US gun dealer on trial for selling weapons to Joel Millman | March 03, 2009
AN Arizona gun shop goes on trial in the state's courts this week in what police officials are calling a landmark case against gun dealers who sell weapons that end up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels, fuelling horrific violence south of the border that killed more than 6000 people last year.
X-Caliber Guns is accused of knowingly selling hundreds of weapons, mostly AK-47s, to buyers who were posing as fronts for Mexican drug gangs. The gun store's owner, George Iknadosian, 47, has maintained his innocence in court filings.
While the US has long pressed Mexico to stop the flow of illegal drugs such as cocaine from crossing the border, Mexico has complained the US does not stop the flow of guns heading south. Mexican and US officials estimate that more than 90 per cent of the weapons used by Mexican drug cartels come from the US.
Consider what happened last year in the Mexican border city of Nogales: the chief of the Sonora state anti-drug unit, Juan Manuel Pavon, was murdered by cartel hit men, just hours after attending a US seminar on how to resist the tide of American firearms surging into Mexico. Several weapons linked to the crime were traced back to X-Caliber Guns.
"The three highest priorities for me in terms of US co-operation in the drugs war are these: guns, guns, guns," Mexican Attorney-General Eduardo Medina-Mora said. "These drug groups intimidate society and government because of their firepower. And their firepower comes from the US."
No one knows how many weapons cross the border into Mexico each year. Unlike contraband drugs, which are consumed, contraband guns "remain in circulation until they are captured", says Terry Goddard, the Arizona Attorney-General bringing the case against X-Caliber Guns.
The number of US guns in Mexico is growing. The Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, says more than 7700 guns sold in the US were traced to Mexico in the fiscal year to September. That's twice the 3300 recorded the previous year and more than triple the 2100 traced the year before that.
US officials acknowledge US gun laws are partly to blame. The 1994 ban on the sale of assault weapons such as AK-47s in the US led to a decrease of such weapons south of the border. But the ban expired in 2004, and the numbers in Mexico spiked.
Last week, US Attorney-General Eric Holder said the Obama administration would seek to reinstate the ban. Contributing to the problem is the fact that Mexico's customs control is weak, and inbound traffic from the US is rarely checked.
Meanwhile, Mexican drug gangs are stocking up on deadlier weapons. ATF officials say they have registered more purchases of high-powered FN Herstal rifles and pistols -- the Belgian-made weapon called "matapolicias" in Mexico, or "cop-killers", for their ability to fire through body armour. Such items are sold in hundreds of Arizona gun shops, or by private owners online.
Although US gun laws generally forbid the sale of weapons to non-citizens, the X-Caliber case shows how Mexican purchasers used intermediaries, or "straw buyers", to flout the rules.
The scheme, according to the prosecution, was simple: The buyers, usually 19- to 22-year-old US citizens with no police record, declared that the firearm was for personal use, but instead passed it along to an associate of a Mexican cartel. The buyer filled out a standard form used by the ATF to track firearms. Lying on the form is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. ATF agents say buyers in the X-Caliber case were paid a fee to run that risk, up to $US100 ($158) on each transaction.
Gun shops rely on ATF recordkeeping to check them before selling to the wrong buyer. Ken Logan, a manager at the Shooters World gun store in Phoenix says the ATF form, once approved after being checked against a national database, relieves the store of responsibility.
"The ATF says 'yea' or 'nay', on who I can sell a gun to," he says.
Gun stores run the risk of lawsuits if they're deemed to be "profiling" -- refusing to sell guns to young Latinos, for instance. Mr Logan concedes he has seen men enter gun stores, point out to a girlfriend what weapon they should buy, and leave. The girlfriend fills out the form, saying the gun is for her personal use.
Getting bullets is even easier. Gun dealers must report anyone purchasing more than one handgun during a single five-day period, but there is no restriction on ammunition. Last Christmas Eve, salesmen at Cabela's Sporting Goods store in Phoenix were surprised when two Hispanic men bought 24,000 rounds of 5.7 calibre bullets, the same calibre used in FN "cop killers". They paid $US10,000 in cash. When the buyers were seen loading their purchase into a car with Mexican licence plates, store managers summoned police. Authorities found 12 FN rifles and three "cop killer" handguns.
Police arrested the buyers, but only because they were foreign nationals, and thus forbidden from possessing arms in the US.
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