by David E. Robles
ATF Deputy Director Kenneth E. Melson, U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis K. Burke and ATF Special Agent in Charge for Arizona Bill Newell
Federal authorities today announced the results of a 97-day gun trafficking sweep in Phoenix focused on stemming the flow of firearms to Mexican drug cartels. The investigation netted nearly 1,300 firearms, 71,000 rounds of ammunition and close to 700 grams of cocaine and resulted in 174 criminal investigations.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives revealed the successes of its Arizona Gun Runner Impact Team (GRIT) surge and announced the establishment of seven additional gun runner groups that will be put in place nationwide along traditional and newly discovered gun trafficking routes.
U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis K. Burke, who joined in the press conference at ATF’s Phoenix headquarters, said 96 defendants have been charged, convicted or sentenced on gun-related charges through his office since June.
More than 28,000 people have been killed in Mexico since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on Mexican drug cartels in December 2006. Authorities say U.S.-purchased firearms are a foundation of the cartel’s military force.
Weapons seized during Phoenix GRIT intiative, including several AK-47 type rifles and large .50 caliber weapons.
With dozens of seized weapons laid out to his left, ATF Deputy Director Kenneth E. Melson said, “The Obama administration has looked to the ATF to find solutions to shut down these trafficking routes and these trafficking organizations.”
Firearms seizures are increasing, he said, but arms trafficking “will be with us for a long time. This is a situation that will not be remedied over night.”
Congress recently provided a supplemental $37.5 million for the administration’s Southwest Border Initiative. Melson noted that though Arizona and Texas are the key U.S. sources of guns for cartels, this is not just a border-state problem: “Gun trafficking to Mexico is a nationwide problem.” With the additional funding, the ATF has established seven new gunrunner groups in Atlanta; Dallas; Brownsville, Texas; Las Vegas; Miami; Oklahoma City; and Sierra Vista, Ariz.
The Phoenix GRIT supplemented ATF resources in Arizona from May 1 through August 6 with 84 additional ATF personnel focused on stemming the trafficking of firearms to Mexican drug cartels and investigating firearm-related crimes on both sides of the border. It was the second gun runner impact team to focus on cartel trafficking, following efforts in Texas in 2009.
Many of the weapons trafficked across the border are purchased in the U.S. legally by so-called “straw purchasers” who then turn them over to traffickers for profit. Burke said his office has “drastically” increased the number of prosecutors to go after straw purchasers and gun traffickers.
“Many straw purchasers think it’s not a big deal, like buying beer for a kid, but it’s not,” Burke said. “This is deadly, deadly business.”
Melson stressed the importance of ATF’s firearm tracing system, eTrace, in helping to track the origin of weapons smuggled to Mexico from the U.S. In 2009, the agency developed a Spanish eTrace that has been used in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries to aid in the tracing of arms. While many guns cannot be traced (due to obliterated serial numbers, thefts or private sales), the agency was able to track 141 firearms that were seized in Mexico during the GRIT initiative back to purchasers in Arizona.
ATF Special Agent in Charge for Arizona Bill Newell addressed the Spanish-language media in Spanish, saying that although GRIT and the ATF have found some success through Project Gun Runner much more needs to be done to reduce the crime and power of the Mexican criminal enterprises.
Melson noted that the ATF is partnering with Mexican authorities to provide assistance in tracing weapons, training law enforcement, helping with forensic science and conducting post-blast explosive investigations.
During the GRIT initiative, the ATF also ramped up inspections of federally licensed gun dealers. After the inspection of 806 dealers, 69 voluntarily surrendered their licenses while the agency took administrative action against 110 other dealers. The inspections also enabled the agency to reduce the number of unaccounted for weapons in dealer stock, which can impact the ability to trace weapons, from 3,000 down to 300 firearms. Melson said the operation underscores the importance of gun store inspections and record keeping by licensed dealers.
“As a result of these drug organizations and their thirst for money and power, lives are being lost,” Melson said. He stated that although many ATF agents have returned home after the conclusion of the GRIT effort, investigations are ongoing and they will return to Arizona periodically to see cases through. “Nothing is as important as stemming the violence,” he said.
READ AMANDA J. CRAWFORD’S IN-DEPTH INVESTIGATION INTO GUN TRAFFICKING TO MEXICAN DRUG CARTELS IN THE OCTOBER 2010 ISSUE OF PHOENIX MAGAZINE. READ “THE IRON RIVER” HERE.