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Smuggled U.S. ammo feeds drug wars

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ok they screwed up with guns now they will work the ammo angle

PHOENIX -- Every year, thousands of guns are smuggled into Mexico from the United States, fueling the brutal drug-cartel wars and stirring outrage on both sides of the border.

But often overlooked in the controversy are the tons of bullets that also make their way south of the border.

In Mexico, ammunition is strictly regulated and possession of even a single illegal round can lead to prison. But there is nonetheless a steady supply of bullets. Almost all of it comes from the north.

Hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition are purchased each year from online retailers, big-box stores and at gun shows in Arizona and other Southwest border states, then are smuggled across the border.

"It's all coming from the U.S.," said Jose Wall, senior trafficking agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix. "I can't remember where I've seen ammunition from anywhere but the U.S."

Bullets are smuggled through border checkpoints at the bottoms of grocery bags. They are hidden by the box in the backs of cars and stashed by the case in cargo haulers, according to federal court records and interviews with law-enforcement officers.

And like the methods used, there is no typical smuggler. Some work closely with drug cartels; others are ordinary U.S. citizens recruited by cartel operatives to smuggle bullets across for extra cash. Some smugglers are illegal immigrants; others are Mexican citizens with tourist visas who buy ammunition and carry it across the border.

"We have juveniles all the way up to individuals 85 years of age," said Joe Agosttini, assistant port director in Nogales.

Over the past five years, seizures of ammunition at Arizona's six ports of entry along the Mexican border have risen steeply, from 760 rounds in fiscal 2007 to 95,416 this fiscal year.

That reflects both a stepped-up effort by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to check southbound vehicles for guns and bullets and a rising demand for ammo by drug cartels. The levels of violence have accelerated in recent years with the Mexican government waging war against cartels and inter-cartel battles intensifying over trafficking turf.

Drug violence has claimed more than 35,000 lives across Mexico since 2006, according to government figures. Other estimates put the toll at more than 40,000.

For every gun and bullet confiscated, cartels must find a replacement, federal officials said.

"If they can't arm their hit men, they are sitting ducks," Wall said.

One factor that enables the smuggling is the relative ease with which bullets can be bought in the United States. There are few restrictions on the number of rounds someone can buy.

In one ongoing federal case, three Tucson residents are accused of purchasing as many as 250,000 rounds of ammunition online that officials say were smuggled into Mexico. In another case, federal officials searched a Tucson home and turned up 20,000 rounds plus receipts showing a man purchased "large quantities of ammunition on a weekly basis," according to an indictment.

"Meet the nefarious gun trafficker's ugly sister -- the ammo trafficker," then-U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke said in a statement earlier this year after a grand jury indicted suspects in an ammunition-smuggling case.

"Driven by unfettered greed, liberal purchasing accessibility and border proximity, the ammo traffickers for drug cartels are flourishing in Arizona."

Easy to buy in U.S.

According to law-enforcement agents, the cross-border trafficking is all about supply and demand. Mexican drug lords demand bullets, and the United States has vast supplies of ammunition.

"Fifty rounds might cost you 15 bucks here," ATF Agent Wall said. "But sell them in Mexico, I'll bet you can make $45."

In Mexico, there is only one gun store, and it is controlled by the Mexican Army. The store, called Directorate of Arms and Munitions Sales, is in Mexico City.

Ammunition sales are only allowed at select stores and gun clubs.

The penalty for possessing even one illegal bullet in Mexico can be severe, including prison.

In contrast, though ammunition exports are regulated, few restrictions exist for buying ammunition in the U.S. Laws that once treated ammunition sales as rigorously as gun sales were repealed in 1986 and have not been re-enacted.

According to the San Francisco-based Legal Community Against Violence, a public-interest law center that seeks to prevent gun violence, the 1968 Federal Gun Control Act required sellers of ammunition to be licensed and to maintain a log of all ammunition sales. That ended with the 1986 Firearms Owners Protection Act.

Under current federal law, buyers must be U.S. citizens and have no felony convictions. Anyone over 18 can buy rifle ammunition and anyone over 21 can buy handgun ammo. But the decision to sell 10, 100 or even 10,000 rounds of ammunition is left up to the individual retailer. Unlike with multiple handgun and rifle purchases, sellers don't have to record the transaction or report the buyer to authorities under federal law.

Some counties and states go further and limit the types of ammunition that can be sold, have recording requirements or regulate mail-order deliveries.

A 2007 study by the Legal Community Against Violence found that only five states required licenses for ammunition sellers and only four required a license to purchase or possess ammunition. A few states restricted where ammunition can be carried, and 32 states regulated certain types of ammunition considered especially dangerous.

Arizona is not among the states with any of those laws. The state does prohibit someone from giving or selling ammunition to a person under 18 without written consent of the minor's parent.

Gun dealers say there is no reason to implement such laws. They say most buyers have legitimate reasons for buying ammunition in bulk, including firearms instructors and sports enthusiasts taking advantage of discount prices.

"I don't see anything wrong with it," said Don Gallardo, manager of Shooter's World in Phoenix. "Should we restrict someone from buying 10 cases of beer versus one case of beer?"

According to federal authorities, the lack of restrictions has turned Arizona into an ammunition warehouse for Mexican drug lords, who only have to find ways to get it across the border.

Suspicions aroused

The operations that deliver bullets into the turmoil of Mexico's drug war are not complex.

Take, for example, a 2010 Tucson case that began when delivery-truck drivers got suspicious.

A delivery truck for a national shipper regularly dropped off packages at a nondescript apartment in central Tucson. It happened so often, and the packages were so heavy, that the driver complained. The tip was passed along to federal officials.

According to the indictment, ATF agents monitored an April delivery, which came from an online Ohio-based company called aimsurplus.com, to the apartment .

The packages contained 4,000 rounds of .223 ammunition typically used in military AR-15 assault rifles, and 10,000 rounds of 7.62x39 mm ammunition, which is used in the AK-47 type assault rifles favored by drug cartels. Agents said two of the suspects, Emmanuel Vasquez and Charice Gaede, took the bullets from the apartment to a house they owned.

Two months later, in June, agents watched as a Ford Aerostar van with a Sonora license plate backed into the garage of the house; the agents then followed as it headed for Nogales.

Less than a mile from the Mariposa border crossing, the van broke down. The driver pushed it into a parking area less than 100 feet from the crossing.

Later that day, federal law-enforcement agents searched the van and reported finding two hidden compartments with a cache of 9,500 rounds. Agents also searched the Tucson house and found 20,000 rounds and receipts for earlier purchases of hundreds of thousands of additional rounds.

Vasquez, Gaede and Elias Vasquez were charged with illegally exporting ammunition. Emmanuel Vasquez and Gaede also were charged with possession of an unregistered firearm discovered in the search of their home. All three suspects pleaded not guilty.

Aimsurplus.com did not return calls.

Close to the border

Customs and Border Protection agents in Nogales are especially vigilant because the city is located on a key smuggling route; it connects directly to Highway 15,4 a main highway that runs all the way to Mexico City.

Only a few hundred feet from the border fence, tucked into a teeming shopping district , is a store called Nogales Tactical.

With its camouflage exterior and pictures of armed men in the windows, the store stands out among the discount-clothes merchants and bargain electronic stores. It is one of the few stores to openly sell ammunition so close to the border.

Inside, racks of merchandise offer boots and belts, sunglasses and holsters. Knives are kept in display cases; bullets are kept in back.

The store manager, who refused to give his name, said the store sells a limited amount of handgun ammunition. But he was quick to point out that any attempt to walk it across the border would be foolhardy.

"Just one bullet will get you arrested," he said brusquely, pointing toward uniformed border agents sitting outside the entry port. "It's worse than buying a gun right now."

•No major efforts are under way in Congress or Arizona to enact place more controls on the sales or possession of ammunition, say federal officials and interested groups say.

•In 2008, several Democratic members of the Arizona House introduced a bill that would have created a database to track manufacturers, retailers, purchasers and the ammunition itself. Only law-enforcement personnel would have had access. The bill, also introduced in other states, would have imposed a half-cent-per-dollar tax on each cartridge sold to pay for the system. The measure died in committee.

•In Congress, no recent bills have been introduced related to ammunition, according to OpenCongress, a nonpartisan, non-profit group that tracks legislation.

•After the mass shooting near Tucson on Jan. 8, in which Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was wounded, a bill was introduced in Congress to ban large-capacity magazines holding more than 10 rounds. The bill remains in the House Judiciary Committee.

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