PHOENIX (Reuters) - U.S. police arrested 17 people and broke up a gun running network that sought to funnel more than 700 firearms including high-powered Kalashnikov rifles to Mexico drug cartels, authorities said on Tuesday.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, said police arrested 17 suspects in a multi-agency operation across the Phoenix valley on Tuesday. Three other suspects remained at large.
The operation involving ATF, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Internal Revenue Service, as well as Phoenix police and Mexican authorities, dismantled a network buying weapons for Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel, investigators said.
“We strongly believe we took down the entire organization from top to bottom that operated out of the Phoenix area,” said William Newell, special agent in charge of the ATF’s Phoenix field division.
“The 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 for use in the ongoing Mexican drug war,” he added.
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 53-count indictment alleged that from September 2009 to December last year the defendants conspired to purchase hundreds of guns, including Kalashnikov rifles, a weapon of choice for cartel enforcers in Mexico.
Criminal indictments handed down in the case charged defendants with crimes including conspiracy to obtain a firearm for drug trafficking offense, and making false statements in connection with the acquisition of firearms.
A conviction for conspiracy carries a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison, while making a false statement, five years.
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 been slaughtered in raging drug violence since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006 and pledged to break the powerful cartels.
The gun bust comes a day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa in Mexico, and restated the United States’ support for Calderon’s drive to crush the cartels.
Clinton acknowledged the role the vast U.S. demand for illegal drugs and the flow of U.S. weapons south across the border to drug smugglers were major contributors to the violence.
Reporting by Tim Gaynor; editing by Greg McCune