- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Federal grand juries in Arizona have returned multicount indictments in five cases against 34 persons accused of assisting Mexican drug-trafficking cartels with illegally smuggling firearms, including AK-47 assault rifles, from the U.S. to Mexico.

Beginning early Tuesday morning, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a multiagency law enforcement task force arrested 20 of those named in the 53-count indictments. More than 100 officers were involved in the operation.

The indictments charge that from September 2009 to December 2010, the defendants conspired to purchase hundreds of firearms to be illegally exported to Mexico. It said none were licensed firearms dealers, but acted as “straw purchasers” by falsely declaring they were buying the weapons for themselves.

AK-47’s are considered the “weapon of choice” for Mexican drug-trafficking organizations.

The ATF has sought to stem the flood of high-powered weapons to Mexican drug smugglers from sellers in the U.S., with the deployment of hundreds of agents and investigators along the Southwest border to increase the “strategic coverage” of the region and disrupt firearms-trafficking corridors.

Violence on the U.S.-Mexico border is undergoing what U.S. law-enforcement authorities have called “an unprecedented surge,” and federal, state and local officials from Texas to California, concerned about the impact of illegally imported weapons into Mexico, say they are outmanned and outgunned by the drug gangs.

Thousands of firearms already have been seized by the ATF and other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, including M-16 and AK-47 assault rifles, AR-15 semiautomatic rifles, 40 mm grenade launchers, M-4 carbines, 9 mm pistols, .38-caliber “Super” pistols, and .45-caliber pistols.

“These indictments are important steps in the Justice Department’s effort to curb gun trafficking along the southwest border,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, who heads the department’s Criminal Division.

“The Criminal Division is working hard with its partners in the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and colleagues in Mexico to find and prosecute those who seek to transport weapons illegally across our borders,” he said.

In parallel cases, an additional 14 people have been charged with gun-trafficking crimes in Arizona under a series of grand jury indictments recently handed down or unsealed. Trials in those cases are pending.

“This investigation is further proof of the relentless efforts by Mexican drug cartels, especially the Sinaloa Cartel, to illegally acquire large quantities of firearms in Arizona and elsewhere in the U.S. for use in the ongoing Mexican drug war,” said ATF Special Agent in Charge Bill Newell, who heads the agency’s Phoenix field division.

Mr. Newell called the straw purchase of firearms “a significant problem,” adding that those who knowingly falsify ATF firearms forms to supply Mexican drug cartels with weapons “have as much blood on their hands as the criminals that use them.”

It is illegal for purchasers to falsely declare they are buying firearms for themselves when in fact they are obtaining them for someone else.

The Tuesday arrests were conducted by a multiagency task force through the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF).

The indictments detail charges of conspiracy, dealing in firearms without a license, conspiracy to distribute marijuana, possession with intent to distribute marijuana, conspiracy to possess a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense, making false statements in connection with the acquisition of firearms, money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

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