It was nothing more than a routine inspection for federal agents. But as they browsed the records of Carter’s Country gun shop in Houston, investigators picked up on a series of big sales. For cash.
Federal agents were alerted not only by the number of guns involved – sometimes a dozen at a time – but the type. Time and again buyers walked out of Carter’s Country clutching assault rifles, semi-automatic pistols with armour-piercing bullets and powerful sniper rifles accurate to more than a mile.
Agents of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) concluded there could only be one customer for such a collection: the Mexican drug cartels fighting a bloody war against each other, the government and civilians south of the Texas border.
A five-year ATF investigation, that continues to this day, identified 23 people in Texas recruited as buyers by one of Mexico‘s most notorious cartels, including several who were in high school together, three brothers and a man whose cousin married in to a drug lord’s family. They spent a total of $368,000 on 339 weapons for Los Zetas, a brutal and violent cartel with much blood on its hands. The cartel paid US citizens and legal residents who could pass the criminal background check in Houston gun shops – what the ATF calls “straw purchasers” – up to $500 for each set of weapons they bought.
As the prosecutor in the trial of one member of the ring put it: “He wasn’t just arming local street thugs. He was arming an infantry squad.”
That observation is backed by what is known about the scale of the smuggling and how some of the weapons were used.
More than 100 of the guns bought by the ring have been recovered in Mexico, four in Guatemala and one in the US. They have been identified in the killings of at least 18 Mexican police officers and civilians, and the deaths of 47 cartel-related gunmen.
The ATF said that some of the weapons were used in the 2007 Acapulco police massacre, in which five police officers and two secretaries were killed, a kidnapping and murder in Puebla, the ambush of police officers in Mexico City and during the arrests of top level Zeta enforcers.
That’s just a fraction of the 45,000 deaths in Mexico’s five-year drug war, a large proportion using some of the tens of thousands of weapons bought with ease over the counter in the US, with a driving licence and a quick background check for a criminal record, or at gun shows, with no background check or identification required, and smuggled across the border.
So far, 16 of the two dozen weapons buyers identified by federal agents have been charged as part of the five-year investigation. Fourteen have been tried – all admitted their guilt. Two are still on the run. The latest to be jailed, Christian Garza, a 26-year-old car windscreen repairman, was sentenced to three years in January for his part as a “manager” in recruiting other buyers, mostly the poor and financially desperate.
A key player in the ring was unemployed machinist John Hernandez, who spent $25,000 on 23 guns, including 15 assault rifles and weapons carrying bullets capable of piercing body armour, known as “police killers” among the Mexican cartels. Those weapons have been tied to eight murders.
Prosecutors said that some of the weapons were recovered after being used in wha they called “shocking crimes”. They included an assault rifle used in the kidnapping and murder of a cattle buyer two months after it was purchased, and another gun at the scene of the Acapulco police massacre when cartel members dressed as soldiers and claiming to be carrying out a weapons inspection disarmed a group of policemen and then shot them. One of the recovered weapons was a Bushmaster carbine, a civilian version of the army’s M-16 assault rifle, purchased by Hernandez at Academy sporting goods in Houston.
Hernandez recruited friends he knew from Klein Forest high school to also act as straw buyers. They included three brothers with the last name Pineda.
Hernandez received the longest sentence of the ring when he was jailed for eight years. But, as there is no law banning gun trafficking in the US, all prosecutors could get him on was falsely claiming to be buying the weapons for himself.
Juan Pablo Gutierrez received nearly four years for buying 28 guns for about $21,000 on behalf of the cartel. The weapons including 10 assault rifles modelled on the army’s M-16 gun.
According to prosecutors, Gutierrez was purchasing guns for a cousin who is married to the daughter of a notorious Mexican lord, Osiel Cardenas-Guillen, who was leader of the Gulf Cartel.
Among the fugitives is David Alcaide, a 24-year-old from the Houston area. He is accused of spending $42,763 on 37 guns.
Houston is the single largest source of weapons shipped to the cartels. J Dewey Webb, the ATF special agent in charge of pursuing gun trafficking in southern Texas, said the cartels are attracted by the sheer number of gun outlets in the city, which run in to the many hundreds.
“They can come to the fourth largest city in the country and buy these guns and it’s a lot harder for us to see what’s going on because they can go to a different gun dealer every day of the month and do that for months and not hit the same gun dealer,” said.
Kristen Rand, director of the Violence Policy Centre, which has made a study of weapons trafficking, said she believes that gun manufacturers and sellers are complicit.
“The gun industry is in complete denial. The gun dealers say they’re not knowingly supplying traffickers. But they are knowingly selling the cartels’ weapons of choice. If you look at some of the dealers in the border areas, all they sell are the traffickers’ weapons of choice, and then they allegedly can’t figure out how these guns are ending up in the hands of the cartels when their whole product line is targeted at that market,” she said.
Carter’s Country was not the only gun shop involved. None has been prosecuted. The owners of those stores where weapons were purchased by smugglers decline to talk to reporters because of continuing litigation.
But Jim Pruett, a gun shop owner in Houston who sells the assault rifles and powerful weapons favoured by the cartels, said that dealers do not sell firearms knowing they are destined for the cartels and that it is typical to report suspicious buyers to the ATF.
“We look at them to see if they look like they’re criminal. Somewhat indigent, drugged,” he said. “But we can’t just refuse to sell someone a gun. All we can do is report them.”
Jim Lake, one of the judges who heard several of the illegal gun buying cases, is sceptical.
“I can’t believe these gun stores didn’t know something was wrong,” Lake said.