PHOENIX – A federal agency trying to stop guns from being smuggled from the United States into Mexico for use by drug cartels has formed teams in seven American cities to combat the problem.
The teams set up by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are a follow-up to earlier temporary groups of investigators who worked in Houston and Arizona and seized about 2,000 guns.
The permanent 10-member teams will be based in two cities in the border region — in Brownsville, Texas, and Sierra Vista, Ariz. — and away from the border where smugglers have set up trafficking routes and recruit gun buyers in Dallas, Las Vegas, Oklahoma City, Atlanta and Miami.
"We can't put all of our resources in one point, because what we learned from other agencies is that if you put all resources to go after illegal activity in one point, guess what? It goes some place else," said Kenneth Melson, ATF's deputy director.
Many guns used by criminals in the Mexican government's war against drug cartels are bought in the United States, the bureau says. Cartels recruit "straw buyers" in the United States who make purchases on their behalf and then pay people to bring the weapons across the border.
Agents on the teams will inspect records at firearms shops, investigate suspicious purchases and use traces from guns recovered in Mexico to track down straw buyers.
Melson said a team will be based in the southern Arizona city of Sierra Vista because the Sinaloa drug cartel uses the area as a transit route.
Dennis Burke, the U.S. attorney for Arizona, said his state has become the gun locker for the cartels and warned of the serious consequences for people who buy guns on behalf of cartel members.
"For a lot of these straw purchasers, they don't think it's a big deal," Burke said. "They think it's like buying beer for an underaged kid, but it's not. It's an offense that violates federal law, and it's leading to deadly consequences in Mexico."
Melson said the teams that operated in Houston for 120 days in 2009 and in Arizona and New Mexico for a similar length of time ending on Aug. 6 helped make a dent in the problem.
But how big of an impact is unknown. The agency said it's difficult to say how many guns from America are sneaked into Mexico.
ATF said Texas and Arizona are the two largest sources of guns that were seized in Mexico and had complete traces run on them. Not all seized guns in Mexico are traced.
Of the 2,000 guns seized by both temporary teams, two-thirds were in Arizona. None were seized by the temporary team that worked in New Mexico, where investigators focused on inspecting records at gun stores.
The new teams were funded by the $37 million that ATF recently received from Congress for combating gun smuggling along the southern border.