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

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An ATF agent explains how Texas-sold guns fuel Mexico's drug war, and a killer reenacts shooting to death a Houston police officer.
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Authorities have struggled to keep U.S. retailers' firearms from falling into the hands of drug cartels as violence increases south of the border.

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Carter's Country denies the allegation, saying the gun was purchased legally by the man's wife.

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Hormigas

Small-time gunrunners along the border are known as "hormigas," the Spanish word for ants. Hernan Ramos, a 22-year-old U.S. citizen, was one of them. On May 17, 2008, he headed to a gun show in Arizona, where he bought an Olympic Arms .223-caliber rifle from a Tucson firearms business, Mad Dawg Global.

That same day, a friend of Ramos's, another U.S. citizen, bought two more .223-caliber rifles from Mad Dawg. Over the next three months, the two men and several of their associates returned to Mad Dawg repeatedly to buy rifles.

They smuggled the guns across the border, an hour south of Tucson, to "Rambo," a member of the Sinaloa drug cartel.

All in all, Ramos and nine others bought 112 firearms worth more than $100,000 - 30 from Mad Dawg and the rest from 14 other firearms dealers across Arizona, court records show.

The hormigas were eventually arrested and charged with firearms violations. Ramos, one of the ringleaders, was sentenced this summer by a federal judge in Tucson to four years and two months in prison.

No charges were brought against any of the gun dealers involved, and there was no indication the dealers did anything wrong.

One of the dealers, J&G Sales in Prescott, ranks third on the top-12 list, with about 130 of its guns traced from Mexico over the past two years. The store owner said he is diligent about making legal sales.

"I would stand by every transaction we make at the time we make it," said J&G owner Brad Desaye. "But I'm disappointed to hear that number. It saddens me. It should not happen."

The lack of charges against dealers is not unusual, in part because it's difficult to prove a straw purchase took place.

"If you're a gun dealer and you see a 21- or 22-year-old young lady walk in and plop down $15,000 in cash to buy 20 AK-47s, you might want to ask yourself what she needs them for," said Newell, the ATF special agent in charge in Phoenix. "If she says, 'Christmas presents,' technically the dealer doesn't have to ask for more."

Under federal law, a gun dealer who sells two or more handguns to the same person within five business days must report the sales to ATF. The agency has identified such sales as a red flag, or "significant indicator," of trafficking. But multiple sales of "long guns," which include shotguns and rifles such as AK-47s, do not have to be reported to ATF.

The Justice Department inspector general said in a report last month that "the lack of a reporting requirement of multiple sales of long guns - which have become the cartels' weapons of choice - hinders ATF's ability to disrupt the flow of illegal weapons into Mexico."

Over the years, the gun lobby has successfully opposed such a requirement, arguing it is not needed, because long guns are far less likely to be used in crimes. But the percentage of long guns recovered in Mexican crimes has been steadily increasing, from 20 percent in 2004 to 48 percent in 2009, reports show.

"The reasons that the deaths are so high in Mexico are the long guns," said James Cavanaugh, a former high-ranking official with ATF. "The velocity of the round and the amount they can put out quickly is what makes it so deadly."

Roadblocks for ATF

The biggest case ATF brought against a gun dealer in Project Gunrunner illustrates the obstacles agents face when they try to do something about stores sending guns to Mexico.

It was a case that seemingly had everything in its favor.

Corrupt gun stores usually are hard to catch because law enforcement needs evidence that the stores knowingly sold weapons intended for criminals. In this case, the agents had tons of evidence: surveillance, recorded phone calls, confidential informants and undercover agents posing as straw buyers.

In late 2007, ATF agents busted suspects who told the agents they had purchased hundreds of weapons from a single dealer: George Iknadosian, who owned a Phoenix gun store called X-Caliber.

Agents examined the dealer's traces and found that 86 guns had been recovered by police in the United States and Mexico between 2005 and 2008. Of those, 47 had been traced from Mexican crime scenes.

The store had sold 710 guns of the types known to be popular with Mexican drug cartels - more than 500 AK-47s and SKS-style rifles, plus one especially lethal .50-caliber Barrett rifle capable of piercing armored vehicles.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix declined to take the case, because it started out with low-level straw-purchaser charges and was going to require a lot of time and resources to develop further. So ATF took the case to the Arizona attorney general, who worked on it for more than a year with the Phoenix Police Department.

Iknadosian instructed undercover agents posing as straw purchasers about how to sneak weapons across the border, advising them to cross on weekends and Fridays when border agents might be off fishing.

"When you guys buy them [guns], I run the paperwork, you're okay, you're gone," he said. "On my end, I don't give a crap."

Iknadosian was charged with violations of state fraud, forgery, racketeering and money laundering laws.

"This was an amazingly well-prepared case," said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. "The evidence was all there. There is no question what was going on."

But in March 2009, a state judge, Robert Gottsfield, dismissed the case before it went to the jury.

"The judge's decision was inscrutable," Goddard said. "It was a real shock to our office."

Iknadosian's attorney, Thomas M. Baker, said he showed on cross-examination that ATF's informants were not credible.

"The ATF and Terry Goddard decided to give every single one of them probation if they would testify against George," Baker said. He said the conversations with Iknadosian were "out of context."

In an interview, Gottsfield defended his decision, which he said was one of the few times in 30 years he had dismissed a case before it went to a jury.

He agreed that there was ample evidence against Iknadosian, but he called the case "overcharged."

"There certainly was evidence that Iknadosian was selling to people who were not buying the guns for themselves, and that's a class-one misdemeanor," Gottsfield said.

About guns going to Mexico from the United States, the judge said: "It is a terrible problem. They have to do something about it."

grimaldij@washpost.com horwitzs@washpost.com

Research editor Alice Crites and staff writer William Booth contributed to this report.


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