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 allegedly 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, which were bought as many 40 at a time from Phoenix valley gun dealers.
Other weapons bought in third-party sales by so-called “straw purchasers” included .50 caliber sniper rifles, and high powered 5.7 millimeter pistols known as “cop killers” as their bullets pierce body armor.
Criminal indictments handed down in the case charged defendants with crimes including conspiracy to obtain a firearm to pursue 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.
In a bid to make U.S. investigators more effective in targeting the trade, the ATF last month sought to tighten reporting requirements on multiple sales of high powered rifles in the four southwest border states flanking Mexico.
The emergency rule change would require around 8,500 gun dealers in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas to report sales of two or more semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines to the same person within a five-day period. The White House Office of Management and Budget has yet to approve the rule change amid pressure from the gun lobby.
Speaking at the news conference in Phoenix on Tuesday, Dennis K. Burke, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, called the absence of reporting measures for multiple sales of semi-automatic rifles an “incongruity” and “arbitrary.”
“From our perspective ... you have this incongruity in the law, where for handguns there’s a reporting requirement for multiple purchases, but for long guns ... no. There’s no sense to that, it’s arbitrary,” Burke told Reuters.
“I think in this Congress ... at the rate they are going, they can’t get any firearms legislation,” he added.
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Calderon and Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa in Mexico, and offered strong support for the government’s war on drug traffickers.
She acknowledged that the vast U.S. demand for illegal drugs and the flow of U.S. weapons south to the cartels were major contributors to the violence.
Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Greg McCune