On both sides of the border, Mexico’s cartels have small teams that, among other assignments, procure weapons from different sources. However, according to law enforcement officials, it’s unlikely, unnecessary and dangerous for these teams to reach into the United States to develop their own networks or have contact with straw buyers like the ones who were purchasing weapons at X Caliber Guns in Arizona. Instead, the teams simply wait in Mexico where they already have in place contacts, protection, storage facilities and transportation services.
The corridors and methods used for trafficking weapons south are much the same as for trafficking illegal narcotics north (for more information, see GunRunners Map on the right). Trucks and passenger vehicles with hidden storage containers move relatively easily south along Mexican highways and backroads, as security officials are more focused on the northbound drugs. Still, there are captures and arrests.
The Mexican government says it’s seized over 93,000 illegal weapons since Felipe Calderon became president in December 2006. Of these, they say close to 90 percent came from the United States. And the arrests often give us clues as to who forms part of the arms trafficking networks that operate outside, or on the margins, of the large criminal syndicates — the cartels — and provide them with weapons and munitions.
On December 19, 2009, army personnel raided a safe house in Cuernavaca. They seized 41 assault rifles, 6,700 rounds of ammunition, seven silencers and an assortment of handguns, telescopes, radios and small amounts of illegal drugs.
Startled by the raid, a neighbor called her son, Emilio Guzmán Montejo, a police commander with the municipality’s special banking unit. When he arrived on the scene, authorities were waiting. He was arrested and charged with having a cache of unregistered weapons.
The Guzmán Montejo case illustrated two apparent patterns in the arms trafficking business in Mexico: the involvement of active or retired law enforcement and the use, possibly, of family members to serve as couriers and keepers of the weapons.
Three months after his arrest, Guzmán Montejo was set free for lack of evidence. It’s not a surprise, for there’s a dearth of investigation into this kind of case. U.S. and Mexican authorities say police and military personnel are often central to arms trafficking, and this may partly explain authorities’ reluctance to investigate, or even talk much about it.
Another example: An alleged trafficker in the X Caliber case, Fidel Hernandez, told investigators at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives [ATF] that he was “selling the guns to people who were `cops’ in Mexico.” According to ATF’s report, “At this location, approximately one mile inside Mexico, Hernandez would meet with the Mexican police officers, who were in uniform. Hernandez said the officers would pay him for the guns, which he had inside the bags.” (See more on this case here.)
As with the Guzmán Montejo case, family also were part of the story: Hernandez said that in one of his trips to Mexico, a cousin introduced him to several Mexican police officers.
“During this time,” the ATF report reads, “These subjects asked Hernandez if he would be able to get guns in the United States and bring them down to Mexico. Hernandez indicated he told them he would be able to get the guns, and from this point on, Hernandez began to sell firearms to these individuals.”
Shortly thereafter, Hernandez told investigators, he sold a .50 caliber rifle he bought from X Caliber for $9,500 to those same Mexican police, scoring a $500 profit from the sale.
Mexican military personnel have also been tied to weapons trafficking. In one case, chronicled by the Mexican investigative weekly Proceso, an army major sold weapons to the Beltran Leyva Organization and the criminal group the Zetas, much of it decommissioned weaponry.
The Recycling of Weapons
It’s hard to know how much seized weaponry is recycled back into the criminal enterprises through corrupt military and police because the numbers don’t add up. U.S. officials say Mexico asks them to trace less than 25 percent of the weapons decommissioned, which the ATF says totals more than 70,000 weapons. This total, however, does not correspond with the number of weapons the Mexicans say they have decommissioned, which they estimate to be 93,000 since the beginning of the Calderón administration.
A former Mexican prosecutor, a U.S. law enforcement officer and an international investigator all say Mexican security forces intentionally don’t keep an accurate count. That’s because the sector of the security forces involved in the weapons trade wants to resell seized ammunition and weapons back to the cartels. And another sector of the security forces would be embarrassed if it got out publicly that no one knows exactly how many weapons or munitions have been decommissioned.
The Mexican army vehemently denies it is responsible for any recycling of weapons back into the criminal networks. At a tour of its decommissioned weapons’ storage facility, Mexican Army General Antonio Erasto Monsivais Pinedo said the army keeps very close tabs on all the weapons it seizes (see video below). He says only ten to fifteen percent of the weapons decommissioned were recycled back into use by the security forces. A small percentage, he added, went to museums and the rest were destroyed. To prove his point, the general showed two reporters how they destroyed them.
Local law enforcement — in particular municipal and state police — also seize many weapons. Their accounting, according to U.S. and Mexican intelligence services, may not be as rigorous as the army’s. One U.S. agent tracking weapons in the region said many of these seizures are never reported and simply filter back into the criminal networks or are sold on the black market.
Other Players in Arms Trafficking Inside Mexico
There are also smaller, independent criminal groups that specialize in moving weapons. At one point they operated independent of the drug cartels, selling arms to everyone, as was noted in an April 2009 report by the Mexican Attorney General’s Office. “Drug trafficking organizations do not control the weapons’ black market,” the report said. “Their distribution network contact people who purchase weapons for them, and these people necessarily have contacts with the organization.”
Things are different today. Mexican authorities told investigators in this project that the cartels are forcing the independent criminal groups to choose sides and work for them, or else.
Finally, every group involved in the arms trafficking business, whether drug cartels, security forces or small criminal organizations, tend to rope in family — people they trust.
On May 10, 2008, Mexican authorities raided a safe-house in Culiacán, Sinaloa. After a short gun battle, authorities arrested four men, including Alfonso Gutierrez Loera, the cousin of the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias ‘El Chapo.’ Inside the house they found one .50 caliber rifle, one grenade launcher, three grenades, eight bullet-proof vests, more than 3,500 rounds of ammunition, one H&K G-3 rifle, and 12 AK-47s. Gutierrez Loera was later sentenced to 21 years in jail.