibly Brazil.

One of Mexico's murder capitals is the state of Sinaloa, whose governor,
Juan S. Millan, calls it "the birthplace of Mexican drug trafficking."
Governor Millan said killings in Sinaloa usually involved high-powered
weapons, like AK-47's. Last week, President Fox sent more than 1,000
federal police officers to Sinaloa in response to the murders and
kidnappings plaguing the state, the second such deployment this year.

The worst mass murder in Mexico's history was committed by the country's
most violent cocaine cartel, the Arellano Felix gang, at Rancho el
Rodeo, about 60 miles south of the border from San Diego, in September

The killers came to settle a score with a man who had crossed them. The
19 dead included two infants, six children and a pregnant 17-year-old.
Two Chinese assault rifles lay where the assassins had dropped them. The
Mexican police picked them up and sent their serial numbers to the
American Embassy in Mexico City, which sent them to a federal crime lab
in Martinsburg, W.Va.

At the crime lab, run by the firearms bureau, an agent had sifted
through thousands of pending gun trace requests filed by Mexico. She saw
that the guns were part of a pattern: 5 identical rifles, with
consecutive serial numbers, had turned up after a 1996 shootout where
Arellano Felix enforcers killed two Mexican soldiers; 15 more had been
seized after another battle with the gang.

The agent called the two federally licensed firearms dealers in the
United States to whom the guns could be traced on paper. The first was
Loretta Welch, who ran a weapons shop just outside San Diego called the
Shooter's Emporium. The second was a man who ran a small mom-and-pop gun
shop in Nevada. Ms. Welch faxed paperwork to the firearms agent showing
that she had sold the 80 assault weapons to the Nevada dealer. He
adamantly denied it.

"I now have one gun dealer who's lying to me," the firearms agent said
in an interview. "I thought it was a huge problem."

Search warrants and interviews revealed that Ms. Welch's paperwork was
phony. She had sold 80 of the Chinese assault rifles, along with 14 used
handguns, to a Tijuana weapons dealer she met at a California gun show
in 1995.

So far, 21 deaths have resulted from that $27,000 transaction. Ms. Welch
faces a maximum prison term of four years at her May 29 sentencing.

Since arriving in Mexico in 1991, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and
Firearms has reached the point of being able to track more than 40
percent of the guns used in crimes seized by the Mexican authorities
back to their sources, up from less than 10 percent.

But the bureau has only two people in Mexico, and in the United States
there are fewer than 500 inspectors to audit the more than 100,000
licensed weapons dealers. And, as the following cases illustrate,
corrupt dealers conduct business as if they know that "their chances of
being audited are not all that great," said Keith Heinzerling, the
agency's country attache in Mexico.

After a shootout in 1996, Mexican officials seized a .50-caliber machine
gun owned by a member of the Arellano Felix organization. The firearms
bureau traced the weapon back to RNJ Guns in Carson, Calif., one of Los
Angeles County's largest gun stores.

The owner, Romulo Reclusado, had sold it off the books to a straw buyer
named Octavio Espinoza, who counted among his close relatives a midlevel
member of the Arellano Felix gang. Mr. Espinoza and three of his
relatives in the United States bought at least two dozen assault rifles
and three .50-caliber weapons from RNJ. Five of those assault rifles
were seized in Mexico in 1999 after yet another battle with the Arellano
Felix gang. Mr. Reclusado was sentenced to 27 months for conspiracy and
selling machine guns. Mr. Espinoza received a sentence of a year and a

William H. Eckenrode, a convicted felon, illegally sold more than 1,000
weapons he had amassed in Texas, including fully automatic rifles, the
firearms bureau says. Mexican officials say they found two of his
weapons in 1997: one after a shootout in which drug traffickers killed
two Mexican military officers, the second in the apartment of Gen. Jesus
Gutierrez Rebollo, Mexico's drug czar, who was convicted of working with
cocaine traffickers. In 1998, Mr. Eckenrode was sentenced to six and a
half years in prison; one of his straw buyers, Richard Garcia, received
three years' probation.

Edward L. Leduc and Gary L. Wofford were federally licensed firearms
dealers in Texas who, according to the firearms bureau, were suspected
of illegally selling scores of firearms to Mexican citizens. They each
pleaded guilty to a count of selling weapons to "unauthorized persons,"
and received probation -- no jail time -- in 1998.
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