HOUSTON (Reuters) - Mexican drug gangs looking for weapons powerful enough to stop a vehicle, penetrate a bullet-resistant vest or confront an army detachment need look no further than the Houston area’s 1,500 gun shops, where merchandise is priced to move.
Guns like the Barrett M-82 sniper rifle, the AK-47 and Bushmaster .223 are among those favoured by cartel hitmen that slaughtered some 6,300 people in Mexico border cities like Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana last year.
In Mexico, gun sales are regulated by the government and require citizens to apply for permits, which are rare and expensive. But deadly weapons are in ready supply at a substantial discount for those Mexicans willing to drive 350 miles (563 km) from the border.
“They can do the math,” said Dewey Webb, Special Agent in Charge of the Houston field division of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “They can come a few hundred miles north and get a lot better price on it.”
For example, the Belgian-made FN 5.7-calibre pistol is known to gangs as a “cop killer” because it can fire a round through a Kevlar bullet-resistant vest. It goes for $800 in the Houston area, compared to $1,500 in a border store, Webb said.
The Mexico border violence is starting to spill into the United States. In Tucson, Arizona, a two hour’s drive from the border, residents have seen a rash of home break-ins and assaults from gangs linked to the lucrative drug trade.
So far, the violence has not disrupted businesses in border towns like El Paso or Ciudad Juarez, said Bob Cook, president of the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corp.
With over 235,000 manufacturing jobs and 70 Fortune 500 companies, the two cities boast one of the biggest manufacturing hubs in North America, including auto part manufacturers like Bosch and medical device makers like Cardinal Health.
“It’s not the dollar outweighing the security issue,” Cook said. Even though the murder rate in Ciudad Juarez has skyrocketed, owners of the 350 plants there “are coming to the conclusion that criminal activity does not directly target them,” he said.
U.S. authorities say Mexican drug gangs, like Los Zetas, who act as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, now possess a sophisticated, high-powered arsenal that gives them the firepower to take on the Mexican army.
There’s also the AK-47 assault rifle, known by drug gangs as the “cuerno de chivo” or goat’s horn because of its distinctive curved bullet magazine. Drug gangs like the compact gun because a dozen of them will fit into the trunk of a car.
And brand-conscious buyers ask for the Bushmaster .223-calibre semi-automatic rifle by name because it has a coiled snake stamped on it.
Guns bought in Houston through ‘straw purchases’ have been traced to dozens of murders in Mexico. One or two are purchased at a time, making them harder to track because of the sheer number of seemingly legitimate buyers who only buy a few guns from any given store.
One case that was tracked involved an individual named John Phillip Hernandez, who on July 12, 2006, walked into the Academy firearms dealer in Houston and bought a Beretta rifle and two Bushmaster rifles, according to case documents.
Seven months later, one of the guns was used in an attack on government offices in Acapulco, Mexico, in which four police officers and three secretaries were killed.
To Mexican gangs, it’s a logical flow. They carry tons of cocaine, marijuana and other narcotics, and also smuggle immigrants, from Mexico to Houston, a major U.S. drug distribution hub. On the return trip they cart back guns and ammunition, Webb said.
According to ATF gun-tracing data, 90 percent of the traceable weapons used in Mexican drug violence originated in the United States with Texas, Arizona and California the largest suppliers.
The National Rifle Association, the powerful U.S. gun lobby with 4 million members, disputes that figure and has campaigned aggressively against attempts to regulate the commercial transactions of U.S. gun stores.
The NRA says most guns used by Mexican drug gangs come from the international arms market and the Mexican army rather than U.S. suppliers.
“If there is going to be a solution to this problem, it has to originate in Mexico,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. “Trying to solve the Mexico drug problem by enacting solutions in America is not going to be productive.”
The ATF disagrees and last month put an additional 100 agents on the streets of Houston and other Texan cities to trace firearms recovered in Mexico back to their sellers.
“ATF has drawn the line in the sand against violent crime in Texas and the entire country,” acting agency director Kenneth Melson said. The extra staff will allow the agency to investigate 700 more licensed firearm dealers, he said.
But some experts fear the effort will bear little fruit.
“You’re just not going to stop this volume of trafficking by focussing on prosecuting individual traffickers,” said Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Centre in Washington.
“The American gun industry has become all about making the kinds of guns that appeal to traffickers. We should look upstream and try to ratchet down the firepower,” Rand said.
Editing by Alan Elsner