Pubdate: Sun, 10 Aug 2008
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2008 Los Angeles Times
Author: Richard A. Serrano, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Mexico Under Siege


Licensed Weapons Dealers Are Abundant Near the Border. 'Straw Buyers'
Assist the Traffickers.

SIERRA VISTA, ARIZ. -- 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

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

"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."

'Straw Buyers'

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.

Key Arrests

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

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

"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

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.