It took the death of one its own agents to get the United States Government to begin an inquiry into why federal authorities often watch while guns, purchased by what are known “straw buyers,” are trafficked to the border to be sold to criminal organizations.
The inquiry is focused on whether some of these weapons, which are purchased in the thousands of gun stores along the U.S.-Mexico border, were used in an ambush on a special unit of the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) on 14 December, which resulted in the death of agent Brian Terry.
As reported by the Associated Press, U.S. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa sent at least two letters to the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), inquiring about the case. Neither the article nor the letters explain which case the incident relates to, but the timing is curious.
Last week, federal authorities announced they had arrested 20 suspects in an arms trafficking case that centered on various weapons dealers and “straw buyers” in Arizona. The case involved hundreds of weapons that the ATF said were mostly going via these “straw buyers” to the Sinaloa Cartel, widely recognized as the largest drug trafficking organization in the hemisphere.
The indictment said the buyers purchased numerous AK-47 assault rifles, .50 caliber shotguns and powerful Belgium-made handguns known popularly as “cop-killers” — for their ability to penetrate kevlar and other protective gear — at the behest of middlemen who moved the weapons south to be resold on the black market.
Authorities watched the suspects for fifteen months before arresting them. Fourteen more suspects in related cases remain at large, authorities said last week. As InSight noted, the case illustrated both the incredible ease with which these buyers obtained the guns, and the incredible difficulty the United States authorities have in prosecuting these same buyers.
Mexican government officials are concerned by the lax regulations and the inability of the United States government to stop the mass purchases and smuggling of weapons over its border. Over 34,000 people have been killed in Mexico since 2006, in organized crime-related cases, authorities said. But Mexican authorities are also at fault for their inability to stem the weapons flow from the border to the country’s various hotspots where drug trafficking gangs are battling for control of lucrative ‘plazas,’ or trafficking corridors, with both security forces and themselves.
It is a subject that is important to InSight as well. And today, InSight, in conjunction with Frontline, the Center for Public Integrity and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University launched what will be an ongoing project looking into the path that weapons take, from the manufacturer in Romania, to the importer in Vermont, the gun seller in Arizona and the drug trafficking groups in Mexico.