Weapons sold in Houston kill in Mexico
Plentiful shops, border proximity make the city the go-to market for drug cartels
By DANE SCHILLER
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Nov. 29, 2008, 11:24PM
GUILLERMO ARIAS ASSOCIATED PRESS
A police officer in Tijuana, Mexico, investigates the scene where a woman was killed by gunmen in a parking lot last week.
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Tragic path to Acapulco ends in woman's death Map: Houston-Mexico criminal connections Graphic: Guns used in execution linked to Houston store Drug cartel gangsters waging a criminal insurgency against Mexican society and government are making the Houston area their marketplace of choice, as they spend millions of dollars statewide buying military-style weapons and ammunition.
Gangsters have honed in on this city because of its glut of gun shops, its proximity to the border, and its long-established networks for smuggling narcotics into the United States, federal law-enforcement officials said.
The surge in fraudulent purchases comes as more than 4,000 people have died in Mexico's criminal underworld violence this year.
Authorities can point to numerous crimes, including the infamous 2007 Acapulco Massacre to illustrate the carnage brought on by Houston-bought guns that have gotten into the hands of ruthless killers.
The need for arms is increasing as Mexican drug cartels are battling one another and the government after President Felipe Calderon made restoring the rule of law his priority upon taking office two years ago.
"Our investigations show Houston is the top source for firearms going into Mexico, top source in the country," said J. Dewey Webb, special agent in charge of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Houston division.
The agency known as ATF is trying to bring down at least three cells here it contends supply weapons to the Gulf Cartel, according to documents filed in local U.S. District Court.
Since 2007, when the investigation was launched after an audit of a gun store's sales records, agents working with Mexican counterparts have traced at least 328 Houston-bought firearms to those cells.
The ATF knows when and where some guns were used to kill police, gangsters and others in Mexico, according to the documents.
During a 15-month period in 2006 and 2007, 22 alleged conspirators paid $352,134 — in cash — for guns. The ATF contends:
•A Bushmaster carbine, a civilian version of the M-16 assault rifle, bought at an Academy sporting goods store on South Gessner was used last year by drug gangsters who disguised themselves as soldiers to massacre four police officers and three secretaries in Acapulco.
•A similar rifle was sold at a Carter's Country gun store in July 2006 and recovered two months later in central Mexico after the murder of a cattle buyer kidnapped at a small-town soccer match. At least 45 assault rifles were sold by Carter's Country to three members of the gun-purchasing group, according to court documents.
•Guns traced to Houston were used in a shootout last March that killed 11 gangsters in the Guatemala highlands.
Carter's Country, Academy and other stores are not charged with wrongdoing. They declined to comment and would not say whether changes have been made to derail cartel efforts to buy guns.
Andrew Molchan, director of the Professional Gun Retailers Association, said members are aware fraudulent buyers are out there and are encouraged to ask more questions than the law requires to evaluate customers.
"Regardless of the business — banks, doctors or whatever — if somebody starts to commit fraud it's very difficult for any business or retailer to combat that," he said.
The task may be difficult, but U.S. officials have an obligation to do more to keep guns on this side of the border, Mexican authorities say.
"All the weapons the drug syndicates are using in Mexico come across the border from the United States," Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's ambassador to the United States, said during a visit to the Houston Chronicle.
Indeed, Mexican officials estimate 90 percent of nearly 27,000 weapons seized from stash houses or recovered from crime scenes in the past two years originated in the United States.
Mexican agents in early November found 500,000 rounds of ammunition and 540 guns at a stash house in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen. Preliminary information indicates many of the guns came from the Houston area.
"It is more weapons than you would need to supply an army," Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora said in a recent speech.
Mexico's weapons laws are far stricter than those in the United States, making it difficult for civilians to purchase guns and ammunition. U.S. citizens crossing into Mexico have been sent to prison for having accidentally left guns or ammunition in their vehicles.
Still, with Mexican border inspections often haphazard, and with corruption rampant, thousands of guns and loads of ammunition are believed sneaked across the border monthly.
To help Mexico keep drugs out of the United States, the U.S. government needs to increase the number of federal agents fighting weapons trafficking, Sarukhan said, and to develop better intelligence as to who's buying the guns, where they're buying them and where they're taking them.
The number of ATF agents assigned to the Houston region, which stretches from near Del Rio to the Gulf Coast, has increased 12 percent in the past two years.
Current interpretations of the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms, make such investigations difficult, agents said. Federal law prohibits the government from having a long-term database of weapons or ammunition purchasers.
Almost always, shops that have sold guns later used in crimes have done nothing illegal.
U.S. citizens and legal residents who are not convicted of a felony, who say the gun is for their own use, and who meet a few other standards can buy all they want in Texas.
"There are no flags to be raised because you're not breaking the law," said Rachel Stohl, an expert on small arms smuggling at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C.
It is up to a gun store owner or sales clerk to decide whether they are being hoodwinked and call authorities.
"For the same person coming in repeatedly and buying these weapons at that amount of money and probably paying cash, somebody has to stand up and be a good American," said Don Clark, a retired FBI agent who headed the Houston office.
The ongoing ATF investigation offers a rare glimpse into how Mexican crime syndicates exploit gun laws, as well as what can become of those weapons.
Agents contend that one of the Houston weapon-procurement cells was led by John Hernandez, a 25-year-old U.S. citizen, an unemployed machinist living with his parents, purchased 23 guns for $24,819.
Hernandez, who the ATF contends purchased at least one of the guns used in the Acapulco massacre, pleaded guilty to making false statements during the purchase of firearms.
He is scheduled to be sentenced in January.
Among the favorite weapons of the cartels is a .223-caliber Bushmaster, which goes for about $1,000 at some Houston gun shops, and can fire rounds capable of piercing body armor.
Hernandez bought five Bushmasters one day in September 2006 from the Carter's Country on Treaschwig Road in Spring.
In addition to the guns Hernandez purchased, the ATF contends he had people working for him, including former Klein Forest High School classmates.
Hernandez is said to have enlisted a 23-year-old former Klein Forest student, who authorities say bought 37 guns for $42,763. His biggest single purchase came on May 12, 2007, when he purchased eight Bushmasters, also from Carter's Country in Spring.
The ATF's Webb said those who purchase weapons for drug cartels play a key role in the terror cartel hitmen unleash.
"They are just as responsible for the killing of that person in Mexico, that police officer or innocent bystander as if they had pulled the trigger themselves," he said. "They have blood on their hands, just like that person who pulled the trigger in Mexico."
Staff writer Dudley Althaus contributed to this report from Acapulco.
Tags: Houston, Texas Guns, Firearms, Gun Rights, Mexican Drug Cartels, Immigration
Location: Houston, Texas, United States (load item map)
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