Federal agents have broken up a gun-smuggling ring in the Houston area that was allegedly sending weapons to criminal gangs in Mexico. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has 100 additional agents in the border region for a 120-day special deployment under what is called "Project Gunrunner."
The ATF agents involved in "Project Gunrunner" are trying to locate and seize weapons before they can be taken over the border into Mexico and investigate past trafficking of guns as well. This week federal agents arrested eight of ten people indicted for smuggling guns that were later seized by Mexican authorities and provided to ATF for tracing.
The Special Agent in Charge of the ATF Houston region, Dewey Webb, speaking to VOA by telephone, said such smuggling operations are directly linked to murders south of the border.
"We know that this particular group bought over, I think, 338 guns over a 15-month period and spent over $368,000 doing that and out of those 338 guns, 72 of them have been recovered in Mexico and Guatemala, so far," he said. "Out of the 72 guns, 36 of the guns have been connected to shooting deaths in Mexico. Out of the 36 deaths, 17 of them have been police officers and civilians."
Although guns used by drug gangs in Mexico come from a variety of international sources, many of the guns Mexican authorities have provided ATF through the U.S. embassy did trace back to gun store purchases in the United States. Webb says a large percentage of those guns originated here in the Houston area.
"Because we have long been a hub for the narcotics trafficking, moving into the United States and going north, we have also been a hub for the money going south, therefore we also, because of the infrastructure being there, we are also a hub for the firearms going into Mexico," said Webb.
Webb says some hand guns, easily obtained in gun shops here, are popular with drug gangs in Mexico, where private ownership of firearms is severely limited by law. He says military-style semiautomatic rifles, which can be purchased legally in the United States, can be made fully automatic on the other side of the border.
"The cartels have people on their payrolls who know how to work these guns; they know how to convert these weapons and we know that is happening quite a bit down there," said Webb. "As soon as they get a semiautomatic version of a weapon, the first thing they do, if they have the capability, is convert it to full automatic."
Webb says smugglers often use what are known as "straw purchases" of weapons from dealers in the United States. They pretend to be purchasing a weapon for private use and then sell it to smugglers. Someone convicted of this crime could spend up to ten years in prison.
Webb says gun dealers are rarely involved in illegal schemes and most are, in fact, very cooperative with federal authorities.
"Some dealers, along the border, have refused to sell certain types of weapons because they know they are big items for the drug trafficking organizations, which, to me, is another example of their doing the best they can do to work with us on this stuff. Most of the time, if a dealer doesn't smell something right, we are the first ones they call. They are some of the best sources we have," he said.
Webb says "Project Gunrunner" may be extended, if necessary, and that agents are also keeping close watch to make sure smugglers do not move their operations to sections of the border where inspections are not as intense. He says U.S. officials are also in touch with Mexican counterparts to foster cooperation in the effort to stop gun smuggling.