The Newtown shooting and the outrage about guns reminded me of reporting in Mexico and how easily weapons can end up in criminal hands. I remembered the scene when I met up with two agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in their office in El Paso, Texas.
It was one of many reporting trips to the Texas-Mexico border, as cartel violence slammed Ciudad Juárez, just across from El Paso. The places are so close that to get to the ATF office, I walked from Juárez, across one of the international bridges connecting the two cities. The ATF office was in an undisclosed downtown office building. After getting off the elevator, I was instructed to head down a long hallway and knock an unmarked door.
Inside, the place bustled with a handful of agents overseeing numerous investigations involving weapons seizures, many from private homes nearby. Large, microscopic maps of Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua state plastered the walls.
The ATF agents, who requested anonymity, seemed overwhelmed. Confiscated weapons nearly spilled out of one room. It was 2010, as thousands died violently in Mexico, many killed by firearms smuggled in from the US (Mexico has only one gun shop, in Mexico City; the cartels typically smuggle in guns through the U.S., Latin America and elsewhere).
In the room with seized weapons, a massive rifle stood out. It was an ArmaLite AR-50 and weighed more than 40 pounds. The gun’s thick, matte black barrel was the size of a small poster tube—designed to soften any vibrations, or “whip,” when fired. That improves accuracy. The tricked out .50-caliber, with its scope mount and muzzle, could cost more than $3,000.
Other weapons included pearl-handled Glock pistols. There were dozens of semi-automatic AR-15s and AK-47s, which one agent described as “military-style weapons because the AR is the civilian equivalent of the M-16.” Drum magazines, which can be purchased in person or online, can be added to carry an additional 100 bullets.
A stack of 20 rectangular-shaped cardboard boxes occupied one corner. It was a stash of more than 40 AK-47s found in an El Paso home.
When investigations end, the ATF destroys the weapons. Melts them down.
Many of the weapons originated from small gun shops, pawn shops, gun fairs, or at sporting goods stores. There are more than 2,000 sale points along the US-Mexico border alone.
The ATF agents worried most about straw buyers, or people with clean records buying weapons for criminals. “That’s someone coming into a gun shop with a list of weapons they need and a wad of cash,” one agent said. Guns shops are not required to alert the authorities to suspicious sales. “We hope that if someone comes in and buys 20 AKs, that they’d call us,” the agent said. Sometimes they do, “but they’re not necessarily required to.”
They also talked about gun-selling websites, from smaller outfits to generic wholesalers. Items can be shipped free, next-day anywhere in the US that holds a Federal Firearms License, or an FFL, a licensed local gun seller. The authorized dealer then transfers the weapon to the buyer. The buyer fills out a form and a background check is required (there’s a movement to subject gun owners to regular checks). Once there’s a greenlight, the transaction is done.
Websites market the AR-50 rifle as “wildly popular.” True. It’s currently out of stock on sites like Budsgunshop.com and Slickguns.com.
I lifted the 40-pound AR-50. It took two hands and felt like lifting two steel rods.
How was this used in Mexico?
“The cartel guys will take a firearm like this and mount it in the back of a Suburban,” one agent explained. “They’ll set it on a seat and have a door or a hatch out the back that they can flip up and shoot out of. Some of the people these guys are after are driving armored vehicles, too. But this weapon can go through armored glass and take out the driver.”
Who bought this gun? Where’d they recover it?
The agents traced the gun through its serial number to a woman living in Las Cruces, New Mexico, about 45 miles from El Paso. She turned out to be a sought-out straw buyer for the cartels.
In fact, one of the ATF agents said, she looked quite a bit like me: dark-haired, petite, about 5 feet 3 inches.
One of the agents testified at her trial, when the handguns and the AR-50 she purchased turned up at crime scenes in Mexico.
“I couldn’t believe it when they brought her into the courtroom,” the agent said. “You could barely lift the gun yourself. It’s a two-person deal! And that’s legitimately sold in the United States. Shoots out to a mile. It’s outrageous.”