Imagine you own a gun store in Texas. Imagine further that one quiet morning, a young woman enters your shop. She seems pleasant, and during the course of your friendly chat she talks of picking her children up later on from school. She then places an order for 20 AK-47s.
She is one of many “straw purchasers”: law abiding American citizens with clean criminal records who are buying weapons from US gun stores on behalf of Mexican cartel members. In return for carrying out the purchase, the “straw purchaser” receives cash from the cartel operative, who can utilise the US and Mexico highway system to travel easily straight back down south, across the border, transporting the lethal firearms into the thick of the drug violence.
Around 28,000 people have died in drug related violence in Mexico since the government aged “war” on the cartels in 2006. The mounting evidence suggests that many of these died as a result of weapons bought in the US.
In a 2009 report to congress by the US government Accountability Office, over 90% “of firearms siezed in Mexico and traced over the past 3 years have come from the US.” And 40% of those are reportedly coming from Texas alone. This shouldn’t be too surprising, as the Lone Star State is a paradise for gun lovers, home as it is 3,800 gun retailers. There are over 300 hundred in Houston alone.
But how are the cartels obtaining and transporting their guns with such ease?
The US highway system is instrumental in allowing the cartels to move around easily once north of the border. Colorado Springs, nestling at the foot of Pike’s Peak 650 miles north of the Mexico border and the blood-stained city of Juarez, is one city which they have chosen as a base for their operations. As Matthew Barden, a Drug Enforcement Administration officer and Resident Agent in Charge at the Colorado Springs Resident Office, told me: “Interstate 25 runs straight down to the Mexican border. Between the border and Colorado Springs there’s only one other town of any real size and that would be Albuquerque, New Mexico. The interstate system that we have here brings these folks to our town because they have direct access to Mexico along this highway”.
The Colorado branch of the DEA has been involved in “Project Deliverance”, a 22 month multi-agency law enforcement investigation publicly announced in June this year. Like many states, Colorado’s ease of access from the Mexio border is making it an increasingly popular destination for cartel members who wish do do their business away from the security-heavy border. Across the US, “Project Deliverance” has resulted in the seziure of 501 weapons – a small sum considering that an estimated 60,000 have been siezed since President Felipe Calderon came to power in 2006.
And Texas remains a favoured gun shopping destination for the cartels, due to the adundance of its weaponry stores. The Washington Post recently revealed the results of its year long investigation into the origin of the cartels’ firearms. They named 12 of the top US dealers of guns traced to Mexico in the last couple of years and 8 of them are in Texas. In particular, the 4 indepedent gun stores owned by Bill Carter in the Houston area have been very busy indeed. According to Project Gunrunner, launched by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 2006, more than 115 guns originating from Carter’s Country Stores have been siezed in Mexico in the last two years.
There is nothing new about stories and statsics revealing the extent to which US gun stores are equipping the Mexican cartels with their weapons. What is new, claim many US government officials, is the type of weapons now being purchased and sent south to Mexico. High powered rifles like AR-15s and AK-47s, as well as armour piercing .50 calibre weapons – “long guns”, as they are called – are being bought by straw purchasers and smuggled to Mexico.
And the law allows it. Though the US gun lobby argues that “long guns” are less likely to be used in crimes than handguns, the former accounted for 48% of the weapons siezed in Mexican crimes in 2009, up from 20% in 2004. Under federal law, a gun dealer who sells more than two handguns to the same person within 5 days must report the sales to the AFT, but multiple sales of “long guns” do not have to be reported.
This, combined with the fact that is difficult to prove that a straw purchase actually took place, means that US firearms’dealers are rarely charged, even if there is overwhelming eveidence against them.
In one case uncovered by the Washington Post, a man killed a police officer with a 9mm Smith and Wesson he bought from a Carter’s Country store in Pasadena, near Houston. Unable to buy a firearm himself due to a felony sex offence conviction, he purchased the weapon “in the name of my wife”. The murdered officer’s wife, Joslyn Johnson, said: "I think it is all about money and that it is a common practice for [the gun dealers]…They are putting guns in the hands of criminals."
In another case, a gang consisting of 23 operatives bought 335 weapons from just 10 US dealers over the course of a few weeks. One gang member purchased 14 AK-47s in one day from a single dealer. Subsequently, a third of these weapons were traced to crimes in Mexico involving 63 deaths.
As Agent Newell, the ATF special agent in charge in Arizona, said: “"If you're a gun dealer and you see a 21- or 22-year-old young lady walk in and plop down $15,000 in cash to buy 20 AK-47s, you might want to ask yourself what she needs them for.. If she says, 'Christmas presents,' technically the dealer doesn't have to ask for more."
The US highway system, allowing Mexican drug barons easy access to and from Mexico, the lack of federal law pertaining to suspicious sales of “long guns” and the difficulty of proving that a straw purchase has taken place, all mean that the Mexican cartels will continue to arm themselves to the teeth with US weaponry. The law enforcement agencies wortking to reduce gun smuggling into Mexico also have to content with the flippancy of many gunstore owners, whose consciences do not trouble them so long as their profits are healthy.
Bill Carter, owner of Carter’s Country Stores, wrote in an April newspaper advertisement for his company: “Why all the talk about guns going south when so many drugs are coming north that our cows along the insterstate are getting’ high off the fumes”.