Deadly Deals: Gun Traffickers Exploiting Gun Laws
The sound of AK-47s, AR-15s and other assault rifles is all too familiar in Reynosa, Matamoros and other Mexican border cities.
Each year, thousands of high-powered weapons are traced back to the United States.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) reports that 14,504 American guns were found at crime scenes in Mexico in 2011 alone.
Federal court records reveals that many of those weapons came from the Rio Grande Valley.
An Action 4 News investigation reveals that gun traffickers are exploiting weaknesses in federal gun laws to acquire weapons for drug cartels.
One expert believes a national gun registry and other changes can stem the tide.
But 2nd Amendment advocates are against a registry but favor stricter punishments and more funding for the ATF.
No Magical Database
Jonathan Blais with the ATF office in Harlingen knows how deadly gun trafficking can be.
Part of his job is finding the people who bought the guns that are found in Mexico.
Using the ATF's E-Trace system, trusted Mexican police officers simply enter a gun's serial number.
That launches an investigation but there's just one problem: the database is not like those shown on TV crime shows.
"There is no magical database," Blais said. "There is no national register that the ATF or the federal government has on firearms information or ownership in the United States."
Instead of getting the gun buyer's name from a serial number, ATF agents can only find out the who made the weapon.
From there, agents have to find the distributor and then the gun store where records finally reveal who bought it.
The whole process takes about one to two weeks but can be expedited in emergencies.
"It's a cumbersome process... labor intensive for our investigators and analysts to research all this information for one firearm," Blais said.
Valley Guns In Mexico
Action 4 News reviewed federal court to find out how many guns are coming from the Valley.
A total of 41 criminal cases involving gun buyers were filed at the federal courthouses in Brownsville and McAllen in 2012.
Just this year alone, 21 high-powered weapons found in Mexico were traced back to the Valley.
Those guns resulted in four federal criminal cases involving 14 suspects.
"They're being recruited by individuals who have contacts inside the united states or direct contacts with the cartels in Mexico," Blais said.
Gun traffickers rely on recruiters who look for people with clean criminal records.
The gun buyers, or straw purchasers as they are known by ATF agents, Usually get $100 to $200 dollars for their troubles.
"They will instruct them or guide them on what they're looking for and often times, accompany them to the store but remain outside," Blais said.
Anthony Cecilio Jaramillo of Harlingen was one those recruiters.
ATF agents arrested him in March but back in 2010, he recruited Irene Viera, Alonzo Sepulveda, Jr. and others.
The assault rifles they bought all ended up in Mexico.
Jaramillo pleaded guilty to his role in the scheme last month and is expected to be sentenced in August where he faces five years in federal prison and/or a $250,000 dollar fine.
Exploiting Gun Laws
Gun buyers must go through a federal background check but Agent Blais said gun stores are not required to report their sales.
Firearms dealers in Texas and the three other border states are all required to report people who buy more than one assault rilfle in a five-day period.
But Blais said gun traffickers know better than to make that mistake.
"They are diverting that law and either sending a person in, a straw purchaser just to buy one firearm from one licensee and go to a separate licensee," Blais said.
Gun buyers can go city by city in the Valley buying one assault rifle from each store.
ATF agents wouldn't necessarily know the purchases were made until the weapons are recovered in Mexico days, weeks, months or even years later.
"No, we would not be able to detect that," Blais said. "The only The only thing stopping someone from doing that is time and money."
Under federal law, gun sale records are only kept at stores or with the dealer.
ATF agents would have to visit each store or dealer every day to personally inspect their record and look for a pattern.
National Gun Registry?
University of Texas at Brownsville Government Professor Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera spoke to Action 4 News about the issue.
She said a national database of gun ownership could help solve the gun trafficking dilemma.
"National registry would help in some ways but the changes would or ways registry should be done needs to be discussed to a large extent," Professor Correa-Cabrera.
She said gun records should be kept like databases for cars where a gun has to registered each time it changes owners.
Otherwise, weapons could end up in the wrong the wrong hands.
"They can be sold to Mexico or Central America or Africa or other countries or be used in the United States itself and that is what's scary," she said.
But Correra-Cabrera added that even a database isn't enough.
The professor crosses the border at least once a week and said Mexico also needs to do more.
"Sometimes nobody verifies what I have and I can be carrying a backpack and traveling to Mexico 10 times and carrying five guns," Correa-Cabrera said.
Regardless of what solution is used, gun trafficking is on a collision course with the 2nd Amendment.
Jeremy Reiley with the Rio Gun Club in La Feria has been around guns almost all his life.
He owns several assault rifles for both recreation and self defense.
Reiley opposes gun trafficking but said a national gun registry is not the right solution.
"There are 350 million guns in this country already," Reiley said. "Just the sheer logistics of telling everyone, hey I need to know what guns you have. That just opens up the government just one more step in being able to control our 2nd Amendment."
Reiley said he believes stricter penalties and sentences are the solution but added that the federal government can do more in a small way.
"The ATF needs more agents," Reiley said. "They need more money. They need to be able to follow the leads that they get from the local gun shops and the gun community and have the man power and resources to follow those."
Regardless of funding or databases, Agent Blais said the ATF will continue its work to shut down that pipeline of weapons to Mexico.
"Ultimately, that gun is going to be used by someone for a crime of violence," Agent Blais said. "It's going to be used so that somebody can kill somebody else with it."Guns Found In Mexico 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 From USA 14,504 6,404 14,376 21,035 11,842 Other Nations 3,641 1,161 2,136 3,476 1,846 Unknown 2,190 773 5,043 7,600 3,664 Total 20,335 8,338 21,555 32,111 17,352 Source: ATF Gun Data For Mexico Valley Straw Purchasing Cases 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 Brownsville 1 8 8 6 12 McAllen 3 33 20 34 12 Total 4 41 28 40 24
Source: Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER)