For most of the spring and summer, a souped-up squad of 100 ATF agents was running all over Houston and South Texas doing everything possible to slow the raging river of guns illegally flowing into Mexico.
Agents followed up old leads, tracked down new ones, made scores of arrests, confiscated hundreds of guns and learned a lot about how the weapons are getting from Texas stores into the arms of the merciless drug-cartel soldiers.
At a news conference today, Dewey Webb, ATF's special agent in charge of the Houston field office, said the cartels' weapons of choice are assault rifles, such as an AK-47, which are typically bought by straw-purchasers from gun shops.
Increasingly, he said, female U.S. citizens are being paid to buy the guns and then hand them over to the smugglers to carry the weapons into Mexico. The typical price paid to purchasers is $50 a gun, an attractive sum to fast-food workers and others who can make up to $500 a day by hitting up several different gun stores in a row, said Webb.
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The weapons used in about 90 percent of all gun crimes in Mexico can be traced back to the United States. Of those, the majority came from Texas, authorities say. And in Texas, Houston in the Number One source, followed by Dallas and then cities in the Valley such as Laredo, Brownsville and McAllen. Houston is tops, Webb said, because it is home to nearly 20 percent of the state's 8,000 gun dealers.
A large component of the recent ATF blitz, which stretched 120 days long from April through August, was to contact and deal with gun shop owners. Webb said that in a number of instances a gun dealer was in cahoots with the buyer and smuggler, and that several licenses to sell guns will likely be revoked. ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson said today that his agents checked on 1,100 gun shops, reviewed 141,000 gun-purchase forms and gave out 440 violations. Over time dealers had lost track of more than 1,000 guns, and agents were able to account for all but 100 of them by the end of the operation. Agents also taught gun dealers how to keep better records and how to spot straw-purchasers.
In all, ATF agents looked at 700 old leads and gave priority to those cases where guns originating from the Houston region were used in a killing in Mexico, Melson said. Authorities also generated 400 new leads, resolving 87 percent of the total number of leads. In the four months, local agents opened 276 new cases, far more than in any of the previous three years. Melson said that the operation netted 189 defendants and agents seized more than 440 illegal guns, more than 141,000 rounds of ammo and $165,000. To date, said Melson, there have only been 28 indictments by the Department of Justice in federal court.
Though the surge is over and most of the 100 ATF agents flown in for the four-month operation are gone, $10 million in stimulus money is going toward hiring and placing 25 additional agents in south Texas, along with a number of investigators, intelligence specialists and analysts. The ATF is also using some of the money to set up permanent offices in McAllen, Roswell, N.M. and Las Cruces, N.M.