Is an “iron river” of weapons flowing south from Texas to Mexico, as U.S. officials claim? Or is that nothing more than a fiction promulgated by a corrupt Mexican government that skews statistics to deflect responsibility?
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is reloaded with millions in Recovery Act dollars to continue its Operation Gunrunner, which it says helps stop Mexican cartels from procuring the weapons to fuel their murderous turf battles. The program is expanding operations along the border, including in McAllen and El Paso, and adding more agents to work with U.S. Embassy and Consulate offices in Juárez, Chihuahua. More than $21 million will be added to the operation’s total funding this fiscal year, according to a Department of Justice report. The study also backs up what ATF agents have been saying all along: that about 90 percent of the weapons used in crimes in Mexico — and submitted for tracing — come from Texas.
“The No. 1 source for guns being recovered in Mexico from the U.S. has been the Houston area, and that’s largely because the size of the city, the number of licensed dealers there,” said Special Agent in Charge J. Dewey Webb. Webb manages the Houston Field Division field office, whose jurisdiction encompasses Del Rio, San Antonio, Waco, Austin, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, McAllen and Laredo. Dallas and the Rio Grande Valley are second and third, respectively, Webb added.
But those assessments have critics balking. They say the key word is “traceable.” They suspect the Mexican government — which submits the weapons that ATF traces — is funneling almost exclusively American weapons to the agency to deflect blame and spread responsibility for addressing the problem.
“Ninety percent of traceable firearms, not 90 percent of firearms,” said Alice Tripp, the legislative director for the Texas State Rifle Association. “Even that sentence sounds misleading. We don’t know if that’s half the firearms, if that’s 10 percent of the firearms. And we don’t know where they are getting their information.”
Tripp has some concerns that ATF and its operations could hinder the public’s Second Amendment right to patronize gun shows. The TSRA website includes complaints about gun shows “under attack” in Austin, saying the ATF has unfairly singled out the city’s shows for scrutiny.
According to Tripp, the TSRA is “the association of law-abiding people who are simply trying desperately to not have their rights stripped away as kind of a token to a foreign government that is historically dysfunctional and corrupt.” The “corrupt” government, she said, was Mexico’s, which could easily submit for tracing only those weapons they know will be linked to the U.S.
Webb said gun shows have been investigated in the past but that the focus now is concentrated on straw purchases, where legal gun buyers purchase firearms for someone who wouldn’t otherwise qualify. Like any other businessperson, he said, criminals go where they get the most bang for their buck: to “brick and mortar” dealers.
"We have the supply and they have the demand"
The ongoing border turf wars — including the one between the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels that has made Ciudad Juárez the deadliest city in the Americas — prompted ATF to hold a news conference in El Paso on Wednesday to launch its latest leg of a campaign called “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy.”
The campaign promotes awareness of the repercussions for lying on official government forms when purchasing a weapon to hand over to an unqualified buyer. The penalty could be up to 10 years in prison for each offense, but ATF is concerned that the practice is driving the activity south of the border, said Special Agent in Charge Robert Champion.
Standing by Champion’s side was an unlikely ally, given Tripp's concerns. It was Lawrence G. Keane, the senior vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Inc.
Keane said his organization represented licensed dealers — not gun shows — and it was all for the ATF’s attempt to curb illegal weapons sales. But he also expressed skepticism over the claims about the overwhelmingly American origin of the firearms. “That [percentage] is not reflective of all firearms misused in Mexico or along the border,” he said.
Champion stood by the statistics, however, because they were “ATF numbers.” And, he said, experience goes along way. “Drug trafficking is nothing new. It was going on when I worked here in El Paso years ago,” he said. “The quantity of firearms being trafficked has changed, the sophistication of the way the guns are being trafficked has changed. It’s a supply-and-demand issue, we have the supply and they have the demand.”
It is also because the United States is a superior manufacturer of weapons, Webb added. “The United States has been the easiest and the cheapest place for the Mexican drug trafficking organizations to purchase their weapons,” he said. “Are there sources from South America? Yes there are, but they are not the high-quality rifles and high-quality pistols that they have been seeking.”
Keane doesn’t dispute that straw buyers present a problem, saying his organization has previously accepted Department of Justice grants to fund the awareness campaigns. But, he added, what is seldom reported is that firearms dealers themselves usually provide the tips that prompt ATF probes into straw purchases.
“A large number of their trafficking investigations start with information from their dealers. That’s very important,” he said.
Heavily publicized arrests and court cases seem to bolster the government’s focus on straw purchases. On March 30 the U.S. attorney’s office announced that 44-year-old Bernardo Garza of the South Texas town of San Juan was sentenced to 15 months in prison for lying to buy weapons. The same day, three defendants were charged for buying weapons and attempting to sell them at inflated prices. The weapons were to be smuggled after the purchase. And a week earlier, on March 23, a Mexican national was arrested at the new Anzalduas International Port of Entry near McAllen for attempting to buy semi-automatic weapons.
But ATF officials concede they don’t know where every weapon comes from and say a large amount could potentially come from South and Central America. Foes known to U.S. authorities, including Los Zetas and the Kaibiles, have gained control of the black market in Guatemala and are funneling weapons north. Champion suspects yet another source: “I don’t know, but I think they may be coming from former Eastern Bloc countries.”