Pubdate: Wed, 06 Jul 2011
Source: Las Vegas Sun (NV)
Copyright: 2011 Las Vegas Sun, Inc
Author: Karoun Demirjian


By the Numbers

2 percent -- Share of the guns from the United States that originated 
in Nevada. The majority of firearms come from the border states of 
Texas, California and Arizona.

Two years ago, the case of Zorra Penunuri put Las Vegas on the 
national map in the fight against cross-border contraband.

The gun-smuggling kingpin from Southern California had purchased 
$100,000 worth of rifles and pistols from Las Vegas gun dealers to 
shuttle to drug cartels in Mexico, where the weapons would be used in 
the proliferation of an illicit drug industry that reaches into most 
U.S. cities.

The case came from a federal program known as "Project Gunrunner," in 
which agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms 
and Explosives attempt to trace and reduce the flow of firearms 
across the Southwest border. Penunuri was sent to federal prison 
after a U.S. District Court trial in Las Vegas in 2009.

Last fall, ATF announced that Las Vegas would be added to the list of 
border districts receiving special funding to fight and track 
cross-border crime, in a $37.5 million initiative to expand the 
program by seven cities.

But since then, not a dollar has landed. And as the fiscal year 
creeps to a close on Sept. 30, it's more likely that the money Las 
Vegas was promised to fight drug-related gun violence won't be coming.

Project Gunrunner has been making headlines the past few months under 
a growing scandal involving the Gunrunner operation known as "Fast 
and Furious." In what appears to have been an effort to trace weapons 
to more high-profile targets in Mexico, ATF officials allowed sales 
of certain flagged weapons from U.S. gun retailers to proceed to 
"straw" buyers -- and one of the guns purchased in such a transaction 
was used in the December killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona.

Since then, congressional scrutiny has focused on programs such as 
Fast and Furious and the ATF's operations in general, and accusations 
are flying that the agency allowed guns to be "walked" across the 
border to pad its statistics.

The political fallout means Las Vegas is likely to get short shrift 
on aid to combat its drug violence problem.

The entire gunrunner initiative has been walking a political 
tightrope as the country figures out how to spend sparse dollars. The 
ATF's budget didn't expand as expected at the beginning of the 2011 
fiscal year, because the government only funded itself under a 
continuing resolution through April. And the budget that's now 
guiding the federal government reflects cuts more than cash influxes.

But the program isn't just another casualty of bipartisan budget 
debates; even the Obama administration in January seemed ready to 
reduce if not kill its funding.

The administration suggested slicing $160 million out of ATF's budget 
- -- a cut that would be 4 percent below current spending levels. But 
the ATF worried even that small of a cut would eviscerate the 
gunrunner program because it's so new: layoffs usually hit the newest 
hires, and the program has been around only since 2006 -- 2005 if one 
counts the pilot stage.

It's not that the administration decided to get lax about gun 
control. Around the same time, President Barack Obama approved an ATF 
rule that would require gun shops in Arizona, California, New Mexico, 
and Texas to immediately report any bulk sales of semi-automatic 
weapons, the weapon of choice for cartels. The rule exists for bulk 
sales of handguns. The rule did not extend to Nevada.

But the step seemed to indicate that the administration had no plans 
to expand its project from the border anytime soon.

Las Vegas is certainly not a border town, but drug use is prevalent 
and its proximity to smuggling and transit routes -- Interstate 15 
links Las Vegas to the San Diego-Tijuana border -- makes it a hub for 
contraband trade.

When ATF announced its intent to send federally funded Gunrunner 
teams to seven new cities last year, the list skewed toward places 
such as Las Vegas: off the border, but along the internal routes. The 
list included Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, and Oklahoma City.

Brownsville, Texas, and Sierra Vista, Ariz., were the only border 
towns flagged for the $37.5 million, and the only cities to have 
received any of the money so far.

"Due to the limited funding, ATF had to prioritize the order in which 
the Gunrunner groups were to be opened," an ATF official said. "The 
offices in Sierra Vista, Ariz., and Brownsville, Texas, were opened 
first because they did not have existing enforcement groups."

The ATF has an office in Las Vegas, run by resident Agent-in-Charge 
Thomas Chittum, who concurred that the department has been working on 
the issue, "even before the announcement of Gunrunner and additional 
assets, with whatever resources we have."

But, Chittum added, the drug and guns trade is "still a very real 
concern for us here in Southern Nevada," and said getting additional 
money and personnel "is still a very high priority."

Part of the allure of a program such as Gunrunner is its dual focus: 
The ATF focuses on the guns, but the guns are directly connected to the drugs.

In Las Vegas, the drugs are the more visible cross-border problem, 
according to a spokesman for Metro Police.

Metro is one of 17 local, state and federal organizations with bases 
in Clark and Washoe counties that have pooled their attention under 
one other federal program, the national drug control policy's high 
intensity drug trafficking areas initiative.

Nevada has, since 2001, been one of 32 target zones in the U.S. and 
its territories to be designated a high drug-trafficking area, a 
label that brings with it ideas for synergizing local efforts, and 
$3.2 million a year to do it.

"We're the catalyst for forming task forces to get all of the 
agencies to work together toward a common goal," said Kent Bitsko, 
who directs the effort in Nevada.

Drugs have been on the upswing lately in Nevada, he said. And so has 
the related take of guns.

But connecting the dots between the drug violence that exists in the 
city and an origin point across the border is trickier business in 
Las Vegas than it is elsewhere.

"You can't link them directly, because usually it goes through Los 
Angeles or Phoenix or Tucson," Bitsko said. "But our drug business is 
controlled by about 95 percent Mexican nationals. Not necessarily 
cartel members. But they do have a connection to Mexico."

Compared with other cities, Las Vegas' drug and related gun trade is 
small. But apprehensions suggest that problem is growing.

Heroin is the drug of choice in Las Vegas, said Bitsko, who used to 
work narcotics for Metro. Three years ago, police were only seizing 
about one or two kilos a year, he said; this year, they seized 14.

His office also keeps records on how many guns are seized in 
conjunction with drug operations. In 2010, there were 172; in the 
first quarter of 2011, law enforcement officials already grabbed 89.

But even as Las Vegas' profile on the cross-border drug and guns 
trade gains more national attention, it's not translating into 
increased federal help.

Funding for the high-intensity trafficking initiative in Nevada 
hasn't changed in three years. Bitsko says the funding is adequate.

Hope is fading that extra ATF money and personnel will be allocated 
to Gunrunner.

Chittum said he doesn't have any information about whether Las Vegas 
will see the money -- although how much of the $37.5 million Las 
Vegas could have expected to see was never clearly laid out.

Such calculations may be moot at this point, given that the funding 
expires at the end of the fiscal year -- in 12 weeks.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom