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As Mexico drug violence runs rampant, U.S. guns tied to crime south of border

But the Justice IG report said that Mexican gun tracing has been "unsuccessful." ATF officials complain that, in the past, most guns seized in Mexico were not traced. Although the number of traces has increased, problems persist, ATF officials say.

"We're not getting all the information we need from them," said Bill Newell, special agent in charge of ATF's Phoenix field division.

Mexican officials say they send information in but get little that is useful in return. An official in the Mexican attorney general's office called tracing "some kind of bad joke," the Justice inspector general's report said.

A Government Accountability Office report on Project Gunrunner found that ATF has not done "recent systematic analysis and reporting of aggregate data," hampered by congressional restrictions on the tracing information. ATF officials said that they do analyze the data and that tracing information has led to some major cases.

One investigation showed that 23 traffickers had purchased more than 335 firearms, including 251 rifles, from 10 dealers. One of the suspects bought 14 AK-47s in one day from one dealer.

About one-third of the weapons were traced to incidents in Mexico involving 63 deaths, including those of 18 law enforcement officers. Some of the guns ended up being seized at the site of the "Acapulco Police Massacre," where drug gangsters disguised as soldiers invaded two offices of the state attorney general and killed three investigators, one prosecutor and two secretaries. One gun sold at Carter's Country was recovered 65 days later by police investigating the kidnapping and murder of a businessman.

Fifty of the guns were purchased at three Carter's stores, including 29 at the chain's flagship store in Spring, Tex. When one of the traffickers purchased eight Bushmaster .223-caliber sniper rifles for nearly $9,000 on May 12, 2007, an employee of the store contacted ATF.

The ringleader of the gun buyers was U.S. citizen John Phillip Hernandez, a 23-year-old unemployed machinist living with his parents. He pleaded guilty last year to one count of making a false statement to a gun dealer.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark White asked for the maximum 10-year sentence.

"He knew [the guns] were going to go to drug killers in Mexico," White said.

Hernandez got eight years.

There was no indication that the gun stores named in court documents - Carter's Country, Academy Sports and Outdoors, and Collectors Firearms - had done anything wrong. All three retailers are on the list of top 12 stores.

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