GunRunners – Introduction to the Joint Project

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In the little over four years that Felipe Calderon has been president of Mexico, the Mexican government has registered 34,162 deaths due to organized criminal violence. It has also seized 93,000 weapons, the vast majority of which come from the United States, say Mexican authorities. And while no one knows exactly how many weapons cross the Mexican border illegally per year, the relationship between firepower and violence is unmistakable in Mexico.

Homicide rates due to organized crime have since skyrocketed, reaching 15,273 last year. This includes hundreds of politicians, policemen and ordinary citizens. As the drug-war death toll climbs, so too does the lethality of the weaponry favored by the cartels. A country with but one gun store – and some of the strictest gun laws in the world – is now awash in military-style assault weapons.Beginning in 2004, the Mexican criminal syndicates began an arms war that has spread from north to south and even into neighboring countries like Guatemala and Honduras. The weapons have allowed groups like the Sinaloa Cartel to develop mini-armies that, much like their Mexican military counterparts, have sought to fight and gain territorial control of strategic and lucrative trafficking corridors.

One of the most popular, and a focus of our investigation, is a cheap durable knockoff of the AK-47, called the WASR-10, made in Romania. Known as the “Cuerno de Chivo,” or “Goat’s Horn,” in Mexico, because of its curved magazine, this is the Mexican criminal syndicates’ most popular weapon. It is easily altered from a semi-automatic to an automatic, is easy to operate and is virtually indestructible even while facing all matters of climate.

These semi-automatic rifles are readily available in many of the 6,700 gun stores along the southern border, despite a U.S. ban on the importation of assault weapons since 1989. Under current regulatory interpretations, rifles like the WASR-10 are imported into the U.S by companies like Century International Arms, where they undergo a “reconfiguration” that increases their lethality and popularity in gun stores like X Caliber in Phoenix, Arizona.

The GunRunners  investigative project tracks the entire distribution chain – in this case from the Romanian factory, where these weapons are born, to the streets of Culiacan, Sinaloa and Cuernavaca, Morelos, where these weapons wreak havoc and, ultimately, death (see map) – in an effort to understand the interconnected nature of the gun business and how limited oversight and enforcement by government agencies along the chain keeps this cycle going.

The project is an ongoing joint investigation by FRONTLINE, the Investigative Reporting Workshop, The Center for Public Integrity, InSight and the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism.

Other Stories in the Series:

How Guns are Trafficked Below the Border

How the Beltran Leyva, Sinaloa Cartel Feud Bloodied Mexico

The Takedown of the ‘Boss of Bosses’

IRW: Romania, Vermont, Arizona: Guns Follow Complex Route to Mexican Cartels

CPI: Romanian Weapons Modified in the U.S. Become Scourge of Mexican Drug War

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