PHOENIX (Reuters) - Police arrested nine people and seized 300 firearms, including assault rifles, in a raid targeting an arms ring that allegedly sold weapons to Mexican drug traffickers, authorities said on Thursday.
The sweep came after a federal grand jury unsealed indictments against 17 defendants allegedly involved in shipping to Mexico firearms bought by third-party “straw purchasers” in the United States.
The nine were arrested earlier this week by agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Another seven defendants in the case were previously charged and are awaiting trial, and another defendant has been served a summons in the case.
The United States is under pressure to curb the illicit southbound trade in high-powered weapons to Mexico, where more than 34,000 people have died in drug violence since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006 and pledged to break the powerful cartels.
Arizona straddles a lucrative and heavily trafficked smuggling corridor. Organized criminal networks haul drugs and illegal immigrants north, and spirit guns and cash profits south to Mexico.
The sweep, called Operation Too Hot to Handle, netted a haul of around 300 guns — mostly Kalashnikov-type rifles and semi-automatic pistols — seized in Arizona, Texas and Mexico.
Authorities said the ring was part of a “brimming cottage industry” of gun exporters serving the drug cartels.
The suspects faced charges including making a false statement while acquiring a firearm, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail, a $250,000 fine or both.
Earlier this week, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was killed and another was wounded in an ambush in Northern Mexico that is believed to have been carried out by one of the country’s violent drug gangs.
Reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix and James B. Kelleher in Chicago; writing by James B. Kelleher; editing by Greg McCune