Mexican federal police commander Gen. Rodolfo Cruz Lopez described a weapon seized last month (april/13/09) from one of the nations deadly drug cartels as a .50 caliber anti-aircraft gun that fires 6-inch armor-piercing bullets at the rate of 800 rounds per minute.
The mainstream media coverage on both sides of the border trumpeted the capture of this Rambo-style machine gun as evidence of the increasing danger the drug-trafficking organizations pose to civil society.
A report on the seized anti-aircraft weapon by the Associated Press noted that assailants have fired on government aircraft performing anti-drug missions in Mexico in the past, but apparently never with the caliber of weapon found Monday [April 13 in northern Mexico].
But there is just one problem with this narrative. According to U.S. law enforcers, specifically the ATF, the captured weapon is not what it appears to be, or at least what it was purported to be by the Mexican police commander.
In fact, according to Bill Newell, special agent in charge of ATF in Arizona and New Mexico, the so-called 800 rpm anti-aircraft gun isnt a machine gun at all, but rather a WWII-era semi-automatic replica of a Browning machine gun made by a U.S. company.
Newell says the weapon was produced by a manufacturer in Oregon, TNW Firearms Inc. — though he stresses that TNW did nothing wrong in this case. Newell adds that the fake Browning has been traced back to a firearms dealer in Arizona that ultimately sold it to someone who brought the weapon into Mexico.
A spokesman for TNW, who asked that his name not be used, stresses that his company re-manufactures WWII-era machine guns, converting them into semi-automatic (one-bullet-per-trigger-pull) weapons, which it then sells to wealthy collectors, WWII re-enactors, movie companies and museums. He says the guns are remanufactured, with ATF oversight, and are re-engineered so that they can never be made into machine guns again.
The TNW spokesman says anyone purchasing one of the companys weapons has to go through an FBI background check and adds that there is an extensive paper trail on every weapon sold.
We have a record of everyone we sold to, so its a very tight customer chain, the TNW spokesman says. And we have very limited production, so in the last 10 years, weve only sold a small quantity of the .50 caliber [Browning replica], in the 100s.
Youd have to be really stupid to be a straw buyer for a weapon like this, because it will trace right back to you. Its like 100 percent you would get caught.
The TNW spokesman adds that, in his mind, it would make no sense for a drug trafficking organization to purchase a TNW replica Browning, which sell for in excess of $10,000 a pop, when they could get the real thing much cheaper and without the same risk through the black market — even from corrupt elements within Mexicos own military. In addition, the TNW spokesman says the replica weapons, since they are converted machine guns, are not very practical for real-life battle situations, since once converted to a semi-automatic weapon, they are not accurate.
Mexican police supposedly discovered the powerful weapon (identified by press reports as a Browning .50 caliber machine gun) at a house in northern Sonora state while on routine patrol. It was attached to a make-shit gun turret mounted in the bed of a Ford pick-up truck.
Gen. Cruz, presumably a person quite familiar with firearms, announced the capture of the Browning .50 caliber machine gun at press conference held in Mexico City on April 14.
At the media event, Mexican authorities displayed the seized weapon, along with a cache of other arms allegedly found inside the house in northern Sonora state. Also, on display at the press conference was a 20-year-old woman, Anahi Beltran Cabrera, who was found guarding the weapons stash, according to Mexican authorities.
Gen. Cruz claims that intelligence gathered by Mexican law enforcers indicates that the weapons belonged to a cell of the Beltran Leyva drug organization. The 20-year-old woman arrested at the house, according to Cruz, allegedly has no family ties to the drug-organizations leadership.
Reports in the Mexican and U.S. press differ on precisely what other weapons were seized from the house in Santa Ana in Mexicos northern Sonora state — some 50 or so miles south of Nogales, Arizona. But Mexican TV footage of the press conference clearly shows, in addition to the anti-aircraft gun, what appears to be at least one .50 caliber sniper rifle, a .30 caliber Browning machine gun, five rifles, several hundred ammo magazines and thousands of rounds of ammunition — including .50 caliber rounds — as well as 750 grams (.75 kilos) of cocaine.
