During a press conference announcing the arrest and breakup of a United States-based arms smuggling ring, the U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis K. Burke said, “The massive size of this operation sadly exemplifies the magnitude of the problem – Mexican Drug Lords go shopping for war weapons in Arizona.”
By doing so, Burke pointed the finger at Mexico. But a close look at the indictment (pdf) of the 20 individuals arrested on Tuesday morning hardly shows “drug lords” on a shopping spree. Instead, U.S. v. Avila et al. paints a picture of United States’ citizens brazenly purchasing assault rifles in bunches of tens or twenties, then simply driving to the border to sell them for a profit. That this happened over the course of a 15-month period while U.S. law enforcement watched and listened says more about the U.S. than Mexico.
The lack of sophistication involved in the criminal operation is evident in one instance where the indictment says that one member of the conspiracy called a firearms dealer in Glendale, Arizona, asked how many AKs they had in stock, arrived at the store 45 minutes later and bought 20 of them. That night, the same purchaser went back and bought 20 more AK-47s from the same store. According to the indictment, the name of the buyer was Sean Christopher Steward, hardly a known Mexican drug lord on a shopping spree.
What makes Mexican government officials and many in the United States angry, is that the purchase of the weapons in bulk was not illegal, which is part of the reason it takes so long to build a case like this. It was, as the indictment makes apparent, the falsification of a federal transaction record, known as Form 4473, which forces the purchaser to testify as to who will take ownership of the gun.
How do we know who takes ownership? Some of these weapons are found in Mexico (like the one shown in the photograph above) at crime scenes where thousands of people are being killed by them. In agents’ parlance, this is called “time to crime.” The less “time to crime,” the easier it is to prove that these weapons were bought under false pretenses.
In parts of this case, the “time to crime” was days. But in other cases, it’s years, making it virtually impossible to prove the case, especially when guns can be lawfully bought and sold without any federal forms requirement at the hundreds of gun shows throughout the United States.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) is pushing for changes in this law, which do require firearms dealers to report multiple sales of handguns but not for “long guns,” the term for AK-47s and other assault weapons sold en masse along the border.
But few see any hope of change, even after the Arizona incident in which Senator Gabriel Giffords and 17 others were shot at a grocery store with an automatic weapon, six of whom died, an incident which provoked a far greater outcry in the United States than any of the close to 35,000 dead in Mexico over the last four years.
In a departure from other cases, the indictment also makes mention of weapons trafficking in Mexico. In a 2009 case involving a weapons dealer in Arizona whose weapons were also found in bulk in Mexican crime scenes, a judge barred the mention of violence in Mexico, arguing that it was not relevant to the case. That judge later threw the case out of court, despite evidence that included audio recordings of the weapons dealer explaining to the buyer how to falsify Form 4473 and telling him which was the best day to move his purchases to the border.
The ATF also provides a telling map (pdf) of the 567 weapons seizures in this case across the southwest United States and into Mexico (see map below). Not surprisingly, most of 195 guns found in Mexico were seized in troubled border states such as Baja California, Sonora, Tamaulipas and Chihuahua.
But none of the indicted individuals are charged with having any connection with the drug trafficking organizations that Burke talked about in the press conference. To be sure, none of the actual charges are related to sales of weapons to organized criminal gangs. In essence, the indicted appear to be a group of opportunistic young men, looking to make some fast cash from a giant loophole in U.S. government regulation of firearms sales.