U.S. Gun Trial Echoes in Drug-Torn Mexico
By JOEL MILLMAN
PHOENIX -- This week, an Arizona gun shop goes on trial in state court in what law-enforcement officials are calling a landmark case against gun dealers who sell weapons that end up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels, fueling horrific violence south of the border that killed more than 6,000 people last year.
X-Caliber Guns LLC, is accused of knowingly selling hundreds of weapons, mostly AK-47s, to buyers who were posing as fronts for Mexican drug gangs. The gun store's owner, 47-year-old George Iknadosian, has maintained his innocence in court filings.
While the U.S. has long pressed Mexico to stop the flow of illegal drugs such as cocaine from crossing the border heading north, Mexico has complained that the U.S. doesn't stop the flow of guns heading south. Mexican and U.S. officials estimate that more than 90% of the weapons used by Mexican drug cartels come from the U.S.
Mexican soldiers arrived in the border city of Ciudad Juarez on Sunday, to confront drug-trafficking cartels in the country's most violent region. Mexican and U.S. officials estimate that more than 90% of weapons used by Mexican drug cartels come from the U.S.
Consider what happened last year in the Mexican border city of Nogales. The chief of the Sonora state anti-drug unit, Juan Manuel Pavón, was murdered by cartel hit men, just hours after attending a U.S. seminar on how to resist the tide of American firearms surging into Mexico. Several weapons linked to the crime traced back to X-Caliber Guns.
"The three highest priorities for me in terms of U.S. cooperation in the drugs war are these: guns, guns, guns," Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal. "These drug groups intimidate society and government because of their firepower. And their firepower comes from the U.S."
No one knows how many weapons cross the border into Mexico each year. Unlike contraband drugs, which are consumed, contraband guns "remain in circulation until they are captured," says Terry Goddard, the Arizona Attorney General bringing the case against X-Caliber Guns.
The number of U.S. guns in Mexico is growing. The Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, says more than 7,700 guns sold in America were traced to Mexico in the fiscal year ending last September. That's twice the 3,300 recorded the previous year and more than triple the 2,100 traced the year before that.
U.S. officials acknowledge that U.S. gun laws are partly to blame. The 1994 ban on the sale of assault weapons like AK-47s in the U.S. led to a decrease of such weapons south of the border. But the ban expired in 2004, and the numbers in Mexico spiked. Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Obama administration would seek to reinstate the ban. Contributing to the problem is the fact that Mexico's customs control is famously weak, and authorities rarely check inbound traffic from the U.S.
Meanwhile, Mexican drug gangs are stocking up on deadlier weapons. ATF officials say they have registered more purchases of high-powered FN Herstal rifles and pistols -- the Belgian-made weapon called "matapolicias" in Mexico, or "cop killers," for their ability to fire through body armor. Such items are sold in hundreds of Arizona gun shops, or by private owners advertising online.
Although U.S. gun laws generally forbid the sale of weapons to noncitizens, the X-Caliber case shows how Mexican purchasers used intermediaries -- or "straw buyers" -- to flout the rules.
The scheme, according to the prosecution, was simple: The buyers, usually 19- to 22-year-old U.S. citizens with no police record, declared that the firearm was for personal use, but instead passed it along to an associate of a Mexican cartel. The buyer filled out a standard form used by the ATF to track firearms. Lying on the form is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. But ATF agents here say buyers in the X-Caliber case were paid a fee to run that risk -- up to $100 on each transaction.
Gun shops generally rely on ATF recordkeeping to check them before selling to the wrong buyer. Ken Logan, a manager at the Shooters World gun store in Phoenix says the ATF form, once approved after being checked against a national data base, relieves the store of responsibility. "The ATF says 'yea' or 'nay,' on who I can sell a gun to," he says.
Gun stores run the risk of lawsuits if they're deemed to be "profiling" -- refusing to sell guns to young Latinos, for instance. Mr. Logan concedes he has seen men enter gun stores, point out to a girlfriend what weapon they should buy, and leave. The girlfriend fills out the form, attesting the firearm is for her personal use.
Getting bullets is even easier. Gun dealers here must report anyone purchasing more than one handgun during a single five-day period, but there is no restriction on ammunition. Last Christmas Eve, salesmen at Cabela's Sporting Goods store in Phoenix were surprised when two Hispanic men bought 24,000 rounds of 5.7 caliber bullets -- the same caliber used in FN "cop killers." They paid in cash -- more than $10,000. When the buyers were seen loading their purchase into a car with Mexican license plates, store managers summoned police. Authorities found 12 FN rifles and three "cop killer" handguns.
Police arrested the buyers, but only because they were foreign nationals, thus forbidden from possessing arms in the U.S.
The murder of Mr. Pavón last year illustrates how Arizona's gun-friendly culture contributes to mayhem in Mexico. Last October, the men under Mr. Pavón's command fought gangs of narco-pistoleros in gun battles across the state. On October 24, a caravan of heavily armed assassins descended on Nogales, only to be repelled, leaving 10 gunmen dead. A week later, they attacked a police substation about a mile from the U.S. border crossing.
Days later, Mr. Pavón was in Arizona for consultations with U.S. officials.
At a farewell picnic at a federal shooting range in Tucson, the Mexican policeman was invited to test fire a powerful American weapon that has been surfacing lately in the narco-gangs' arsenals: the 50 caliber Barrett rifle, powerful enough to pierce a tank's armor.
"We had a shootout," recalls Mr. Newell, the ATF agent. "He won."
The following night, Commander Pavón was ambushed as he entered a Nogales hotel.