The ATFs Newell said that in addition to the .50 caliber Browning replica, seven other weapons from the Sonora seizure have since been traced back to U.S. sources. He adds, though, that he cant tell the whole story.
All I can say is that those [eight] guns traced back to the U.S. [though not all of them were made by TNW], Newell says. They originated in the U.S.
Newell also indicated that the .30 caliber weapon displayed at the press conference in Mexico City was a TNW-made, semi-automatic Browning replica.
The TNW spokesman did confirm, after viewing the Mexican TV footage, that the gun platform propping up the .30 caliber weapon does appear to be a TNW product. However, he says he cant explain how that platform ended up in Mexico.
However, the spokesman says the .30 caliber weapon doesnt appear to be a TNW product — though he could not determine from the TV footage whether the .50 caliber Browning replica was made by his company.
The TNW spokesman adds that the entire arms cache displayed at the Mexican press conference seems odd, as though nothing fits together, like it is a collection of props.
For example, the TNW spokesman says, there are several hundred ammo magazines, but only five rifles — leaving one to question what happened to all the other guns. In addition, he says the gun platform, if it is indeed a TNW product, is made of aluminum, a soft metal that would quickly bend and contort if used in real battlefield conditions.
In addition, the TNW spokesman says the claim by Mexican Gen. Cruz that the so-called anti-aircraft weapon is capable of firing 800 rounds per minute is just flat wrong. The spokesman says, at best, the real thing — a Browning .50 caliber machine gun — could only sustain a fire rate of 400 to 450 rpm and that at 800 rpm the barrel of the gun would melt down.
So whats going on here?
One former ATF agent, who also asked that his name not be used, suggests one possibility: This is all a dog and pony show.
The former agent says it is not out of the realm of possibility that the Mexican government staged the gun bust, or at least hyped the press conference, using previously seized weapons in order to bolster its chances of securing additional aid from the U.S. government to help continue its escalation of the drug war. The former agent adds that he is suspicious of all the coincidences surrounding the weapons seizure — including the fact that the guns were found by accident during a routine patrol, at least one of the guns was a replica, and one of the gun platforms was nothing more than an aluminum prop.
Its happened before, the former agent says. You bring in some dope or guns from the [police] warehouse as props. Its a big game.
In addition, the timing of the bust and subsequent press conference seems too convenient, according to the former agent. The Mexican press conference announcing the weapons seizure was held on April 14, one day before the Obama administration named its new border czar, Alan Bersin, a former federal prosecutor; and two days prior to President Barach Obamas arrival in Mexico to meet with President Felipe Calderon to discuss the drug war.
In addition, Kristin Bricker, who reports from Mexico, looked into the status of Beltran (the 20-year-old woman arrested as part of the weapons seizure), and discovered that she still has not been officially charged with a crime by Mexican authorities — now nearly a month after allegedly being caught red-handed with the stash of weapons. However, Mexican law does allow a suspect to be held in jail for an extended period of time prior to charges being brought against the individual.
But what benefit would staging a weapons seizure (or at least embellishing what was actually seized) have in this case?
Theres millions of dollars at stake [for Mexico], the former U.S. agent says. So they would do it to hype the fear [and cast Mexican law enforcement in a good light for making the seizure], to better the odds of getting more money. I just dont believe in coincidences.
Could it be that the Browning replica that Mexican federal police commander Cruz described as a deadly anti-aircraft gun is nothing more than a prop borrowed from a Mexican movie set or a wealthy gun collector with ties to the Mexican government?
Alternatively, is it possible the ATF is putting out disinformation designed to discredit the Mexican police commander for some reason?
Or is it possible that some narco-trafficker went through the trouble of buying a $10,000 Browning replica, parking it at a house in northern Mexico guarded by a 20-year-old woman, just so he could lay claim to being the Rambo of Sonora?
Whatever went down here, its likely to remain another mystery of the drug war — where the truth, it seems, is always for sale if the price is right.
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