MEXICO: U.S. Is Arms Bazaar for Mexican Cartels

Publisher Name: 
New York Times

The Mexican agents who moved in on a safe house full of drug dealers
last May were not prepared for the fire power that greeted them.


Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Thomas G. Mangan, a spokesman for the A.T.F., with an assault rifle popular with drug cartels.

A.T.F.

A gun tied to a killing in Mexico and a dealer in Phoenix.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

The authorities say weapons from X-Caliber Guns in Phoenix fueled gang warfare in Mexico.

Left, A.T.F; right, Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press

Officials say weapons from George Iknadosian's store in Phoenix ended
up in the hands of a cartel that included Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, right.

When the shooting was over,
eight agents were dead. Among the guns the police recovered was an
assault rifle traced back across the border to a dingy gun store here
called X-Caliber Guns.

Now, the owner, George Iknadosian, will go
on trial on charges he sold hundreds of weapons, mostly AK-47 rifles,
to smugglers, knowing they would send them to a drug cartel in the western state of Sinaloa. The guns helped fuel the gang warfare in which more than 6,000 Mexicans died last year.

Mexican authorities have long complained that American gun dealers are
arming the cartels. This case is the most prominent prosecution of an
American gun dealer since the United States promised Mexico
two years ago it would clamp down on the smuggling of weapons across
the border. It also offers a rare glimpse of how weapons delivered to
American gun dealers are being moved into Mexico and wielded in
horrific crimes.

"We had a direct pipeline from Iknadosian to the Sinaloa cartel," said Thomas G. Mangan, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix.

Drug gangs seek out guns in the United States because the gun-control
laws are far tougher in Mexico. Mexican civilians must get approval
from the military to buy guns and they cannot own large-caliber rifles
or high-powered pistols, which are considered military weapons.

The
ease with which Mr. Iknadosian and two other men transported weapons to
Mexico over a two-year period illustrates just how difficult it is to
stop the illicit trade, law enforcement officials here say.

The
gun laws in the United States allow the sale of multiple military-style
rifles to American citizens without reporting the sales to the
government, and the Mexicans search relatively few cars and trucks
going south across their border.

What is more, the sheer volume
of licensed dealers - more than 6,600 along the border alone, many of
them operating out of their houses - makes policing them a tall order.
Currently the A.T.F. has about 200 agents assigned to the task.

Smugglers
routinely enlist Americans with clean criminal records to buy two or
three rifles at a time, often from different shops, then transport them
across the border in cars and trucks, often secreting them in door
panels or under the hood, law enforcement officials here say. Some of
the smuggled weapons are also bought from private individuals at gun
shows, and the law requires no notification of the authorities in those
cases.

"We can move against the most outrageous purveyors of
arms to Mexico, but the characteristic of the arms trade is it's a
'parade of ants' - it's not any one big dealer, it's lots of
individuals," said Arizona's attorney general, Terry Goddard, who is
prosecuting Mr. Iknadosian. "That makes it very hard to detect because
it's often below the radar."

The Mexican government began to
clamp down on drug cartels in late 2006, unleashing a war that daily
deposits dozens of bodies - often gruesomely tortured - on Mexico's
streets. President Felipe Calderón
has characterized the stream of smuggled weapons as one of the most
significant threats to security in his country. The Mexican authorities
say they seized 20,000 weapons from drug gangs in 2008, the majority
bought in the United States.

The authorities in the United
States say they do not know how many firearms are transported across
the border each year, in part because the federal government does not
track gun sales and traces only weapons used in crimes. But A.T.F.
officials estimate 90 percent of the weapons recovered in Mexico come
from dealers north of the border.

In 2007, the firearms agency
traced 2,400 weapons seized in Mexico back to dealers in the United
States, and 1,800 of those came from dealers operating in the four
states along the border, with Texas first, followed by California,
Arizona and New Mexico.

Mr. Iknadosian is accused of being one of
those dealers. So brazen was his operation that the smugglers paid him
in advance for the guns and the straw buyers merely filled out the
required paperwork and carried the weapons off, according to A.T.F.
investigative reports. The agency said Mr. Iknadosian also sold several
guns to undercover agents who had explicitly informed him that they
intended to resell them in Mexico.

Mr. Iknadosian, 47, will
face trial on March 3 on charges including fraud, conspiracy and
assisting a criminal syndicate. His lawyer, Thomas M. Baker, declined
to comment on the charges, but said Mr. Iknadosian maintained his
innocence. No one answered the telephone at Mr. Iknadosian's home in
Glendale, Ariz.

A native of Egypt who spent much of his life in
California, Mr. Iknadosian moved his gun-selling operation to Arizona
in 2004, because the gun laws were more lenient, prosecutors said.

Over
the two years leading up to his arrest last May, he sold more than 700
weapons of the kind currently sought by drug dealers in Mexico,
including 515 AK-47 rifles and one .50 caliber rifle that can penetrate
an engine block or bulletproof glass, the A.T.F. said.

Based on
the store's records and the statements of some defendants,
investigators estimate at least 600 of those weapons were smuggled to
Mexico. So far, the Mexican authorities have seized seven of the
Kalashnikov-style rifles from gunmen for the Beltrán Leyva cartel who
had battled with the police.

The store was also said to be the
source for a Colt .38-caliber pistol stuck in the belt of a reputed
drug kingpin, Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, when he was arrested a year ago in
the Sinaloan town of Culiacán. Also linked to the store was a
diamond-studded handgun carried by another reputed mobster, Hugo David
Castro, known as El Once, who was arrested in November on charges he
took part in killing a state police chief in Sonora.

According
to reports by A.T.F. investigators, Mr. Iknadosian sold more than 60
assault rifles in late 2007 and early 2008 to straw buyers working for
two brothers - Hugo Miguel Gamez, 26, and Cesar Bojorguez Gamez, 27 -
who then smuggled them into Mexico.

The brothers instructed the
buyers to show up at X-Caliber Guns and to tell Mr. Iknadosian they
were there to pick up guns for "Cesar" or "C," the A.T.F. said. Mr.
Iknadosian then helped the buyers fill out the required federal form,
called the F.B.I.
to check their records and handed over the rifles. The straw buyers
would then meet one of the brothers to deliver the merchandise. They
were paid $100 a gun.

The Gamez brothers have pleaded guilty to
a count of attempted fraud. Seven of the buyers arrested last May have
pleaded guilty to lesser charges and have agreed to testify against Mr.
Iknadosian, prosecutors said.

In one transaction, Mr. Iknadosian
gave advice about how to buy weapons and smuggle them to a person who
turned out to be an informant who was recording him, according to a
transcript. He told the informant to break the sales up into batches
and never to carry more than two weapons in a car.

"If you got
pulled over, two is no biggie," Mr. Iknadosian is quoted as saying in
the transcript. "Four is a question. Fifteen is, 'What are you doing?' "

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